What’s the Deal with Lectin-Free Diets?

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The health and fitness world is constantly awash with an ever-changing and growing collection of buzzwords and fads. Occasionally, there’s actually something to these movements and shifts in fitness philosophy. More often than not, however, the rise of these concepts tends to confuse and frustrate the already complex field with oversimplifications and outright misinterpretations of hard science.

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For a long time, fats were the target of such a movement. And then it was carbs. Most recently, gluten has become the hot topic. Over the past several years, though, something called lectin has gained the attention of health-conscious individuals, with many working to cut it out of their diets altogether.

But, what is lectin? What is it doing in your diet and in your body? Should you cut it out of your meals completely?

What Is Lectin?

First, it’s important to be clear that lectin should be talked about in the plural sense. While the singular is often used, the truth is that “lectin” refers to a class of proteins that bond with carbohydrates and are found in about 30 percent of plant-based foods. Specifically, various forms of lectins are packed into whole grains, legumes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes and many fruits. Even eggs and dairy products contain some lectins.

Although each of these different lectins do slightly different things, the basic role of the proteins is to bind cells together. More on the implications on this mechanism later, though.

For now, it’s important to understand that this huge variety in lectins presents a pretty significant problem for researchers. Testing the function and effect of just one lectin found in one food will not produce a complete picture of what’s really going on. And this theme will come up several times in any discussion on the health effects of these proteins.

The Good and The Bad

Again, the variety of lectins out there makes it difficult to pin down exactly what they do. Also, human studies are severely lacking. Still, there is some research to suggest that certain types of lectins could have both anti-microbial and anti-cancer potential.

Most of the press surrounding lectins, however, has nothing to do with their potential benefits. Instead, you’re much more likely to encounter claims that these common proteins could cause a host of problems ranging from digestive problems to inflammation and immune system dysfunction.

What The Science Says

Does research, though, support these accusations against lectins? Well… sort of.

Animal studies have found that lectins do tend to resist digestion and just kind of hang out in the gut. Once there, the proteins can bind with the cells of the intestines, causing cell disruption and inflammation. As mentioned, though, these studies were conducted with animal rather than human models. The few studies that have been conducted using human cells, however, suffered from some… methodological problems.

For the most part, these studies were carried out in test tubes rather than a full and complete human body. Further, the researchers usually just use one lectin in isolation which rarely ever happens in a natural environment. When you eat a lectin-laden food, there are lots of different lectins entering your system all at once in varying levels plus all of the other compound in that food. The interplay of these different chemicals likely has a powerful influence on how the lectins will impact your body.

The research, then, is incomplete. Claims that lectin can have some many negative health effects, therefore, don’t really have any solid science to back them up.

Susceptibility and Considerations

This does not mean, however, that concerns about lectins are completely without merit. Some people most definitely do experience digestive discomfort when they eat these foods. This genetic lectin-sensitivity seems to be fairly rare, though, and the severity of the symptoms vary widely from person to person.

Digestive conditions like Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome also seem like make some individuals more sensitive to lectins.

Again, however, it’s important to point out that most sensitive people only experience reactions when they eat specific lectins but tolerate others without any noteworthy consequences. Then there’s the fact – noted earlier – regarding the complex chemical make-up of most foods. While you may react poorly to a specific lectin found in, say, beans you might have no problem with the way it shows up in a tomato.

The Takeaway

So, then, what are you supposed to do with all of this information? How should you handle lectins?

If you find that certain lectin-containing foods tends to cause unpleasant side effects, avoid those specific foods. If you’re considering a lectin-free diet, though, take a look at that list of foods again. Lectins are found virtually everywhere in various forms. A complete lectin-elimination diet, therefore, is not only unnecessarily restrictive but it also cuts out some pretty healthful, nutrient-dense foods.

It’s also important to understand that the lectins in most foods are actually in fairly small quantities, making it unlikely that you’re going to experience any real effectives. Plus, cooking most foods tends to neutralize these proteins, further lessening their potency.

Ultimately, this is where science stands on lectins: More research is needed. In the meantime, if you find that you’re sensitive to certain lectins as they appear in certain foods, by all means limit how often you eat that food. But don’t worry unnecessarily about completely cutting this common, potentially helpful and largely misunderstood class of proteins from your diet.

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