“In 1988 a hospital launched a healthy eating day in its staff canteen at lunchtime. One dish contained red kidney beans, and 31 portions were served. At 3 pm one of the customers, a surgical registrar, vomited in theatre. Over the next four hours, 10 more customers suffered profuse vomiting, some with diarrhea. All had recovered by the next day. No pathogens were isolated from the food, but the beans contained an abnormally high concentration of the Lectin Phytohaemagglutinin.

Lectins are largely plant-based proteins that bind to carbohydrates and are commonly found in seeds, legumes, lentils, grains, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers.

Research has pinpointed that these proteins can actually be toxic and inflammatory when ingested in large quantities. Read on further to know all about the impact of lectins on health and how you can minimize the concentration of lectins in your diet.


What are Lectins?

Lectins are a large family of proteins that are found abundantly in food, but mainly in plants. They bind with sugars and carbohydrates to form a bond called glycoproteins. Lectins offer a medium for molecules to bind with each other and communicate efficiently without getting the immune system involved.

Here are some top foods where lectins are present:

  • Potatoes
  • Eggplant
  • Soybeans
  • Lentils
  • Peppers
  • Wheat germ
  • Red kidney beans
  • Peas
  • Tomatoes
  • Peanuts

Lectins are also found in meat and dairy products, however, are not present in abundant quantities. The body uses lectins for many basic functions including cell to cell adherence, inflammatory modulation, and programmed cell death.

In addition, lectins are found in plant seeds as a protection mechanism against predators. As part of the plant’s immune system, lectins go on the attack as a natural pesticide when a plant is put under stress or damage.

Often plants are genetically modified to express higher concentrations of lectin in order to keep pests at bay. Unfortunately, even if it protects crops, it spells danger to the human body.


When are Lectins Harmful?

Ingesting lectins in large quantities can cause flatulence. This is especially true when consuming legumes and grains in their raw form. At its worse form, many researchers speculate that apparent causes of bacterial food poisoning may actually be lectin poisoning. Here’s the impact of lectins on health:


Lectins and the Intestinal Lining

Inside your intestinal tract, there are little finger pockets called villi that enable absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. When lectins run through your intestinal tract, they tend to disrupt the structure of villi. Since they are bound together, the lectin molecules hit the villi like a ball and inhibit digestion.

As a result, it leads to villus atrophy and damages the mucosal layer in the intestine. Therefore, even if you are eating a nutrient-dense diet, those nutrients may not be absorbed by your body, accounting for maldigesting and malabsorption.


Lectin Causes Leaky Gut

Most lectins are resistant to digestion and it could reach the gut completely intact. The gut is a tubing system made of bricks called enterocytes and attached by mortar junctions. This brick wall is selective of what it lets in and allows only the good guys or nutrients to pass through.

Now, lectin proteins are the sticky big bad guys and they squeeze their way into through the walls. Once they are connected to the wall, they create a breach in the wall and now even the bad guys or toxins can enter your system. This causes the leaky gut syndrome.


Lectins and Inflammation

Once the border of the gut is breached, foreign particles can gain access to your bloodstream and a war begins. The body’s alarm bell goes off and the white blood cells begin to attack the invaders by releasing inflammatory cytokines.

The immune system tags lectins as foreign invaders and starts to create antibodies against them to attack them. At times, the lectin can also bind with a good molecule and your body with a motive to attack the lectins will also attack healthy cells.  As a result, this gives rise to autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Celiac’s disease and more.


Lectins Linked with Weight Gain

Lectin and a hormone named Leptin, which signals the brain that you are full, bind together. When lectin binds with leptin receptors, your brain never gets the message that you are full. This leads to over-eating, weight gain, and obesity. In addition, they also tend to disrupt insulin receptors in your body and in turn trigger weight gain by encouraging more fat storage.


Lectins and its Effect on the Brain

There is very strong evidence that Parkinson’s disease is in part driven by lectins. If a lectin gets absorbed across the intestinal wall, it can enter the brain through the vagus nerve because of the strong connection between your gut and brain.


Are all Lectins Bad For You?

While a renowned physician Dr. Steve Gundry recommends eliminating lectins from your diet in his book named The Plant Paradox, the truth is that lectins in small amounts are essential for the body to perform certain functions.

With that being said, it becomes a problem only when there is an over-consumption or prolonged consumption of lectins in your diet. It’s impossible to not consume plant-based foods, but you can certainly reduce the concentration of lectins in your diet by doing the following:


1. Sprout Beans, Grains and Seeds

The sprouting process can deactivate lectin concentration in these foods.  The lectins in some grains and beans are predominantly present in the seed coat. As it germinates, the coat is metabolized, thereby eliminating lectins. However, there are some exceptions as you should not sprout legumes or alfalfa as the lectin content is enhanced through sprouting for these alone.


2. Soak and Cook Legumes, Lentils and Grains

Even wonder why our ancestors took more time with the long soak, rinse and boil session when preparing beans and grains? Lectin reduction. The best way to neutralize the effect of lectins in your favorite food like red kidney beans, quinoa and legumes is to soak them and use a pressure cooker to remove lectins. Adding sodium bicarbonate or baking soda to the soaking water may help neutralize the lectins further.


3. Fermenting

Fermentation allows beneficial bacteria to digest and convert many of the harmful substances including lectins in several food items. This is why fermented foods can deliver huge health benefits when done the right way. Stick to sourdough bread with fermented grains than the whole wheat bread which is probably loaded with lectins.


4. Peel, Deseed and Cook Nightshade Vegetables

Nightshades as popularly referred to the group of vegetables- tomatoes, potato, peppers and eggplant that have a high lectin content. It’s best to remove the seeds from peppers and cook them well so that their lectin content is reduced to a great extent

Given the abundance of naturally lectin-containing foods in the plant kingdom, it can be impossible to eliminate them from your diet entirely. Therefore, strive to limit your intake with the above measures. Experiment and identify the lectins that are problematic for your body, your body will give you the sign and limit your lectin intake, if you are not able to eliminate them completely.


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