Most people know that protein is an important food group. After all, people use supplements like whey and soy to increase their protein intake. Protein is crucial for muscle repair and growth, and eating too little protein could have an impact on your exercise performance, as well as your health.
But there are lots of different types of proteins, and while most are beneficial, some may be less so. One protein that may be harmful is called lectin, and an increasing number of people are trying to avoid it by following a lectin-free diet.
Lectins are found in many plant-based foods. There is some evidence to suggest that these proteins can act as anti-nutrients, blocking the absorption of other important nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. They may also cause adverse reactions in people with digestive sensitivities.
In this article, we’re going to lift the lid on the lectin-free diet so you can decide if it will be beneficial for you.
What Is A Lectin-Free Diet
As the name suggests, the lectin-free diet involves reducing or eliminating lectins from your meals. It has been popularized by doctor Steven Gundry in his book The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods that Cause Disease and Weight Gain.
The lectin-free diet may be beneficial for some people, especially those with food sensitivities or anyone concerned that lectins are preventing them from absorbing nutrients properly.
Lectins are a protein, but they’re mainly found in plant foods, including:
- Legumes – beans, peanuts, soybeans, lentils, etc.
- Nightshade vegetables, including aubergines, potatoes, and tomatoes
- Grains – quinoa, wheat, barley, rice, etc.
In addition, lectins are also present in some dairy products, including milk. Cooking foods like beans and lentils significantly lowers their lectin content but does not remove it completely.
Because of this, it may be necessary to cut down or eliminate lectins by avoiding certain foods, even if they are otherwise healthy, such as whole grains and some veggies.
It should be noted that, while the lectin-free diet could result in weight loss, it is not designed to help you lose weight. However, cutting out things like grain-based foods and eating more leafy green vegetables will automatically lower your calorie intake, leading to weight loss. Weight loss a side effect rather than the main reason for going lectin-free.
Which Foods Contain Lectins?
One of the main disadvantages of the lectin-free diet is how restrictive it can be. A lot of otherwise healthy foods contain lectins. It’s estimated that 30% of all foods contain lectins, so it’s a hard substance to avoid. In a lot of cases, cooking reduces the content of high lectin foods, but not always.
Common foods that contain lectins include:
- Citrus fruits
- Legumes, including most beans, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts
- Meat products made from animals fed grains
- Most dairy products, such as milk
- Most packaged or processed foods that may contain lectins
- Nightshade vegetables, including eggplant, goji berries, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes
- Other fruits, including pomegranate, grapes, cherries, apples, watermelon, banana, papaya, plums, and currants
- Peanut-based foods, including peanut butter
- Products made with grains or flours, such as cakes, cookies, and bread
- Seeds, such as sunflower, poppy, and chia seeds
- Sweet peppers
- Whole grains, including barley, quinoa, corn, rice, wheat, and wheat germ
If you want to check if a particular food contains lectins, and it’s not on this list, you should search for it on the internet. Asking “does xxx contain lectins” will usually provide the answer you seek.
Are Lectins Really That Bad?
Lectins are present in many foods, and most people can consume them with little or no problem. Unlike things like lactose and gluten, there is very little research to suggest that lectins are especially harmful. More research is needed to determine if lectins are good or bad for your health.
In fact, some research actually suggests that lectins could be beneficial and may even be useful for treating some serious illnesses and diseases, including some types of cancer.
However, there is a body of evidence that suggests lectins may be problematic for some people.
The potentially harmful effects of lectins include:
- Digestive sensitivities – consuming food that is high in lectins may cause gastric distress, the symptoms of which include bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. Some people are intolerant or even allergic to lectins. Eliminating lectins may help prevent these symptoms, especially if you have an underlying condition like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
- Toxicity – although rare, consuming too much of certain foods could lead to toxicity. This issue can be worse when those high lectin foods are consumed raw. For example, eating undercooked kidney beans could lead to lectin toxicity.
Avoid this problem by soaking and then cooking high lectin legumes, beans, and pulses. Cooking for at least 30 minutes will significantly lower lectin levels. Sprouting and fermenting high-lectin foods also makes them easier to digest.
- Reduced nutrient absorption – lectin may damage the lining of the digestive tract, disrupting nutrient absorption. This could lead to malnutrition. However, you’d have to eat a lot of high-lectin foods over a prolonged period for this to become an issue.
- Inflammation – some people are more susceptible to lectins than others. Very sensitive people may experience an autoimmune reaction to lectins, triggering a range of inflammatory effects. This can include joint pain, headaches, and rashes.
It’s important to understand that lectin sensitivity is relatively rare. There is no real benefit to a lectin-free diet if you have no adverse reactions to foods containing this abundant protein.
Is There A Link Between Lectin and Weight Loss?
Avoiding lectin could lead to weight gain if you are very sensitive to the effects of this protein. It may cause dietary distress and inflammation, interfering with fat loss, and increasing stress. Stress raises your levels of cortisol, and cortisol plays a role in fat storage and weight gain.
However, the real reason people who try a lectin-free diet lose weight is not eliminating lectins; it’s that they are eating fewer calories.
If you eat fewer high-calorie foods and more low-calorie foods, weight loss is all but inevitable, whether you are eating lectins or not. That said, if eating fewer lectins makes you feel healthier, you may feel more inclined to exercise, and that will contribute to weight loss and fat burning.
So, the lectin-free diet is not a weight loss diet, and eliminating lectins won’t automatically lead to increased fat burning. But, going lectin-free may lead to weight loss if it means you end up eating fewer calories or eliminating unhealthy foods. Interestingly, many high-lectin foods are actually linked to weight loss rather than weight gain, including beans.
How to Go Lectin-Free
There are two ways to go lectin-free, the “cold turkey” method and gradually reducing your consumption of high lectin foods.
With the cold turkey methods, you simply stop eating any foods that contain lectin. That means no more dairy, legumes, peanuts, or any of the other foods we’ve listed above. While this is an effective way to eliminate lectins from your diet, it probably won’t be easy as a large number of otherwise healthy foods will no longer be available to you.
However, if you are very sensitive to the adverse effects of lectins, this method will provide you with quick results.
With the more gradual approach, simply reduce the number and amount of high-lectin foods in your diet and replace them with lower-lectin alternatives. Switch out a few foods per week until you gradually phase them out completely. Most people will find this method more manageable, but the effects of lectins will take longer to disappear. If you think that you have a strong sensitivity to the effects of lectin, the cold turkey method may be best. Otherwise, the gradual reduction of lectins will probably be easier.
Like any elimination diet, including vegetarianism and veganism, and the ketogenic diet, the lectin-free diet involves cutting out certain foods. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Going lectin-free could reduce your intake of dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, as these substances are typically found in many high-lectin foods.
Cutting certain foods from your diet, especially if you really enjoy them, can also lead to cravings.
Does This Diet Work?
Elimination diets work by cutting out certain foods or food groups. If you have a sensitivity to lectins or are worried that consuming lectins could be affecting your health, eliminating this protein could be useful and beneficial.
Does this diet work? The answer to that question really depends on what you are trying to achieve.
If you are sensitive to the effects of lectins, eliminating them from your diet should have a noticeable impact on how you feel.
But, if you have no such lectin sensitivity, cutting this protein from your diet probably won’t do anything for you and has no real benefit.
Lots of everyday foods contain lectins, and people have been consuming them for thousands of years. Eliminating lectins from your diet may not be easy, and, for a lot of people, it is not beneficial either.
That said, some evidence suggests that lectins can cause digestive problems for some people, especially those with underlying intestinal issues, such as IBS and celiac disease. If you notice that you have symptoms after eating beans, nightshades, or other high-lectin foods, you may benefit from a lectin-free diet.
However, eliminating lectins from your diet is not an automatic path to weight loss. Many high lectin foods are actually useful during a weight loss diet, such a high-fiber beans, and low-calorie fruits and vegetables.
Like any elimination diet, going lectin-free means giving up a large number of foods, and this level of restriction can be hard to maintain. You’ll need an encyclopedic knowledge of which foods contain lectin, and avoiding lectins may be easier said than done.
That said, cutting lectins from your diet may prevent symptoms like bloating and gas, and the only real way to find out if you are lectin sensitive is to try eliminating them from your diet.
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