If you’ve are up to date with nutrition trends, you’ve probably heard of the paleo diet which has become increasingly popular in recent years with restaurant offering paleo dishes options and numerous new products hitting the market. This dietary approach puts the attention on certain nutrients such as lectins that are to be avoided since they are considered detrimental to health by the paleo supporters.
Now, we are all beautifully unique and as one size won’t fit all, one specific diet won’t work for everyone or be beneficial for each one of us. But if you are confused about it or curious if you should avoid lectins too, keep reading to learn more.
WHAT ARE LECTINS?
Lectins are proteins found in both plants and animals that bind carbohydrates within the organism. They are found predominately in seeds, raw legumes and grains like cereals, potatoes, beans and most commonly present in their outer part, the “coat” of the seed, bean or grain.
In plants their natural function is to act as defence against microorganisms, pesticides, insects and in the body their main function is to facilitate cell-cell contact and adherence.
Lectins are often referred to as “anti-nutrients” within food meaning that they may interfere with absorption of certain nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
ARE THEY CAUSE FOR CONCERN?
As they are resistant to heat and digestive enzymes but especially because of their ability to bind to virtually any cell types, they may potentially cause damage to certain tissues and organs.
Usually, when food passes through the gut, it causes very minor damage to the lining of the GI tract and the cells naturally repair this damage quite rapidly and efficiently.
Since we don’t have the proper enzymes necessary to digest lectins, as they pass through the digestive process, they remain mainly unaltered.
When they reach the intestines, they can attach to the lining of the gut interfering with this speedy reconstruction so our cells can’t regenerate as fast as they need to in order to keep the intestinal lining tight.
In a normal intestinal lining the cells are tightly packed forming what are called “tight junctions” which inhibit bigger molecules and particles to enter the bloodstream if they are not mean to be there. But when the tiny hairs that line the mucosa become damaged because of certain immune and gastrointestinal conditions, the gut can become “leaky” allowing unwanted molecules to pass through the gut wall and reducing the proper absorption of essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Lectins can then reach the blood stream and cause an inflammatory response in tissues and cells.
Also, when lectins affect the gut wall, they may cause a broader immune system response as the body’s defences initiate an attack against these “invaders”. As they can attach to any cell, they may target antibodies, which are the molecules that help us fight disease. In reaction, the immune system attacks the cells. So if lectins are bound within certain tissues of the body, the body may start attacking itself initiating or worsening autoimmune conditions. In people suffering from immune alterations, whether the immune system is suppressed or overactive, this could definitely have negative effects on their health.
SO SHOULD I AVOID LECTINS FOR GOOD?
Does this mean that we should all avoid whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and vegetables high in lectins? I don’t think that’s the case for everyone. These foods are so rich in many macro and micronutrients that our body needs.
The best option is to learn how to prepare them properly so we can reduce lectins content and access all their goodness. Soaking seeds and grains allowing them to germinate or sprout can help reduce lectins and phytates content. Fermenting seeds and grains, essentially allows beneficial bacteria to “eat” the lectins, reducing their activity and making them easier on the digestive system. For beans and legumes, soak overnight, drain and rinse throughly before cooking. Adding baking soda to the soaking water may help to neutralise lectins further. And canned beans are usually low in lectins as the blanching and thermal processes they go through tends to deactivate them.
If you suffer from any digestive disorders, compromised gut conditions or autoimmune diseases, limiting lectins amounts could definitely offer some benefits but try to work with a nutritional professional in order to make sure to avoid deficiencies and still enjoy a nutritient-filled diet.