How Lectins in Food Affect Leaky Gut and Autoimmunity - Nikki Yelton RD

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How Lectins in Food Affect Leaky Gut and Autoimmunity

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Are lectins inherently bad? The answer might just surprise you. Here’s what you need to know about lectins in food and how it affects leaky gut and autoimmunity.

Bowls of lectins such as beans, nuts, and oats

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Lectins have recently earned a poor reputation for themselves, but are lectins inherently bad? The answer might just surprise you. Here’s what you need to know about the latest lectin-free diet, how lectins in food might be impacting your health, and the lectin and leaky gut connection!

WHAT ARE LECTINS?

According to Harvard, lectins are defined as “proteins that bind to carbohydrates, or sugars.” As many as 30% of foods in the U.S. contain high amounts of lectin. While lectins might not be inherently dangerous for human consumption, they act as “antinutrients,” which can pose a problem for digestion and nutrient absorption.

Antinutrients that affect autoimmunity

Historically, anti-nutrients were found in plants that had no natural method of defense. As a result, these plants started producing lectins, in the name of self-preservation. These antinutrients naturally helped protect the plant from predators by acting as a toxin. Basically, they developed as a defense mechanism to prevent animals from eating the plant in its raw form. Today, the same antinutrients are found in many common foods. To this day, the problem remains that anti-nutrients block the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the food, even if the food is quite nutrient-dense. Often, this can lead to digestive issues, leaky gut, and discomfort.

Common foods that are extremely high in lectin, include:

  • Wheat and gluten
  • Red kidney beans
  • Soybeans 
  • Tomatoes
  • Peanuts
  • Potatoes
  • Squash
  • Eggplant
  • Peas

If your current diet includes plenty of lectins, don’t worry just yet. In many cases, there are ways to safely include these foods in a healthy diet.

HOW LECTINS IN FOOD AFFECT LEAKY GUT & AUTOIMMUNITY

Fundamentally, antinutrients are very difficult for humans to digest. As a result, antinutrients, like lectin, can easily prevent nutrient absorption. Not only does this lead to nutrient deficiencies, but also imbalances in the gut microbiome and leaky gut.

The effects of lectins on a leaky gut

Given their hard-to-digest nature, lectins can be detrimental to those with autoimmunity or leaky gut. Often, they can cause bloating and gas, upset stomach, nausea, acid reflux, diarrhea, and more. In autoimmunity, when inflammation is already high and the gut microbiome is imbalanced, lectins can be a recipe for disaster. 

Lectins in food are so hard to digest because they resist breaking down in the gut. They are resistant to digestive enzymes and are stable in acidic environments. This means they pass through the intestines and stomach unchanged, as stomach acid is ineffective in breaking them down. 

Due to their resistance to break down, lectins prevent nutrient absorption in the GI tract (hence the term ‘anti-nutrient’). They interfere particularly with the absorption of minerals calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. 

Not only are lectins hard to digest, but they also affect the growth of gut flora. When they reach the colon, lectins can actually bind to cells lining the digestive tract, affecting the growth and action of bacteria.  This allows the lectins to communicate with the cells, triggering an inflammatory response. The lectin proteins bind to cells for a long time,which causes irritation along the gut wall. This can lead to leaky gut and trigger an autoimmune flare. 

SHOULD YOU ALWAYS AVOID LECTINS IN FOOD? 

Lectins come in various shapes and sizes, and believe it or not, they aren’t all inherently bad. As with most foods, diets, and lifestyle choices, choosing to eat lectins or not, is a highly bioindividual decision. There is no one-fits-all-approach to lectins. 

There is strong evidence backing up the benefits of plant foods and foods high in lectin do have health benefits nutrient wise as well. If you don’t have underlying gut or autoimmune issues, avoiding lectins is unnecessary. The benefits outweigh the downfalls! 

However, it is important to be self-aware. How do you feel after eating lectins? Do you notice any immediate discomfort? In the days to follow, pay attention to unusual feelings of tiredness, headaches, brain fog, nausea, etc, as these might be indicators of lectin sensitivity.

That said, for those actively healing a gut or autoimmune condition, it’s best to avoid lectins all together. Lectins and leaky gut are not friends. If you have digestive sensitivity, you’re more likely to react to lectins in foods. In this case, the downfalls outweigh the benefits.  While eliminating lectins from the diet isn’t always a permanent decision, it is the best short-term option for those on a healing journey. Once the gut heals and autoimmunity is reversed, it is possible to safely reintroduce some lectins, in moderation! 

Lectins in food to avoid
HOW TO REDUCE LECTINS IN YOUR DIET

It’s important to note that lectins are most potent in their raw state. Lectins are water soluble and found on the surface of the plant.  This is why if you do decide to indulge in lectins, always cook them thoroughly before eating. To reduce lectin content, it’s best to cook with wet high heat cooking methods, such as:

  • Stewing
  • Boiling
  • Soaking in water for several hours

Most lectins are easiest to digest after being soaked in liquid. To soak lectins like beans or nuts properly, simply let them soak in filtered water overnight (or for at least 8 hours) before draining, rinsing, and cooking well.

Foods high in lectin and how to reduce them in your diet

A great example of the power of lectin potency is in red kidney beans.

When raw or undercooked, red kidney beans contain a lectin phytohaemagglutinin. This is a type of lectin that is considered toxic when uncooked. It can cause red blood cells to clump together and trigger severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, and gas.

However, properly cooked kidney beans are safe to eat! For comparison, raw red kidney beans contain 20,000–70,000 units of lectin, whereas cooked ones have only 200–400 units. That’s a HUGE difference! 

THE BOTTOM LINE

Many delicious and nutritious foods contain lectins. Whether or not you should avoid them or include them in your diet all depends on your unique chemistry and where you are at in your gut and autoimmune journey. The key is evaluating whether the benefits outweigh the downfalls. Remember, if you are on a gut healing and autoimmune journey, it’s best to avoid. Lectins and leaky gut are not a good match! If your gut microbiome is in good shape and you don’t struggle with autoimmune symptoms, you may tolerate lectins well, especially when cooked properly. 

If you decide to completely eliminate lectins from your diet, know there are plenty of nutritious foods to enjoy. A few of my favorite replacements for lectins include:

  • Carrots 
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Avocado
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Plantain chips
  • Cassava flour or tortillas

For additional guidance on implementing a lectin-free diet, check out my Monthly Meal Plan Subscription. You can customize it to eliminate high-lectin foods or provide only AIP-friendly recipes. Learn more about the  Monthly Meal Plan Subscription, here!

How lectins in food affect leaky gut and autoimmunity
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  1. BredahKendi says:

    Worth reading..very informative 👏🏼

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-Nikki Yelton, RD

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