All About Lectins in Plant Foods by Lyndsey Hafer-Williams
Ok. I admit it. For over a year I have been following CFDG (Clean Food Dirty Girl) like a cult. I’m in love with Molly Patrick, Team Dirty, and all of my Dirty Girls and Dirty Dudes. I am utterly and insatiably devoted, dedicated, and delirious about eating plants. The supportive, creative, informative, and hysterically funny private Facebook group is the first thing I read in the morning and the last thing I see on social media at night. I spend my days dreaming about all the yummy CFDG meal plan food in my fridge. I would probably shave my head, don heavy ornamental robes, and go join a Dirty Commune if it was an option.
This type of behavior is just not normal for me at all. I grew up in an environment where questioning, of anything, was not allowed. So I learned to read at an early age and I secretly read everything I could get my hands on, about every topic. I was voracious, tenacious, and unrelenting in my search for knowledge and answers to my questions.
As an adult, I decided that never again would I just blindly follow someone or something on pure faith, or because it sounded right. I would never stop reading and never stop learning. In fact, that is how I started on the path that eventually led me to CFDG. I read all the books, and watched all the documentaries, and listened to all the experts about a plant based way of eating.
However, since joining the CFDG monthly meal plans and reading Molly’s weekly blog post, I’ve felt my natural curiosity and questioning about food (and all its components) has waned. I just know deep down in my soul that I am now on the right path. I’m happy, healthy, satisfied, and feel completely nourished by plants and nurtured by this community. At this point, if Molly told me to eat kale, completely naked, chanting Buddhist mantras three times a day, I probably would without question.
When Molly asked me to start researching lectins in plant foods and the controversy that seems to be swirling around this topic, my first response was: WTF is a lectin? I have since learned that this topic is causing lots of confusion, questions, and inviting plenty of wildly varying opinions. And, in my humble opinion, it is causing fear of food – and that is never a good thing.
So, I enthusiastically jumped down the Google rabbit hole and started researching. Are you ready? Let’s break this down and hit it head on in magnificent Dirty Style!
The easy part – WTF is a lectin?
Simply put, lectins are a vegetable protein found in almost everything in our food supply, but especially in fruit, vegetables, grains, and legumes. There are many different types and some do good things for us and are beneficial, while others are highly toxic and can be harmful.
Lectins are proteins that bind carbohydrates together – they literally help cells stick together. It seems that this sticky situation is thought to hinder absorption of some important nutrients. There is also a theory that they could be a cause of leaky gut syndrome that may lead to autoimmune issues or allergies. But, not all lectins are equal. For example, some lectins have tremendous health benefits and have been shown to strengthen the immune system, have antibacterial properties, and possibly even allow the body to identify and destroy cancer cells.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman (check out Molly’s interview with Dr. Fuhrman) has written extensively on the potential benefits of lectins in plant foods:
“Plant lectins bind carbohydrates during digestion, slowing or preventing their breakdown, and thereby reducing the glycemic effects of the food. You may hear a claim that lectins disrupt digestion, but this is misleading. This action of lectins is most likely a contributing factor to the pro-weight loss and anti-diabetes effects of beans and other plant foods. Beans are rich in anti-cancer phytochemicals and are the foods demonstrating the most powerful association with lower rates of breast cancer in massive epidemiological studies.”
He goes on to explain other awesome news on lectins:
“A lectin in common mushrooms has been found to inhibit proliferation of cancer cells in vitro. Mushrooms are another food offering powerful protection against cancer. And that’s not the only one: similar results have been found for lectins from fava beans, soybeans, bananas, buckwheat, jackfruit, and wheat. Some of these lectins are being investigated as potential cancer therapies.”
Ok, then, that sounds fine (if not downright exciting in the area of cancer research!) so what’s the problem?
In the spring of 2017 a book called The Plant Paradox was written by a cardiologist named Dr. Steven Gundry. His book claimed that lectins in plant foods are the direct cause of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, autoimmune diseases, and many other chronic medical conditions that currently plague our society.
It appears that his big discovery is that lectins are what ails us. He believes that they are the root cause of major disease and health disorders. It also appears that the media has seized upon this as our new food enemy and “lectin” now enters the lexicon of those scary words like “carbs”, “fat”, “calories”, “sodium”, “sugar”, and “gluten”.
So, now what’s a Dirty Girl to do? Plants are our homies, our friends, our life source, our way of eating!
According to Dr. Gundry, and his celebrity supporters, including actress Gwyneth Paltrow, musician Kelly Clarkson, and cardiologist Dr. Mehmet Oz, plants contain: “highly toxic… proteins called lectins that are found… in grains like wheat and in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans… which many of us regard as healthy. After consumption, they incite a kind of chemical warfare in our bodies, causing inflammatory reactions that can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions.”
Holy shit! Chemical warfare? Inflammation? WEIGHT GAIN?!? Good grief! If this is true then everything that I thought and believed about a plant based way of eating just fell apart. If this lectin kid is the enemy, then we Dirties are getting screwed and not in a good way!
Ok. Breathe, Dirties, just breathe. We need science and we need facts.
Let’s check in with our most trusted plant based docs and see what they have to say.
The plant based nutrition experts weigh in…
Dr. T. Colin Campbell:
“Beans, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts and seeds are high-nutrient, fiber-rich foods that are consistently associated with beneficial health outcomes and a longer life; this suggests that if there is any potential negative of certain plant lectins, it is enormously outweighed by the benefits of the fiber and phytochemicals in these plant foods. What a shame that this type of unscientific nonsense creates so much unnecessary confusion.”
Dr. Joel Fuhrman:
“There is one lectin known to cause temporary gastrointestinal distress in humans, however it is easily avoided. A lectin called phytohemagglutinin found in raw beans (red kidney beans in particular) binds to a carbohydrate present on human intestinal cells. This lectin is inactivated by cooking. If you use dry beans, take the necessary precaution of making sure they are thoroughly cooked – don’t eat undercooked beans. It is likely there are individuals who should avoid a specific food because of their individual response to a lectin in that food. But this does not mean that lectins are harmful for the general population. In fact, foods having more lectins are longevity promoting.
The truth is, the scientific evidence does not support the view that lectins are harmful to our health. What is harmful to our health is promoting this idea which has led to many people being afraid to eat health-promoting foods like beans and tomatoes. The most recent book warning against lectins is full of twisted and incorrect information that will further confuse and harm the public – who are already eating an insufficient amount of plant foods.”
Dr. Garth Davis:
“Like gluten and carbs, lectins have come under unfair attack. The characterization of lectins as assailants on our health is utter nonsense. If lectins are so poisonous, why would we see such amazing health in people whose diet is dominated by lectins? Indeed, beans contain more lectin than any other food, so if lectins were harmful, it would follow that people who eat beans would have shorter lifespans—yet studies of human longevity around the world have shown the exact opposite.”
Dr. Joel Kahn:
“When it comes to something as important as your health, it’s important to read past the headlines. You must always look for peer-reviewed, ideally randomized, studies. Ultimately, we all know the answer to nutrition: It’s eating whole foods, largely or only plant-based, predominantly locally sourced, close to nature.”
Dr. Michael Greger (Molly interviewed Dr. Greger too!):
“In the 1800s, a compound was discovered in castor beans, which we would come to know as the first of a class of lectin proteins. Every decade or two, in the popular literature, and the medical literature, a question is raised whether dietary lectins are causing disease. It’s easy to raise hysteria about lectins. After all, that first one, found back in 1889, went by the name ricin, known to be a potent homicidal poison, used by the Kremlin to assassinate anti-Communist dissidents.
And, ricin is a lectin. Thankfully, however, many lectins are non-toxic, such as those [found in] tomatoes, lentils, and other common foods. And, even the ones that are toxic—like those found in kidney beans—are utterly destroyed by proper cooking. The purported “Plant Paradox” is that on one hand, whole healthy plant foods are the foundations of a good diet, yet we supposedly need to avoid beans, and whole grains, and certain fruits and vegetables, because of the evil lectins.
But, if you look at the actual science, all whole plant foods are associated with decreased mortality—meaning the more of them people ate, the longer people tended to live. And, this includes lectin-filled foods, such as whole grains and beans. So, maybe there’s really no paradox, after all. We’ve known since the early ‘60s that conventional cooking methods effectively destroy lectins in beans, and therefore, it is possible to ignore any human problems that could be associated with lectins from properly processed legumes.”
Dr. John McDougall:
“The exaggeration of the frequency and severity of adverse reactions to lectins has brought about the popularity of a variety of low-lectin diet plans. According to these plans, you must avoid wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, all beans; and obtain daily calories from the two major categories of food poisons: animals and vegetable oils. The ultimate outcome of asking people to seek health by lectin-avoidance soon means overweight and obesity; and not long afterwards, diabetes; heart attacks; arthritis; cancer of the breast, colon, and prostate; and much more pain and suffering. Thus, this pathway of abstaining from lectin-containing foods (grains, beans, and potatoes) circuitously kills people, by recommending for them to instead eat the only remaining foods: animals and vegetable oils.”
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr:
“I have assembled hard, irrefutable, scientific proof that amazing results can happen by switching away from animal protein to a plant-based diet. I certainly do not worry about the lectin in plants. Artery and heart disease can be stopped and even reversed by switching away from animal proteins to a diet consisting strictly of whole-food, plants… results that would be impossible if plant lectins were truly the cause of the very chronic diseases being stopped and even reversed by switching to a 100% whole foods, plant-based diet.”
Ok. I love that! I’m so very thankful for these trusted physicians and their fact-based, scientific approach to all of this unnecessary uproar.
The Down and Dirty way to handle this info…
First and foremost: Calm down.
Second: Let’s go back to the basics of our plant based WOE (way of eating) and that is to simply eat the rainbow! Double down on a wide variety of gorgeous whole plant foods – we’re talkin’ fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, spices, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Avoid overly processed foods, and take your B12! Like Molly says, “eat more whole plant foods and less of everything else”. Easy peasy.
Third, and most directly related to lectins: Cook your beans and grains. Do not eat raw beans or grains. Not that we ever would!
Fourth: Check out the references below for more information, and always be skeptical of those promoting fad diets or trying to scare us with new buzzwords. Find out who sponsored their studies and if the information is based on proven scientific fact. Determine (and be wary!) if there are expensive supplements, books, computer software, or other marketing ploys involved. Ask yourself if this is really about true dietary health concerns or is it sensationalism?
That’s it, no need to overcomplicate it..
A personal note…
I have spent most of my life fearing food. Especially, the components of food. I have counted calories, restricted carbs, scrutinized fat, eliminated sugar, and watched my sodium intake. I followed every fad diet that ever looked my way. It was exhausting and completely counterproductive to a healthy and happy life. I absolutely refuse to go back and I’d like to welcome you to join me. Let’s not buy into fear that has no business being there.
Contributing writer for Clean Food Dirty Girl
Thank you Lyndsey for wrapping this topic up in such an informative and entertaining post. Let’s all rest easy now that we know what the fuck a lectin is and that they aren’t out to get us.
I’m curious, what was your impression of lectins in plant foods before you read this post and how has that impression changed? Talk to us in the comments below! xo Molly
Today’s recipe is simple and surprisingly delightful.
Oil Free Lemony Lentil Salad (Azifa)
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (about 20 turns)
- 1/4 teaspoon ginger powder
- 3 cups cooked brown or green lentils (450g)
- 1 cup finely diced tomato (180g)
- 1/2 cup finely diced red onion (65g)
- 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley (loosely packed / 12g)
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (omit if you don't like spicy)
Make sure you have cooked lentils before you make this recipe. You can use canned or make your own (link to recipe in notes).
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic, mustard, salt, onion powder, black pepper and ginger powder.
Add the cooked lentils, tomato, red onion, parsley and jalapeno. Stir until well combined then place in your refrigerator to chill before serving.
Click here for my recipe for perfectly cooked lentils on the stove top or in your Instant Pot. NOTE: This lentil recipe has seasonings, so just leave out the seasonings when making them for the above recipe.
Wishing you a happy week. May it be filled with taking lectins off your list of things to worry about.
*As always, if you believe you may be having a particular reaction to any type of food, please seek medical advice from your physician*