Your questions answered: Are lectins toxic?

Pulses- both nutritious and delicious

Q: I have been reading your posts for years now, and, as a retired dietitian I find it hard to keep up with the pseudoscience and “trends” in diets. I look to you for up to date advice. Now, it’s lectins and a lectin-free diet. What’s that about? Somebody writing a book to make money or should we be “frightened ” of more foods?

Have you looked at that? ‘Just wondering. Thanks.”, asks Enlightened Eater reader, Vicky Dekker.

A: Vicky, you’re not alone in finding that it’s hard to sort through the science from the science fiction. Self-proclaimed nutrition experts come up with all kinds of claims and if they have a following, their pseudoscientific statements become fact to their loyal fans. Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop, are a perfect example. Crazy cleanses, detoxes and colonics along with jade egg insertion and vaginal steaming are activities by her faithful following. Check out Dr. Jen Gunter who is Paltrow’s nemesis. Many of my registered dietitian colleagues are also great at myth-busting.

Now to lectins. These are a type of protein found in various plant foods – predominantly in pulses or legumes and grains but are found in all plant foods in much lesser amounts. Lectins are a phytochemical that protects these plants from being eaten while they grow. All plants are packed with thousands of phytochemicals which serve various purposes for the plant’s health and survival. Consider that the white membrane around citrus fruits contain citrus bioflavonoids which are poisonous to insects that want to eat the fruit. But in the amounts we eat when we have an orange or a grapefruit, these compounds actually offer us health benefits, such as anti-cancer action. In larger amounts, as in supplements, who knows whether they’re risky or beneficial.

Now back to lectins, the myths surrounding lectins blame them for an assortment of ills including having inflammatory effects and causing auto-immune disease. While it’s true that in the quantities found in these foods, these compounds are toxic BUT – and it’s a BIG BUT – that’s when the food is raw. In uncooked states, lectins can cause problems, such as gastrointestinal issues like nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. When these foods are cooked or canned, they contain only trace amounts of lectins – not in any amount to cause these potential side effects for most of the population.

So, yes, if you eat even a few raw kidney beans or lentils, you can end up with a pretty bad stomach ache. Many people remember being, told as kids, not to eat these foods uncooked. In fact, having young children use them in art projects is not a great idea as they may end up putting some in their mouths and just a few could make small kids feel ill.

There are some individuals who might not tolerate lectins but they also might not tolerate a number of different foods. For most of us, the science is showing that we need to eat more of these foods for better health and disease prevention. (Here are some of my posts on pulses and whole grains here.)

Consider the dietary pattern that a wealth of scientific research points to as the gold standard of healthy eating – the Mediterranean diet. Its foundation includes an abundance of these various foods. This eating pattern has withstood the test of time.

Pseudoscience will continue to thrive as we look for magical solutions for good health, rather than turning to sound scientific information. It just seems easier to look for a quick fix. Check out my post on 8 tips to spot fad diets and health scams.

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Categories: Food Safety, Rosie's Rants, Whole Foods, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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