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Lectin-Free Diet: Benefits, Risks, Food Choices, and More
A lectin-free diet recommends avoiding foods high in lectins (a plant-based protein found naturally in certain foods). Food sources of lectins include beans, lentils, dairy products made from cow's milk, wheat and other grains and many fruits and vegetables. Cardiologist Steven Gundry introduced this lectin-free or lectin-avoidance diet in his book titled 'The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain' which was published in 2017.
According to Dr Gundry, consuming lectins may lead to weight gain, brain fog, chronic inflammation and poor digestion. However, some other health experts have expressed concern about eliminating these foods. In this article, let us explore what is a lectin-free diet, is this diet beneficial for our health, what can be the food choices and risk factors associated with this diet.
What is a Lectin-Free Diet?
Dr Gundry and his supporters claim that lectins can interfere with our body's digestive system and can cause bloating, nausea, weight gain, vomiting and issues with our immune system. People who advocate this lectin-free diet also claim that this diet can improve overall health along with weight loss. The lectin-free diet can reduce your intake of lectins and this may result in eliminating nutrient-rich foods.
Sources of Lectins
Lectins are a type of protein which can promote cell development and play a vital role in our immune response. Lectins are mostly present in plant foods and in some other foods as well. They can be found in high amounts in foods like −
Legumes such as beans, lentils, peas, soybeans, peanuts
Nightshade vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplant
Grains like wheat, barley, quinoa, rice
Are Lectins Good for Us?
Lectins are proteins that bind to carbohydrates and are present in many plant foods and animal products. Some animal studies suggest that lectins may act as an anti-nutrient and interfere with nutrient absorption from food. Moreover, it may negatively affect people with digestive sensitivities and gastrointestinal distress.
When cooked properly, foods containing lectins like kidney beans reduce their lectin content and this makes them safe to eat. Additionally, foods that contain lectins are also full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. This may outweigh the negative effects of lectins on our bodies.
Foods to Eat on a Lectin-free Diet
Lectins are present in plant foods and some animal products. However, there are some foods which have low lectin and can be consumed when you are on a lectin-free diet.
You can consume these foods while on a lectin-free diet −
Fruits like apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, oranges, raspberries, strawberries etc.
Vegetables like asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, bok choy, cauliflower, celery, kale, leek, chive, collard, okra, onion, pumpkin, scallion, radish, Swiss chard etc.
Animal protein sources like fish, beef, chicken and eggs
Nuts like pecans, pistachios, pine nuts, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts and flax seeds
Touted Benefits of Lectin-Free Diet
There is no scientific evidence to prove that taking lectins out of the diet can lead to positive health outcomes. Advocates of a lectin-free diet claim some potential benefits of a lectin-free diet which are as follows −
May Reduce Inflammation
Some studies indicate that consuming lectins may activate an inflammatory response. Reducing the intake of lectins may help in minimizing the risk of developing autoimmune diseases.
May Help People with Digestive Sensitivities
Some people may experience digestive distress when they eat food containing lectins. This happens when the body cannot digest lectins and disrupts metabolism causing damage to the digestive tract. Furthermore, some people have an underlying digestive condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Some experts claim that this syndrome could be a result of eating lectins when this protein acts as an anti-nutrient in the body. Some lectins-rich foods may also develop toxicity in the body and cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Eating lectin-free foods may help such people and help them overcome digestive sensitivities.
Emphasis is on Whole Foods
While on a lectin-free diet, the follower will stay away from processed foods due to the restrictive nature of the diet. The diet permits you to consume homemade meals with whole foods like vegetables, fruits, plant-based fats and some meats. Indulging in whole foods keeps you away from the extra calories and may help in weight management. Consumption of processed foods is directly associated with a greater risk of health conditions like obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension etc. The lectin-free diet helps you to avoid processed foods and thereby may ensure overall health.
High-lectin foods are usually considered safe when they are cooked properly. It’s important to avoid consuming raw, soaked or undercooked foods as they may be highly toxic for the body. One can also soak whole foods like beans to remove lectin and then cook them properly. This will take away the lectin from whole foods and supply necessary nutrients to the body.
Risk Factors of a Lectin-Free Diet
The lectin-free diet is restrictive and this may make it difficult for some people to follow it in a long term. Also, it might be difficult for vegetarians and vegans to follow as legumes, nuts, whole grains and seeds are some of the major foods they consume on a daily basis. Additionally, there are some risk factors involved with a lectin-free diet which are as follows −
Lack of Evidence of Effectiveness
Although some evidence may exist to show the harmful effects of lectins, there are mixed opinions on the same. Also, nutrition experts do not confirm if a lectin-free diet can be beneficial for preventing or treating a health condition. Research conducted on the effects of lectins on health is limited and the majority of it has been conducted on animals.
Consuming a balanced diet with a lot of fibre is essential for good health. When you can't eat grains, legumes or other fibre-rich and nutrient-rich foods, you are at risk of developing a nutrient deficiency. In the long term, when the body is deprived of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, you may be at risk of developing major health conditions.
Effect on Mental Health
As the lectin-free diet is restrictive, you have to be anxious about your food choices. This may affect your mental health and may lead to feelings of anxiety, frustration or isolation. Additionally, restricting many foods can trigger disordered eating habits or an eating disorder.
A lectin-free diet may be beneficial for certain people, but it hasn't been confirmed by nutrition experts as a healthy diet. Some people may claim that this diet helps in weight loss and ensures better digestion. If you wish to follow a lectin-free diet, ensure to consult your physician or a registered dietician before beginning a lectin-free lifestyle.
Although lectins may cause problems for some people, there is enough evidence to support the benefit of eating plant-based foods which are avoided in a lectin-free diet.
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