Your mom said it. Your doctor says it. Everyone knows it. EAT YOUR VEGETABLES. It’s great advice. Vegetables contain fiber and nutrients our bodies need. They’re healthy right? Most of the time the answer is a resounding yes. Did you know, though, that sometimes vegetables can harm your health?
As controversial as that sounds, it’s true. Read on to learn about the hidden dangers lurking in our colorful friends.
How Can It Be?
Imagine a world millions of years ago. Plants were the only inhabitants. They didn’t have predators so they were able to reproduce at will and without interruption. Fast forward a couple million years later and all of a sudden, plants are being invaded by insects, animals, and eventually humans. Over those millions of years, plants suddenly had to develop defense mechanisms to protect against being eaten and dying out completely.
Surprisingly enough, plants are pretty sophisticated. They’ve developed quite a few tricks to dissuade being eaten by predators. Sometimes they camouflage themselves, or develop a thick skin, or produce toxins to make anyone who eats them sick. More often than not, they developed something called lectins.
What’s a Lectin?
According to WebMd, a lectin also known as the “antinutrient,” is a type of protein that binds to certain carbohydrates. Almost all organisms on the planet contain lectins. Some lectins are safe, but some can pose health risks depending on how they’re consumed and what binds to them. Digestive enzymes in our gut don’t break them down but learning to avoid them or cook them properly can diminish the danger they can pose to individuals.
How does that happen? It’s a plant after all. Plants shouldn’t be dangerous to humans since we’re so far above them on the food chain, right? Maybe, maybe not. Our digestive system is a pretty intricate operation. The walls of the intestine are only about one cell thick – not very strong for keeping bad things in the digestive tract where they belong. It needs to be this thin to allow vitamins and minerals and all the good things from our food to pass through to our bloodstream so they can go do the job of nourishing the body.
According to some doctors, when you eat a plant that contains a high amount of lectins, one of the negative results is that this sticky, large protein travels through your digestive system looking for some sugar molecules to travel with. Once they find what they’re looking for, it’s game on and the lectins ride with the sugar molecules through the intestinal walls, leaving gaping holes behind. These holes then allow other things to seep through, such as toxins and bacteria, creating a condition you may have heard of – Leaky Gut and creating an inflammatory response in the body.
Lectins Can Also Affect Brain Health
Even more concerning is the link some scientists are finding between excessive lectin intake and the brain. According to an article printed in Science Daily , the increased use of toxic herbicides combined with increased lectin intake caused symptoms of Parkinson’s such as tremors and slowed body movement once the toxins traveled from the gut to the brain. According to the researchers: “This study gives solid evidence that lectins, while in the presence of certain toxins, may be one potential culprit for the cause of Parkinsonism.”
Lectins are also being linked to a more common problem we all experience from time to time – brain fog. As stated above, lectins can be a cause of leaky gut syndrome. With more understanding regarding the connection between gut health and brain health, doctors and researchers are examining how leaky gut affects the brain and can be a cause of neurodegenerative disease such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, mood disorders and mental health issues.
Why Is It A Big Deal Now?
As little as 50 years ago we did not see the rise of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases that we’re seeing in record numbers now. If plants have always contained these lectins, how are they suddenly causing a problem? The answer is simple – our lifestyles have created the perfect storm. Changes in how and what we eat over the last several decades have caused us to fall prey to the very plants that are touted as being good for us.
Factors in increased lectin levels:
- Year-round access to fruits and vegetables that before we could only get seasonably. This means we’re eating more of these foods and consuming the lectins in much higher numbers.
- Using microwaves and processed oils to cook foods means we aren’t reducing the lectin content in certain fruits and vegetables that previously we might have when using traditional cooking methods.
- We consume record amounts of things like wheat, corn, soy, and other grains that are loaded with lectins and that we didn’t consume in these amounts in the past. We also have failed to take into account what farmers are feeding their livestock we’re also eating. So if a cow is fed grains and corn as a primary diet – guess what? You’re eating the cow and what the cow ate – increasing your consumption of lectins even more. In the past, livestock was free-range, grass-fed, and didn’t contain the amounts of lectins that they do today.
- It’s simple. We are inundated with information about food products daily. Some are promoted as good and healthy when they’re actually harming us in record numbers. Whole grains, vegetable oils, sugar-laden snacks – all contribute to a hugely increased lectin consumption.
- Increased use of antibiotics. While having an antibiotic when we really need one is crucial, how many of us take the time to re-populate our gut with the bacteria that the antibiotic wiped out? Our guts have microscopic critters that help us stay healthy and every dose of antibiotic wipes out everything in its path, including these helpful critters. Our meat products are also often treated with antibiotics to stave off disease and guess what? We’re getting those antibiotics too. Our guts are defenseless against this attack.
- Medications such as ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and the like are also culprits that are damaging our bodies. Frequent use and our tendency to overuse such products increase the damage to the intestinal lining, allowing the lectins to seep into our blood supply and do their damage. Unfortunately, these medications are designed to reduce inflammation so we get caught in a circle of needing the medications to reduce inflammation but they’re also helping cause more inflammation.
What Can I Do?
While some proclaim that you need to go on a crazy diet and eliminate lectins in their entirety, moderation is really all you need. The good news is, you’ll know by a physical reaction in your body if you’re sensitive to lectins (read inflammation, pain in your joints, fatigue, etc) and you can take easy and effective measures to reduce the amounts you are consuming. You can change a few key eating habits and possibly change your life for the better.
It’s impossible to eliminate all lectins from your diet. Even if you were to stop eating vegetables – which is a horrible idea for many reasons – you’d still get lectins from the animal products you consume as we talked about above. And some lectins are actually good for you. Learning to prepare certain high lectin foods properly and reducing the intake of others can greatly help if you’re experiencing symptoms of autoimmune disease or inflammation.
So let’s start with what to avoid.
- Peanuts and cashews. Despite being called a nut, these are really legumes and contain high amounts of lectin. According to Dr. Stephen Gundry in his book, The Plant Paradox, he’s seen cashews in particular cause increased inflammation in many of his patients, especially those suffering from Rheumatoid arthritis. In actuality, according to Gundry, the cashew is a member of the poison ivy family. You wouldn’t eat poison ivy, so cashews may be something to avoid as well.
- Corn is not a vegetable. It’s a grain and it has a very high lectin level. Corn is in a shocking amount of processed foods so reading labels will be an important component of limiting your consumption.
- I know this one may be shocking. Quinoa has been heralded as a health food, a great alternative to carbohydrate-laden rice. In actuality, quinoa is loaded with lectins and are not waistline-friendly. It was consumed by ancient Incas as proclaimed but it was prepared in very specific ways to make it less toxic to humans.
- Conventional meats. This is another hard one. But if corn is laden with lectins guess what? The cows and pigs and chickens and sheep that are fed huge amounts of corn on a daily basis are also carrying a huge lectin load. Corn is used to make cattle and other meats fatty. Guess what? It does the same thing for humans. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat meat. I personally love a nicely grilled steak. It just means you need to try to find meats that are pasture-raised. (Free-range doesn’t cut it either FYI)
- Vegetable oils. This one is one you probably are already on board with. Advertisers tried to convince us years ago that vegetable oil was better for us than other oils but as of late people are recognizing that oils such as coconut, avocado, and even olive are far healthier for us. Most of these vegetable oils are full of lectins and have come from grains and produce that was sprayed with the toxic chemicals in Roundup—which you then consume.
- These foods have the highest level of lectins of any food group. That’s why they cause digestive issues in so many people such as gas and bloating. You can still learn to consume these products with the proper cooking methods using a pressure cooker.
- Most milk products come from cows who consumed corn. (See above). Dairy products made from goat or sheep milk are far healthier for us and don’t contain the same level of lectins that cow products do. Coconut milk, coconut yogurt, and coconut creams are also great alternatives.
- These are potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and the like. They contain high levels of lectin in their skin making them great protection against buggy invaders but not great for your stomach.
- I know. This will be another hard one to swallow. But these are basically the fruity version of the veggie nightshades above. The skins and seeds hold on to the lectins and cue your body to store fat as well as increase inflammation. Avoid pumpkins, acorn squash, zucchini, butternut, and others.
Is there anything left?
The answer is a resounding yes! Below is a list of low-lectin foods that can be consumed safely, taste great, and are great for you!
- Good fats. These are those fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, coconut milk and oil, MCT oil, perilla oil, walnut oil, macadamia oil, eggs from pasture-raised chickens, and fish oil.
- Leafy greens. Green leafy vegetables are a great source of fiber and polyphenols. Lettuces of all varieties, spinach, endive, parsley, and other leafy greens are great choices.
- Cruciferous veggies. Great sources of fiber and vitamins, these vegetables help calm inflammation and build your immune system. Include choices such as cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, asparagus, artichokes, garlic, celery, beets, and more.
- Remember, peanuts and cashews although typically called nuts are not nuts. Include varieties such as macadamias, walnuts, pistachio, pecan, coconut, and hazelnuts in your diet. They’re a great snack and most can be turned into flours for cooking and baking.
- While most grains are off the table if you’re trying to limit your lectin intake, there are a couple that you can consume safely. Millet and sorghum are the two grains that do not contain lectins that cause a reaction. They’re also great sources of fiber and nutrients.
- Resistant starch such as sweet potatoes, yams, plantains, cassava, tapioca, jicama, and taro root. These are full of minerals and high fiber and are a great source of food for the good bacteria in your gut.
- Wild-caught seafood, pastured chicken, and grass-fed meats. We’ve talked about this one a little bit already. Making sure your meats are wild-caught or grass-fed is important because any lectins the animal ate, you’re then eating and any antibiotics the animal was fed you’re then ingesting. Avoiding these things is important.
- Other treats! Fruits in season, goats or sheep’s milk dairy products, 72% or higher chocolate, red wine – these are all treats you can enjoy that are relatively lectin-free.
Want to give lectin-free eating a shot? Try out this recipe from Dr. Steven Gundry’s website. Dr. Gundry is a cardiothoracic surgeon and expert in lectin-free living.
Carrot Cake Breakfast Muffins
1 ¼ c almond flour
2 T coconut flour
½ t baking soda
1/8 t salt
1 ½ t ground cinnamon
½ t ginger ground
¼ t nutmeg
1/3 c oil such as avocado or MCT
2/3 c unsweetened coconut milk
1/3 c sweetener such as monk fruit
2 t vanilla
2 large grated carrots
¼ c chopped walnuts or pecans
Heat oven to 350 and line a muffin tin.
Combine almond flour, coconut flour, baking soda, salt and spices
In a different bowl combine the sweetener and wet ingredients
Whisk together the wet and dry ingredients
Fold in the nuts
Divide the batter into the muffin tin
Bake 12 to 17 minutes.
While we all have to make the choices for our health that work for us, it is a fact that lectins are a serious problem for some people, and choosing to eliminate them from the diet can help with the symptoms of inflammation, autoimmune disease, and chronic pain. Incorporating a mindfulness practice can also help manage symptoms of chronic pain and inflammation. Mindfulness and stress reduction work hand in hand with reducing inflammation in the body. Studies have linked high levels of stress to autoimmune condition flare-ups so keeping stress in check and adopting healthy lifestyle choices are key to eliminating pain and inflammation. Check out our Stress Free Me sessions, our Weight Wellness sessions, or Optimal Health sessions for some great audios such as Detoxifying the Body, Food Chemistry, Sugar Awareness, Reactive Foods and Weight Loss, and more.