Lectins are proteins that bind to specific carbohydrate structures and ubiquitous in our food supply. Lectins are found in many animals, plants and microorganisms. Though the exact role of lectins is unclear and frequently contested, it is well-recognised that plant lectins serve as a defence mechanism from animals (that includes us humans!), such that many lectin-rich plants (e.g., castor beans) are toxic to most organisms.
So, if a concentrated plant lectin load results in immediate toxicity, can exposure to a moderate plant lectin load over a long period of time (i.e., a plant-based or plant-rich diet) be just as harmful? This is where the detective hat goes on.
Many health professionals argue that unmanaged lectin sensitivities have given rise to modern day disease conditions such as “leaky gut” (negative exposure of inflammatory agents to the immune system), poor nutrient absorption, autoimmunity, gut bacterial overgrowth, insulin resistance and obesity.
Luckily, many dietitians are utilising experimental strategies such as ‘elimination diets’ to help people recognise the unique food sets and ingredients they may be sensitive to. Unfortunately, much of today’s population are struggling with cruel and debilitating symptoms and have been for many decades. This common state of ‘poor health’ has simply become the new-normal. To unlock your potential, why not give the powerful tool that is nutrition a go and make some long-lasting changes to heal your system.
However, dramatically altering your diet and cutting out entire food groups may be an effective strategy for some people, though it is NOT necessarily something you should do on your own. The reason we have “Healthy Food Groups” (i.e., the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating) is to help the general (i.e., ‘healthy’) population in following a dietary pattern that exposes them to sufficient amounts of the essential vitamins and minerals we need everyday to maintain good health. If you choose to avoid or minimise one food group, it does NOT magically mean that you will become deficient in a particular vitamin/mineral. The avoidance of one (or more) food group just means that you will have to find that nutrient elsewhere - and for many people, this is an extremely difficult task that may require a fair amount of effort. For example, dairy is touted as an important source of the mineral, calcium. However, dairy is not the ONLY source of calcium and there is an abundance of non-dairy foods that you can choose to hit your recommended daily intake of calcium, including but not limited to; fish with bones, sesame seeds, almonds, bone broth, and leafy green vegetables.
So, will reducing your lectin-load cause your diet to become deficient in essential vitamins and/or minerals? No, but it DOES mean you will need to work a heck of a lot harder to ensure you are choosing the right fuel for your body to optimise your health! This is why getting a little professional help can come in handy.
The following image from Dr. Jockers is a fantastic one-page resource that may help you identify where you might find lectins in your diet. Don’t forget that lectins are just ONE source of food sensitivity and there are many different carbohydrates, proteins and chemicals in foods that our bodies may uniquely react to. This resource is simply an educational GUIDE that could serve an important purpose in helping you investigate your own health.
Animal proteins including beef, lamb, pork, turkey, chicken, fish and organ meats can be consumed as desired. It is important to source grass-fed and free-range (‘wild-caught’ for fish) animal products in order to avoid harmful toxins and benefit from optimal nutritional and fatty-acid profiles.
Many carbohydrates, including grains, cereals and legumes, should be avoided as they are a major source of lectins and cause problems for many people. As much of our food supply is derived from grains and/or cereals, it becomes a some-what difficult regimen to follow. However, it is important to recognise that a low-lectin diet is not a permanent diet and should be used in the same way an elimination or low-FODMAP diet is used - periodically. It is also paramount that anyone choosing to follow a low-lectin diet be well-equipped with high quality proteins, fats and fresh, organic vegetables. This regimen is simply a backward turn to unprocessed, real food.
Foods such as fruit, dairy and nuts tend to be avoided in the first phase(s) of a low-lectin or lectin-avoidance diet. However, small amounts (e.g., 1 tbs cream) might be well-tolerated for certain individuals - particularly if it improves adherence. Generally, reducing your ‘lectin load’ can improve your symptoms dramatically such that some lectin-containing foods can remain in your diet. In any circumstance, be sure to monitor your portion sizes and keep a food and symptom diary so you can be your own health detective!
So what does THREE days of following a low-lectin diet look like? The following diet is an example of one person’s low-lectin eating regimen; it is not a general recommended dietary plan.
Some people may need to avoid lectin-rich foods for a long period of time before their symptoms have settled, while others may feel better within days. It is recommended that before embarking on ANY type of elimination diet, that you consult a specialist dietitian who can help you formulate a nutrient-dense meal plan and provide you with strategies that are specific to YOUR symptoms, nutritional requirements and eating habits. At the end of the day, every person has a unique set of signs and symptoms that demand personalised management plans.