All About Lectins and Whether They’re Connected to Chronic Inflammation

We’ve talked before about inflammation and how studies show it’s a primary mechanism contributing to human aging. We take chronic inflammation very seriously and want to keep you informed on steps you can take to reduce it.

One thing we haven’t brought up is lectins—until now.

You may have heard that cutting lectins out of your diet helps you lose weight, decreases inflammation and improves your overall health.

But how much truth is there to these claims? Should you really be worried about eating lectins?

This post digs into the latest research on lectins and discusses why some people are avoiding them (spoiler: most researchers say lectins are nothing to worry about).

What Are Lectins?

Lectins are part of the protein family but are otherwise tough to define since they come in a number of varieties. They can often bind to cell membranes and are found in many foods, including grains, beans, nuts, seeds and potatoes.

Meera Senthilingam at CNN reports that one lectin in particular—phytohemagglutinin—may be linked to gastrointestinal distress. This lectin is found in red kidney beans and can lead to food poisoning.

However, like most kinds of food poisoning, this is only caused by consumption of raw or poorly cooked red kidney beans—lectin counts are severely reduced by proper preparation of red kidney beans and therefore pose little danger.

Even if you do wind up eating undercooked beans by mistake, most symptoms dissipate after 3-4 hours, although a few people have had to be hospitalized. There was one case from 1988, cited by allergist David L. J. Freed, where a batch of red kidney beans got an entire hospital staff sick. This was attributed to the “abnormally high” concentration of lectins.

All that said, while phytohemagglutinin can create discomfort and pose a slight acute health risk, it is not a factor in chronic inflammation.

So, why are some people avoiding foods with lectins altogether?

Reasons Lectins Have Been Linked to Inflammation

The anti-lectin diet was popularized by The Plant Paradox, a book written by cardiac surgeon Steven Gundry, MD. In this book, Gundry claims that lectins found in plants can cause weight gain, disease and inflammation. He suggests cutting lectins out of your meal planning altogether and has recently released a cookbook that encourages people to do so. The diet gained attention when singer Kelly Clarkson claimed it helped her lose 37 pounds.

However, as T. Colin Campbell, PhD, notes, much of the research cited within The Plant Paradox is either misrepresented or misinterpreted. Specifically, Gundry claims a lectin called wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) contributes to inflammation, citing a study as proof. But as Campbell notes of the study in question, “researchers simply were documenting how some lectins stain kidney tissue” and that it had nothing to do with inflammation.

Even with this evidence, there are a few studies that might seem to support Gundry’s claims. For example, a 2007 study by researchers Katsuya Miyake, Toru Tanaka and Paul L. McNeil did, in fact, demonstrate a correlation between lectins and gastrointestinal distress. However, this study specified from the beginning that the effect was found in “lectins present in certain improperly cooked vegetables”—not all lectins. Again, vegetables that are properly prepared do not pose the same risks.

Other reviews have also suggested that because lectins survive digestion in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, they can bind to the cell lining within the digestive tract and cause a reaction. However, Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, debunks conclusions from reviews such as these, stating that most people don’t have to worry about lectins being an issue: “Foods with high amounts of lectin, such as kidney beans, aren't eaten raw. Once soaked and cooked, the lectin content is significantly reduced and, as such, isn't a potential issue for the body.”

In short, the average person doesn’t need to be concerned about lectins. As long as you’re preparing your food properly, you will eliminate the lectins that may cause damage. Even if you do mistakenly eat food that hasn’t been cooked well enough, most lectins only cause short-term inflammation and do not pose any chronic problems.

Should You Remove Lectins From Your Diet?

The short answer: Probably not.

While some people may have especially adverse reactions to lectins, they are the minority. "In my judgement...probably less than 10 percent of the population is lectin-sensitive," says nutrition expert Dr. Jonny Bowden.

Dr. Megan Rossi, a research associate at King’s College London and spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, says that most of us don't need to reduce our lectin intake—we are already dealing with it properly. "There is a lot more to lectins than we are being told,” she says. “For one, it is relatively easy to get rid of them by cooking and preparing food in the right way."

Rossi does note, however, that some people might benefit from a diet light in lecins. "We used to think a wheat intolerance was linked to gluten sensitivity, but preliminary investigations indicate that for some people the problem might lie with a sensitivity to agglutinin, a lectin found in wheat," she says.

In other words, lectin sensitivity can be considered like an allergy. Some people should cut it out of their diet, just as some people should avoid dairy or gluten.

For the rest of us, however, Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, points to how “current evidence suggests the amount of lectin consumed in a typical daily diet poses no health concerns. Because lectins are found throughout the food supply in such a variety of foods, it seems unlikely lectin is a possible culprit in digestive and related ailments.”

Dietitian Cara Rosenbloom notes that no proof exists to back up the claims that lectins are dangerous, and is wary of the diet due to the way that it is framed: “Articles that promote the lectin-free diet cite it as a miraculous cure-all for arthritis, multiple sclerosis and even cancer. That’s the first sign it’s a fad—overblown promises of astonishing health benefits before any clinical proof exists.”

In fact, following a diet in which you cut out every food with lectins may even be dangerous. Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center at Griffin Hospital and founder of the True Health Initiative, says “following this advice will decimate the quality of your diet.”

What Should You Do Instead?

If eliminating lectins isn’t the secret to stopping chronic inflammation, what is? The answer is simple: Diet and exercise.

As Harvard Medical School states, there are plenty of foods that you should avoid. Refined carbohydrates, fried foods, soda, red meat and margarine are all things that can contribute to inflammation. On the other hand, foods like tomatoes, olive oil, leafy green vegetables, nuts, fatty fish and fruits can all help to combat inflammation.

In addition, consider the following:

  • Bente Klarlund Pedersen at Rigshospitalet Centre of Inflammation and Metabolism in Copenhagen stresses the importance of exercise, which “induces anti-inflammatory actions.”
  • Jeffrey A. Woods, PhD, and a team of researchers from the University of Illinois note that exercise can help with inflammation caused by aging in particular. Their study of participants over 60 years old noted a “robust association between physical activity and markers of inflammation,” possibly due to weight loss and the decrease of adipose tissue in the body, which has been known to cause inflammation.

Rather than worrying about lectins, focus on regular exercise as part of your routine if you’re looking to combat the effects of chronic inflammation.

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