I approach most wellness trends with an open mind, a dash of deeply embedded journalistic skepticism, and an understanding that you cannot knock something until you've tried it for yourself. So I have to admit, when I first heard about lectins, my skepticism kicked into high gear. How could all of these healthy foods (looking at you, nightshades!) be tied to several inflammatory and autoimmune conditions? Is this something the plant-based community knows about? Clearly, I had more questions than answers.
So I called Dr. Steven Gundry, author of The Plant Paradox and driving force behind the anti-lectin movement, who spoke with clarity about lectins and their role in our health. Here's what he said.
Are lectins the "next gluten," like we've heard?
"Gluten is a lectin…all of wheat, barley, rye, wheat germ; they all contain gluten. If you want to produce heart disease in an animal model—you feed them wheat germ. It launches an immune attack against our blood vessels.
"If you want to incite heart disease in a Rhesus monkey model—our cousins—you give them peanut oil. The peanut lectin produces heart disease. If you take the peanut lectin out of peanut oil, they will not get heart disease. This is the plant's strategy. Plants use lectins to actually make their predator—that includes us—sick or not feel well, or long term, get arthritis.
"A smart predator will say 'Every time I eat this plant, I get brain fog,' etc. So we'll take antacids, reflux medication, pain relief pills, and antidepressants without realizing that the plant is trying to get our attention.
"This fascinated me early in my career—many of my patients who had coronary artery disease had arthritis in their spines. I talked about this in my first book. If you get a stent or have a heart attack, in five years, you have a 50 percent chance of getting a hip or knee replacement. The opposite is true is well. This all comes back to our diet."
How do lectins even work?
"Lectins are proteins that seek out specific sugar molecules and attach to the surface of cells.
"Interestingly, when we get our blood type, we actually use lectins! There are certain lectins that attach to the walls of red blood cells and we look at that to tell you your blood type.
"According to the CDC, 20 percent of all food poisoning cases are caused by lectins in undercooked beans. They bind to the surface of our gut and actually force open the tight junctions between the cells, which leads to leaky gut. In my book, I discuss how lectins are the No. 1 cause of leaky gut.
"There’s an easy way to combat this. When you pressure cook beans, the lectins are destroyed. EDEN is the only company that pressure cooks its beans, and it’s one of the few companies that doesn’t use BPA in the lining of its cans."
Why are we just noticing lectins now?
"We've known about lectins for a little over 100 years; they were discovered in 1880. We’ve known about their effect for a very long time, but the truth is we’ve had a pretty good defense system against lectins.
"First, our mucus membranes trap lectins. A good example of this is when your nose runs while you’re eating spicy foods; it's the body's first line of defense. We’ve rapidly used up that mucus since the introduction of what I call 'whole grain goodness' about 20 years ago.
"Second, our microbiomes are capable of eating lectins. And we have bugs that eat and protect us from gluten. When someone goes gluten-free, those bugs have nothing to eat so they die off and leave, so when you’re exposed to gluten again, you may be sensitive to it because the helpful bugs aren't there anymore. We’ve killed off most of our good bugs with broad-spectrum antibiotics…prescribed by doctors but also that are in the chicken, pork, farm-raised fish, and glyphosate in pesticides, and the like that are slowly destroying our gut microbiomes.
"Things like the seven deadly disrupters I discuss in the book have slowly hampered our body's ability to respond to lectins. For example, artificial sweeteners destroy our microbiome. Just one packet of artificial sweetener kills 50 percent of the bacteria in our guts. In fact, there's a long-term study showing that people who use artificial sweeteners increase the risk of stroke or heart attack."
My life is full of lectins and I don't have any issues. What gives?
"You know, for this, I look to my work with patients. When they come to me with a problem, and I tend to take the people who no one else will take, you have very extensive blood work every three months that look for what are called inflammatory cytokines.
"There are a huge number of people who say they're doing very well but have elevated markers of inflammation. There's a famous experiment [that speaks to the slow-burn effect lectins have on our systems]. If you put a frog in boiling water, it’ll do its best to jump out.
"But if you put a frog in a pot of water and boil it slowly, raising the temperature gradually, the frog will actually boil to death because its temperature sensors are not fine-tuned enough to recognize the gradual increase. So what's happened to most of us quite frankly is we're just a frog sitting in the water, and we're not going to recognize the fact that we're burning to death until it's too late.
"So these are things that happen that can happen over 10, 20, 30, 40 years. I've been shocked to see people who get arthritis assume it was just part of getting old. But for the last 10 years, I've been publishing the results of eliminating lectins on the changes in sophisticated blood tests. So it's not something to be ignored. Yes, saying an innocent tomato is the cause of a lot of diseases is really quite mind-boggling, but I have the published research to back up my claims. I'd throw myself out of the room if years ago I had said all this, but now I've got the evidence in the publications to back it up."
How long do I need to go lectin-free to feel a difference?
"Most people notice a difference within two weeks. It can take two, three, four, five, or even six months to really get your gut health back. Another thing to note is that almost everyone in the country is vitamin D deficient—which is essential to heal the walls of your gut. We give people 5,000 IUs a day and give them plenty of fish oil as well."
Can I have my nightshades and eat them, too?
"Yes. A modern pressure cooker will destroy all lectins except gluten. You simply push one button—it's so fast—and you have a pot of lectin-free beans in seven minutes. Instapot and Cuisinart are both good models."
"Thank goodness! Interestingly enough, one of the things that strikes me about lectins is how cooking raw foods falls in line with ancient health philosophies like ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine: Perhaps lectins are now a known reason for that. Truth be told, yes, we still have questions. But we'll try anything in the name of reducing inflammation and living a long, healthy, plant-based life. Don't knock it till you try it!"
Read up on the main sources of lectins and how to reduce your lectin intake.