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Lectins can be helpful in diet, but must be used correctly, carefully

Questions are powerful. They open our minds and help us pursue answers.

I love questions. I get a fair number of them, relating to nutrition, from family and friends. These questions are often good and revealing. They make it easy to identify current trends and recent topics of concern. 

One I have been asked by three different people in the last two weeks is no exception. The topic? Lectins.

A lot is being said about lectins, enough to create concern and confusion. Lectins are labeled as highly toxic substances and the instigators of most of our modern chronic diseases. And they come from foods that are supposed to be healthy for us.

So what are we to do with the information and diet plans propagated around us? Let’s ask some good questions to guide us to some answers: What are lectins? Where are they found? How do they affect us and what should our response be?

Lectins are a class of proteins that bind carbohydrates. The name “Lectin” actually indicates their function, since in the original Latin it means to gather, select or combine. Yes, lectins’ primary function is to select, bind and combine specific carbohydrates.

They can be found to some degree in most of plant foods: nuts, seeds, nightshades (tomatoes and potatoes), beans (including green beans), legumes and grains. Some lectins are found in animal products too. Basically, they are everywhere.

The carbohydrate binding action of plant lectins is actually incredibly useful to plants and in medicine. Lectins in plants act as protection from fungus, bacteria and animal predators by making the plant resistant to digestion and destruction.

This is one primary reason why animals are great seed scatterers. Since the dry, raw seeds and nuts they eat are resistant to digestion, they pass on in an animal’s excrement to become “planted” elsewhere.

It’s an intended design.  Lectins also transport carbohydrates in the plant, recognize pollen and aid in maintaining seed dormancy in addition to so much more.

In the field of medicine, the ability lectins have to bind specific carbohydrates makes them useful in blood typing, immunological studies, mapping of neuro-pathways, and cancer treatment, just to name a few.

So what does all this selecting and binding capacity mean for humans who eat these plants? Are they really toxic to humans?

In short, yes.

What makes lectins “toxic” to humans has to do with their resistance to digestion, their effect on digestive enzymes, and changes they make to the gut wall and gut bacteria, as well as their ability to travel systemically throughout the body.

Lectins’ protein structure is incredibly robust. They cannot be broken down by our stomach acid or by our digestive enzymes in the small intestines. But not only do they refuse to be digested themselves, they inhibit the digestion of other carbohydrates and proteins by binding to the digestive enzymes.

Once bound to lectins, your digestive enzymes cannot break down and absorb some of the nutrients from the food you ate. Additionally, lectins affect your ability to digest food by altering the structure of the gut lining. By flattening these structures, once again, your ability to absorb nutrients is diminished. Lectins also seem to create an environment more suitable to bacteria such as E coli.

The effects of lectins can become systemic (body-wide) too. They pass from the gut into the bloodstream, where they are circulated and have been found deposited in blood and lymphatic vessels. Research has also shown that lectins may trigger a degree of inflammatory response from your immune response as well.

One thing to note is that the scholarly journals I’ve researched did not indicate the exact amount of lectins needed to exert toxic effects in humans. Much of the research was derived from animal studies. Presumably, the dosage of lectins producing toxic effects in lab rats would be different in humans.

While we know that the effects of lectins are toxic to humans, it is unclear how much. As is typical with toxins, though, we know there will be some sort of threshold.

Regardless, the picture seems a bit ominous. Those wholesome nuts, beans, seeds and grains, which have been touted as “oh, so nutritious” would appear deleterious to our health. This would certainly be the case if it were not for appropriate food preparation and processing.

A study published this past March showed that soaking soybeans and pulses (chickpeas, peas, fava beans, beans, and lentils) reduced the lectin content by 1 to 5 percent. Further cooking for one hour at 203 degrees fahrenheit reduced the lectin content by 96 to 99 percent.

Basically, lectins could be removed almost entirely.

So while lectins are resistant to an individuals’ digestive process, soaking and high heat appear to render them harmless, at least with beans and some grains.

It should be noted that some studies have indicated that crockpot temperatures may not be high enough to do the job and that temperatures higher than 176 degrees fahrenheit should be used for at least 10 minutes. This is where the pressure cooker comes in extremely handy.

Vegetarians, vegans and “raw foodists” should take special note to this, as their intake of lectin-containing foods is likely very high. If they do not prepare these foods appropriately, they are at risk of mal-absorbing many essential nutrients and potentially causing inflammation in the gut.

So are lectin-containing foods safe to eat or should they be eliminated completely? My professional opinion, after doing the research, is yes, many of these foods are safe and wholesome when prepared correctly. Beans, legumes and even grains should be soaked and cooked at a high temp. Nuts and seeds and are also best soaked.

Unfortunately, my research did not include some of the commonly eaten raw veggies like tomatoes that also include lectins. Does cooking disable those lectins? Unfortunately, I still have no answer as of yet. (A topic for a future article, perhaps?)

As with anything, there are cautions and exceptions. For individuals with digestive issues, (allergies, bloating, diarrhea or chronic constipation, etc.) then yes, some raw, high lectin foods may bother them.

Might Individuals be sensitive to them even after appropriate preparation and cooking? It is possible.

Individuals with autoimmunity, compromised gut function, a hypersensitive immune system, and chronic inflammation may not find lectins helpful or tolerable.

Their bodies are simply not in a place to process lectin-containing foods in a functional way. But to say that no one should eat foods containing lectins is probably a misguided interpretation of the research at best and a trouble-making at worst.

In the end, consumers should be both confident and discerning. Be confident that certain diverse and abundant lectin-containing foods can be health-promoting when soaked and cooked.

They boast of fiber, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and low glycemic properties that can moderate appetite, lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar and fight inflammation and cancer.

But also be discerning as to your own body’s response to lectin-containing foods, the methods used to prepare them, and the amounts tolerated.

As witnessed here, sometimes the answers to nutrition questions are not straightforward It is good to keep asking and let the appropriateness of application be dictated by an individual’s need.