By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
I’ve been really digging into nutrition lately, and looking at an integrative approach to customized nutrition plans. As I’m sure you know, there is no one-size-fits-all food plan and we need to look at many variables such as health issues (autoimmune / cardiovascular / blood sugar), blood type, food sensitivity, exercise and energy output, body composition, family history and susceptibility, and more.
One factor that very clearly appears on the list of considerations when building a customized nutrition plan is reactions to lectins in foods. This is extremely common, and often mistaken for simple gluten-intolerance, IBS, acid reflux and more. Today’s article will give you an excellent overview lectins, and if you would like to learn more I have listed some resources at the end of the article.
What are lectins and why are they so important?
Lectins are large proteins, found in plants especially that are part of the plant’s defence against been eaten. They are typically found in the seed, the peel or the shell of the plant, and they cause irritation of our digestive tracts when we eat them. In large amounts they have toxic and inflammatory properties.
Which foods contain lectins?
- All grains (except millet)
- Beans and lentils, including soy
- Potato, tomato, peppers
- Seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, chia, quinoa)
- Vegetables & fruits containing seeds: zucchini, squash, melons
- Cow’s milk dairy (produces a lectin-like protein called beta-casomorphin)
There are some cooking processes however that can deactivated lectins from some of these foods: for example pressure cooking beans will greatly lower the lectins, and peeling and seeding tomatoes and peppers reduces their impact too.
What impact do they have on your health?
There are three main mechanisms of impact from eating lectins:
1) Digestive damage and irritation
Quite simply, lectins are not broken down in the gut so they disrupt the digestive process, reduce absorption of nutrients and create imbalance in the bacteria that make up your gut microbiome.
2) Intestinal permeability
When there is chronic irritation on the gut lining, it eventually becomes permeable, creating “leaky gut syndrome.” When lectins pass through the gut lining into the blood and lymphatic system they create inflammation and immune stress throughout the body. Some lectins are also involved in “molecular mimicry”, where the immune system can’t tell the difference between the invading lectin, and part of your healthy body tissue. This is one mechanism of autoimmunity (ex. Rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis).
3) Lectins disrupt cellular communication
Lectins can bind to hormone receptors disrupting normal communication and signalling. One clear example is with insulin: lectins bind to the insulin receptor, creating a signal that you’re never full resulting in significant weight gain.
The impact of lectins on the gut is amplified with all other causes of gut irritation: frequent use of antibiotics (even if it was many years ago), parasites, chronic high stress, disrupted circadian rhythm, environmental chemicals, and use of certain medications.
What are signs of lectin issues?
Signs that you might be experiencing problems from lectins in your diet:
- any autoimmune disease
- IBS, especially bloating after meals
- acid reflux
- waking up with joint pains and body aches
- headaches and migraines
- fatigue, brain fog
- overweight, and especially difficult to lose weight
- skin issues (acne, eczema, psoriasis, rashes)
- chronic sinusitis
- many apparent allergic reactions to foods (getting nausea, rash, headache, foggy after eating)
Note: it’s possible to have lectin issues, and not have many gut symptoms.
Is everyone lectin sensitive?
Now I know these symptoms sound like ones that everyone has once in a while. If these are occasional for you, your lectin sensitivity may be mild. It is much more likely you have issues with lectins if you have an autoimmune condition, chronic digestive issues, lots of body aches and pains, or significant weight gain.
What can I eat instead?
Foods containing high amounts of lectins make up so much of our traditional North American diet, and even the healthier versions of it! Here is a summary of all of the foods that are very low in lectins:
- Most vegetables – dark leafy greens, broccoli family of vegetables (all except above)
- Fruits (lowest lectin when picked fresh and eaten in season)
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potato, taro root, turnip, beet, carrot, etc.
- Good fats and oils: olive oil, avocado, ghee, nuts (except cashew and peanut)
- Goat and sheep’s milk cheeses and butter
- Pasture-Raised meats, poultry and eggs
- Wild fish and seafood
- Pressure-cooked legumes, and tempeh
Next steps if you suspect lectin issues
If you suspect that you might have issues with lectins, I know it can feel overwhelming to look at the food lists! The first place I would recommend you start is by reading “The Plant Paradox” by Dr. Steven Gundry. This book will explain in detail the reasons for avoiding high-lectin foods so you can make educated choices in your shopping, cooking and dining.
You may then want to do a 1 week low-lectin trial, by eliminating all of the lectin-containing foods listed above. Most people can tell within the short span of a week whether this is relevant for their health or not, although it does take much longer to restore and repair the gut lining. We can also discuss in more detail during an appointment at any time.
Learning about lectins in food can be an extremely powerful strategy to reverse and heal many chronic health issues, especially autoimmunity, but also cardiovascular disease, inulin resistance and diabetes, and chronic digestive issues. Some of you may not have an actual diagnosis yet, but are simply feeling tired, foggy, bloated and achy, all of which can point to lectins too.
If you would like to learn about how to support your stress hormones and cortisol levels better, or are interested in testing please book in for an appointment. This can make a profound impact on your feelings of health and wellbeing.