The Lectin-Free Diet: 3 Facts to Know - Ralph Carson
A new diet trend, the lectin-free diet, has been growing in popularity lately. This fad diet, contrary to what some diet gurus are saying, is not based on good science.
Is lectin the new gluten?
To understand the lectin-free diet, you must first understand what lectins are. Lectins are proteins found in many plant-based foods, including grains, wheat, nuts, dairy, legumes, beans, squash, some fruits, corn and nightshade vegetables. They serve as a plant’s “natural insecticide.” Almost every food that grows in the ground has lectins.
Lectins, overall, will not harm most people’s health. In fact, two-thirds of the world’s population live primarily on foods that contain lectins. Most of these people do not suffer health problems from these foods; indeed, many individuals thrive and live long, healthy lives on a plant-based diet.
Fact 1: Lectins are found in many healthy foods
The lectin critics recommend that we stop eating many nutritionally healthy foods – fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts. This means that the following foods would be off-limits if you are following the lectin-free diet:
- Legumes – beans, peas, peanuts, soy products
- Nightshade plants – tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potato, eggplants, peppers
- Nuts – walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews
- Grains – not only wheat products but also rice and corn
Fact 2: Lectins do not harm us
While the lectin-free diet gurus preach about the negative health effects of lectins, you have to understand that when we sprout, ferment, or cook foods containing lectins, the lectins are altered to the point that the protein cannot cause us any physical harm. In a sense, lectins are inactivated because these food preparation processes cause an unfolding of the complex configuration of the molecule.
“Dr. Carson,” you might ask, “what if I eat raw (uncooked) foods that contain lectins?”
For example, you might be concerned about eating tomatoes; tomatoes contain lectins and people often eat tomatoes without cooking, fermenting or sprouting them.
Here’s why you shouldn’t be concerned about eating raw foods that contain lectins: our bodies have specialized digestive processes that break down lectin protein, preventing any harm. Also, our cells have protective coatings on them that block lectins so that lectins can be eliminated through bowel movements.
If your digestive tract is healthy, and you regularly eat a nutritious, high-fiber diet, you’ll be fine.
I will note that, if a large amount of lectins did happen to get into your bloodstream, lectins could cause cell damage and gas, disrupting normal metabolic processes. But, in order to consume a large level of lectins that would cause a reaction, you would have to routinely eat, as an example, several cups of hard, raw beans per day. Most people are not in jeopardy because they typically don’t eat raw, hard beans. If you sprout or cook raw beans, you’ll be fine.
Fact 3: Plant-based foods are more healthy than harmful
In summary, not only is it almost impossible to eliminate lectin-containing foods from your life, if you do cut out these foods, your diet will lack many key nutrients.
We reap real health benefits from eating plant-based foods that contain lectins. Scientifically speaking, the nutritional value of these foods outweighs the possibility of you being harmed by them.
The bottom line is to design your food plan to include a variety of deeply pigmented fruits and vegetables; this will help to maintain a healthy colony of gut bacteria that sustains the integrity of your gut lining
How to spot a diet scam
I’d like to add some final words of caution. If you see a diet out there that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t abandon foods that are healthy. Don’t eliminate foods that have been around for decades when no scientific evidence has shown cause for alarm. Choose what to eat based on facts, not erroneous health claims.
When you see fad diets in the media, like the lectin-free diet, I encourage you to be a cautious and critical consumer. Consider these questions:
- Is a “health guru” trying to sell you something?
- What is the educational and professional background of this guru? Do they have an official degree or license? What kind of doctor are they, if they list themselves as a doctor?
- Does the guru receive endorsements from powerful or wealthy people?
- Is the scientific information confusing? They may use technical jargon to confuse you, so that you’ll believe what they say.
- Is their product marketing preying on common anxieties and fears? If their products allege to cure common symptoms, more people will “buy in” and think that they need this treatment.
- Does the guru claim that your satisfaction is guaranteed or you get a full refund? If so, look at the fine print. Sometimes returns can be an expensive and time-consuming hassle.
If you are having concerning health symptoms, and you suspect that your diet is causing problems, please see a medical doctor or registered dietitian (RD) for further guidance.
About the Author:
Ralph Carson, RD, PhD, is a nutritionist and exercise physiologist with over 40 years of experience. He is currently Vice President of Science and Innovation for Eating Recovery Centers (ERC). Dr. Carson is an active member on the board of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (iaedp) and author of The Brain Fix: What’s the Matter with Your Gray Matter.
- Blay Powers, A. Food Fears: From Industrial to Sustainable Food Systems Routledge (2008)
- Rowles, A. 6 Foods That Are High in Lectins Authority Nutrition (April 28, 2017).
- Sheffield, E. Cracking the Plant Paradox: How to Solve Nature’s Plant Paradox and Use it to Your Advantage. Independently Published (2017).