Plant Paradox or Total Bunk? Straight Talk About Lectins

By: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®

The Plant Paradox Book CoverQuick-fix diets often single out one component of food and blame it for all of our health woes. Shortly thereafter, products begin popping up on shelves that are fat-free, gluten-free, wheat-free, sugar-free, and so on. That brings me to a recent diet that is beginning to gain traction — the lectin-free diet promoted by Dr. Steven Gundry in his book The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain.

In his book, Gundry asserts certain plant proteins called lectins are primarily responsible for a wide range of chronic illnesses, including obesity, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular disease. Critics argue that Gundry fails to back up his claim with scientific research, using only his own and his patients’ results on the diet as clinical evidence of its effectiveness.

Others question whether his dietary recommendations are sound. For example, the lectin-free diet calls for replacing whole grains with white bread and white rice, even though these refined grains have been linked to spikes in blood sugar levels.

Where do I stand on The Plant Paradox? Somewhere in between Gundry and his critics. Placing a limit on the amount of lectins consumed in some populations — people with arthritis and autoimmunity, for example — certainly makes sense. However, I believe the book goes too far in making lectins out to be the bad guy. At the least, it has the potential to be misinterpreted by readers who are eager to find the one thing that is preventing them from looking and feeling their best. More likely, several factors contribute to any individual’s ill health, and treatment, including dietary recommendations really should be individualized.

In this post, I present some truisms about lectins and offer additional dietary advice to help my patients maintain a healthy diet without necessarily eliminating healthy foods that contain lectins.

Considering the Facts About Lectins

Before embracing a lectin-free diet, examine the following facts:

  • Certain foods have higher levels of lectins; for example, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts), squash, nightshade vegetables (eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes), and fruit that is not in season. Instead of eliminating an entire food category, you can limit your lectin intake by focusing on specific foods that have the highest levels of lectins, and then cut back on your consumption of those foods.
  • Not all lectins are created equal. Some act as low-grade toxins, others are harmless, and still others are beneficial. The leading theory is that certain plants or plant parts contain higher levels of toxic lectins to prevent them from being eaten. Lectins have evolved as part of an organism’s defense mechanism.
  • If you don’t have the enzymes to properly digest certain lectins, consuming those lectins may disrupt digestion, cause nutritional deficiencies, or even damage the intestines. Further, those lectins could increase intestinal permeability leading to inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, or colitis. However, if you do have the enzymes to properly digest certain lectins, those lectins are not likely to be harmful to you.
  • Cooking foods that contain high levels of lectins significantly reduces lectin levels. For example, you can reduce the toxic lectins in raw kidney beans by 99 percent simply by cooking them thoroughly (soaking them overnight and then bringing them to a boil and simmering them for 45 to 60 minutes).
  • Certain populations that consume diets rich in foods that contain lectins have some of the longest, healthiest lifespans, which suggests that lectins alone probably should not be singled out as a primary cause of chronic health conditions in the U.S.
  • Lectins are present in many healthy foods, including whole grains, legumes, tomatoes, nuts, and fruit. Eliminating healthy foods from your diet to avoid lectins may do more harm than good. Just look at the variety of foods that have lectins and the nutrient value of those antioxidants, micronutrients, and macronutrients contained within those foods.
  • Lectins may stimulate our immune system in various beneficial ways that we may not be presently aware of.

Adopting a More Balanced Approach

As a healthcare provider who has been using dietary intervention as a first line therapy for more than 15 years, I have observed many diet fads come and go. The problem with these fads is that they are often alarmist, leading many people to make dramatic dietary changes that are either unhealthy or unsustainable. (I have already had a few concerned patients call me after they read or just heard about this book.)

I understand Dr. Gundry’s intention for writing his book is to benefit readers, so they can adjust their dietary habits and improve health with less medication and reliance on the conventional health care system. I think he shares some valid and interesting points regarding lectins. For example, I happen to agree that it’s true that as a culture we eat too much grain. Grains do contain lectins, and overconsumption of grains can be inflammatory for a variety of reasons. No news there.

However, when Dr. Gundry expounds on the many vegetables that contain lectins, I am concerned that the information may prompt some people to avoid consuming certain healthy foods. It is true that certain lectins in foods (tomatoes, for example) can be inflammatory for people with arthritis or other immune disorders. However, I have found that this leads people to believe they must eliminate this food from their diet, which is rarely necessary. Most people, even those with arthritis, can tolerate some level of lectins in tomatoes.

Now, a temporary avoidance for a week or two, to reset things and establish individual tolerance, makes perfect sense on a case by case basis. Also, the cooking process destroys many of the potentially dangerous aspects of lectins, so that negates a lot of what is being touted as truth in this book.

 My Approach to Dealing with Lectins

Generally speaking, I promote a diet that is 80 percent paleo (healthy whole foods), avoiding grains, along with consuming 20 percent of whatever you want as long as you feel well. I also recommend that the bulk of your nutrients come from green leafy vegetables. I think Dr. Gundry and I would agree on that!

If a person is not feeling well, I like to start dietary interventions as specific to that person as possible. First, I have my patient keep a diet journal for one to two weeks, so I can see that person’s habits and identify the one or two habits that are likely to be the main sources of dietary stress and inflammation. If problems persist, then we can dig deeper.

With this approach, my patients avoid having to eliminate too many foods from their diets and can stick with the changes that matter most. This supports long-term success, as opposed to a 30-day trial of something very few are willing to do or need to stick to in order to restore their health and vitality.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®, nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.

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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Florida. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his Diplomate status in Clinical Nutrition from the American Clinical Board of Nutrition, his CFMP® from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), he has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these and other illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa.

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