Most people know about the major food groups and what foods are considered proteins versus carbs, but the word “lectins” is not typically a part of our vocabulary. However, it is important to know what lectins are and how they affect our bodies.
What are Lectins?
Lectins are a complex carbohydrate-binding protein that is found in many foods, especially legumes. Grains also have a high concentration of lectins, which makes these by-products tricky to decipher. In short, they are found in all plants and animals in varying quantities.
The most important thing to know about lectins is, while they do have benefits to improve your health, they can also be toxic and harmful to the body when consumed, or the foods that contain large quantities of lectins are not appropriately handled.
Plant lectins tend to be the most toxic. While they provide the plant itself with natural insect defenses, for humans, when prepared inadequately, they can be deadly. I bet no one mentioned that in your high school health class!
Foods with the Highest Lectin Levels
Approximately 30% of foods commonly eaten by Americans contain a significant amount of lectins that can be of concern. These include:
- Beans (this includes soybeans and all other legumes)
- Nightshade vegetables (eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, etc.)
Animals and humans have a hard time digesting lectins due to their binding properties. They pass through the intestines virtually unchanged and can cause gastric distress.
Have you ever experienced an abundance of gas after eating beans? That is a direct result of the lectins.
What Can Be Done to Make Lectins Less Dangerous
Cooking foods properly helps to break down the lectins in foods and helps make them safe to eat. Have you ever eaten a raw kidney bean? No. This is because raw kidney beans have a toxic lectin in them, called phytohaemagglutinin, and they are poisonous.
Phytohaemagglutinin is problematic because it causes red blood cells in the body to clump together. Eating just four or five raw red kidney beans can cause blood clots to form.
Other symptoms of these toxic lectins may include:
- Abdominal pain
People who have auto-immune diseases, which have been linked to leaky gut syndrome, are grossly affected by lectins. Some speculate that leaky gut is a direct result of lectin ingestion.
When you cook kidney beans, however, the bean becomes safe to eat and a great source of protein. Boiling legumes for five to ten minutes is the most popular and most reliable way to eat them as nearly all lectins are destroyed in the cooking process. It brings the lectin levels from as much as 70,000 units to just 200 in most cases. At these levels, legumes are perfectly safe to eat and enjoy without fear.
Why are Lectins Considered Good for You if They are Toxic?
Most lectin-containing foods are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. When taking into consideration the number of lectins compared to the nutritional value, the benefits far outweigh the risk; just be sure to properly prepare the lectin-containing foods before eating them.
Soluble fiber is beneficial for digestion and helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels. While controversial, nightshade vegetables like tomatoes contain lectins, carotenoids, and phytonutrients that are also beneficial to the body. While people with autoimmune diseases tend to have trouble eating nightshades, again, this link back to the lectins is a probably and highly likely culprit.
While lectins have negative health consequences, the foods that they are found in are good for us to include in our diet. Ensuring that lectin-containing foods are adequately cooked is the best way to eliminate lectins and eat the foods safely.
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