Although one of them, gluten, has already gone viral, most lectins are unknown. Nevertheless, they exist in rough quantities and variations in foods.
However, since the heart surgeon Steven Gundry landed a bestseller with The Plant Paradox, the interest in lectins has been growing.
As many recent studies will show us in this article, these plant toxins do impact health.
What Are Lectins in Food?
Lectins are large proteins that plants use as toxins to defend themselves against predators.
While animals have teeth and claws to protect themselves against predators, plants are not handling such weapons.
Moreover, they are usually rooted so that they cannot run away.
Therefore, plants have evolved to produce chemical compounds called lectins to ward off insects, microorganisms, and other predators (Dolan et al. 20101).
Somewhere the natural resistance to parasites must come from, right?
Accordingly, the concentration of these plant toxins is often exceptionally high in new pest-resistant crops (Macedo et al. 20152).
Since they bind to carbohydrates in the body of predators, lectins are also known as “sticky proteins.”
Accordingly, lectins adhere to sialic acid in the nerve endings of the intestine and brain, which inhibits communication and causes brain disorders.
These sugar molecules also exist in body fluids and blood vessel linings. Therefore, lectins can cause inflammation and toxic reactions (Freed 19993).
Although people do not digest lectins, the sticky proteins can often sneak into the bloodstream via the gut.
Lectins also facilitate the attachment and binding of viruses and bacteria and help them to reach their targets.
Therefore, some people who are more sensitive to lectins are more susceptible to viruses and bacterial infections than others.
Moreover, lectins, for example, in potatoes, promote the release of histamine, which can lead to excessive production of stomach acid (Pramod et al. 20074).
What Foods Are High in Lectins?
It is the seeds, grains, leaves, barks, and shells where lectins are hiding.
You may have heard that people used to place tomatoes in front of the pantry to keep insects away.
And with good reason. Tomatoes are among the foods highest in lectins. Hence, the concentration of lectins in the skin and seeds is exceptionally high. For example, these lectins can paralyze smaller insects.
When an animal eats a plant, lectins contained in the seeds help to keep the seeds intact as they pass through the digestive tract of the predator. After the animal has excreted the seed, it ensures the survival of the plant’s species.
However, lectins also bind to carbohydrates, especially to complex sugars (polysaccharides), in the body of the predator after it has eaten the plant.
Accordingly, lectins target sugar molecules and attach themselves to them on the surface of the cells of other organisms, such as fungi, insects, and other animals.
Nevertheless, humans are predators to many plants as well.
Since we are significantly larger than insects, the effects of lectins are usually not immediately noticeable. But they appear over more extended periods.
Are High Lectin Foods Bad for You?
As we will examine in more detail foods high in lectins can unfold quite health-endangering effects according to current studies.
With this in mind, a lectin-free diet is associated with the improvement of the following health conditions (Gundry et al. 20175):
- Age spots, skin markings
- Autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease)
- Bone loss (including osteopenia and osteoporosis)
- Brain Fog
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Chronic pain syndrome
- Colon polyps
- Cramps, tingling, and numbness
- Cranial Nebula
- Diabetes, prediabetes, insulin resistance
- Fat in the stool (due to poor digestion)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Gut problems (bloating, pain, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea)
- Heart disease, coronary heart disease, vascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Infertility, irregular menstrual cycle, miscarriage
- Irritability and behavioral changes
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Joint pain
- Little testosterone
- Low levels of immunoglobulin G, immunoglobulin M, and immunoglobulin A
- Low white blood cell count
- Lymphomas, leukemias, multiple myeloma
- Male pattern baldness
- Memory loss
- Nutritional deficits due to malabsorption
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Reduction in dental health
- Reflux or heartburn
- Ringing in the ears
- Skin rashes
- The slow growth of infants or children
- Weight gain or loss
How Do Lectins Affect Gut Health?
The understanding of lectins fills some dark spots in conventional medicine that were unexplained for a long time. And like so many diseases, the harmful effects of lectins begin in the second brain – the intestine.
Leaky Gut Syndrome means that the barrier separating the outside world – the contents of your gastrointestinal tract – from your body leaks.
As a result, there is a loophole in the gut mucosal lining through which bacteria and toxins can enter the bloodstream from the gut and cause inflammation and diseases.
If you want to keep Leaky Gut Syndrome in check, it is crucial to eliminate the cause of the holes in the unicellular intestinal wall: Foods high in lectins.
According to studies, it is precisely lectins in grain that can cause injuries to the intestinal wall.
Above all, it is gluten that can cause a “leaky gut,” because it makes up an incredible 80% of the proteins in wheat.
And this concentrated load of foods high in lectins, such as wheat, can cause considerable damage to the intestinal wall (Haupt-Jorgensen et al. 20186).
What makes gluten so dangerous is that it can trigger a process in the cells of the intestinal wall that destroys the proteins holding it together (Sturgeon et al. 20167).
Hence, they create a gap in the intestinal wall. Besides gluten, it is mainly wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) that damages the intestinal wall.
Because it is not a large protein like other lectins, but a tiny one, it passes through loopholes in the intestinal wall more easily.
Therefore, bacteria and viruses, such as influenza, can overcome the barrier of the gut mucosal lining with the help of lectins (Dalla Pellegrina et al. 20098).
Thus, lectins contained in grains make it possible for a wide variety of harmful substances and pathogens to trigger a multitude of diseases.
Besides diseases, foods high in lectins can trigger weight gain. Again, it is wheat and wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) that causes additional pounds on your scale.
For this reason, wheat has helped humanity to hibernate successfully over and over again. Due to WGA, whole grain bread is extraordinary fattening.
Because, unlike gluten, WGA is a lectin primarily contained in the bran. For this reason, white bread contains gluten, but no wheat germ agglutinin.
Accordingly, it is the supposedly healthy wholemeal bread that is among the foods highest in lectins.
Since WGA can bind to insulin and leptin receptors, it promotes weight gain. Therefore, it promotes the effectiveness of the storage hormone insulin and helps store body fat more efficiently (Shechter 19839).
On the one hand, WGA increases insulin resistance, leading to even more weight gain (Kamikubo et al. 200810).
On the other hand, insulin resistance is a condition that sooner or later leads to type 2 diabetes and other modern diseases.
As if this vicious circle of weight gain was not enough, some physicians suggest that WGA also prevents glucose from entering the muscles.
As a result, the body stores glucose as body fat instead of burning it in the muscles. On top of that, wheat germ agglutinin is also a significant cause of inflammation in the body.
Not only does it penetrate the intestinal wall more quickly, but WGA can also bring free radicals to the gut mucosal lining, which can damage this thin wall.
Besides WGA, peanut agglutinin (PNA), jacalin in jackfruit, and other lectins in legumes can cause kidney inflammation. Thus, these lectins promote nephritis (Engel et al. 199711).
Since they trigger an immune response, lectins have also been linked to autoimmune inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes.
According to recent studies, lectins can induce the formation of antibodies against healthy cells. Thus, lectins can cause autoimmune diseases (Saeki et al. 201412).
Since immune cells confuse proteins on healthy cells with lectins, these antibody attacks are called molecular mimicry.
Since they are pretty new to our nutritional cycle, some assume that lectins contained in foods from the New World, such as tomatoes, are more likely to cause this confusion.
Accordingly, lectins are associated with the following autoimmune diseases:
- Crohn’s disease
- Hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’ disease)
- Microscopic colitis
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Raynaud’s syndrome
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Sjögren’s syndrome (dry eyes and dry mouth)
- Systemic sclerosis
- Ulcerative colitis
The surgeon and bestselling author Steven Gundry goes even further and claims that lectins promote all autoimmune diseases. Therefore, he thinks autoimmune diseases can be treated with a lectin-free diet in general.
According to Gundry, it is also drugs and especially antibiotics that can change your gut microbiome and intestinal mucosal lining in the long run.
They weaken the barrier of the intestinal wall daily, allowing lectins to penetrate (Gundry et al. 201713).
With this in mind, the current state of science suggests three factors to be causal for the development of autoimmune diseases (Ferroli et al. 201214):
- Genetic preconditions
- Leaky Gut
Therefore, not everyone can get an autoimmune disease from lectins, but everyone with a genetic precondition will.
Nevertheless, it is interesting that lectins cause two of the three factors.
Hence, the reverse conclusion is that a lectin-free diet can improve or even cure autoimmune diseases.
Lectins can cross the blood-brain barrier and migrate from the gut to the brain.
How does this work?
Scientists have discovered that lectins can climb the vagus nerve from the gut to the brain and accumulate in the brain’s control center.
The vagus is the longest of our cranial nerves and represents a direct connection from the gut to the brain. Hence, the gut is called the second brain for a reason.
And this damage to the substantia nigra, the switching point in the midbrain, causes Parkinson’s disease (Zheng et al. 201615).
Accordingly, patients who had their vagus nerve cut had 40 percent less Parkinson’s disease since lectins could not reach the brain directly (Svensson et al. 201516).
For this reason, Parkinson’s disease also occurs more frequently among vegetarians, since they eat more plants and thus more foods high in lectins.
How to Reduce or Remove Lectins
Since the food industry jumped onto the vegan hype train, the consumption of foods high in lectins has increased enormously.
Because straight vegetarians and Vegane often build their diets on legumes and nightshades due to limited alternatives and lack of protein sources.
So is there a way you can reduce lectins in your diet?
Yes, there are methods to reduce them effectively. However, it’s not easy to destroy lectins.
But watch out: Some methods circulate on the net that promise to neutralize lectins, although they cannot.
Removing Lectins From Tomatoes
Like other nightshade plants – eggplants, potatoes, peppers, or goji berries –- tomatoes come from the New World.
Therefore, as late as 400 years ago, after Columbus discovered America, they could enter our food chain and our guts for the first time.
Moreover, Europeans did not want to eat tomatoes for more than 200 years – and rightly so, as they contain countless lectins. It was not until the end of the 19th century that dishes such as tomato sauce and pizza were adapted and made popular in Italy.
However, even today, real Italians still peel and seed tomatoes when preparing tomato sauce. Since peels and seeds contain the most lectins, this is still an effective way to reduce lectins.
And this is how to remove lectins from tomatoes:
- Add tomatoes to boiling water
- Peel them
- Cut the fruits in halves
- Squeeze out the seeds
This peeling and coring of tomatoes reduce lectins. However, this does not mean that the tomatoes are entirely free of lectins.
A pressure cooker neutralizes lectins in beans, which are an essential vegan source of protein.
In this sense, the pressure cooker can help to destroy lectins in the following crops:
However, the pressure cooker cannot destroy lectins in wheat, rye, barley, and oats. And yes, that is foods high in lectins containing gluten.
However, steam cooking under pressure neutralizes lectins in other grains and pseudo-grains, such as quinoa (Gundry et al. 201719).
Numerous cultures worldwide use the fermentation of food as part of their traditional diet.
For example, the Japanese have fermented soy products such as miso, tempeh, and natto. Eastern Europeans also have sauerkraut or kvass, a fermented drink made from beet.
Indians make dosas by fermenting lentils and rice dough, and lassis with fermented milk. Similarly, Incas use bacteria to reduce lectins in quinoa.
For this reason, Tabasco and other spicy sauces are fermented, and chilies are traditionally pickled without skin and seeds.
There is also strong evidence that fermentation reduces lectins. For example, fermentation in sourdough neutralizes gluten (Rizzello et al. 200720).
Accordingly, fermentation in lentils also neutralizes almost all lectins (Nkhata et al. 201821).
During fermentation, beneficial bacteria metabolize many indigestible compounds, including lectins. However, not all lectins are entirely destroyed by fermentation, and some particularly stubborn lectins in beans are retained no matter how long the treatment takes.
So how are foods fermented to neutralize lectins?
Since there are countless fermentation methods for food, I will not explain them explicitly.
Nevertheless, many fermentation methods use the addition of bacteria or so-called “starter cultures” leftover from a previous batch of fermentation to start the process.
For example, a vinegar mother represents such a starter culture.
Soaking and Sprouting Does Not Work
When it comes to neutralizing lectins, some myths circulate on the Internet about methods that do not work:
- Soaking grains neither destroy gluten nor WGA
- Sprouting legumes cannot reduce lectins
Instead, sprouting even seems to increase the lectin content. Furthermore, feeding animals with sprouted beans and grains show that this method can even cause cancer (Buchmann et al. 200722).
Foods High in Lectins
More important than having all lectin-free foods in your head is to know which ones are highest in lectins and can harm your health.
In the case of vegetables, it is particularly important to avoid legumes that contain large quantities of lectins. Some supposed vegetables are not included on this list, as they are actually fruits:
- All beans, including sprouts
- Green beans
- Pea Protein
- Soy Protein
- Structured vegetable protein
- Sugar Peas
Fruits High in Lectins
Among fruits, especially the families of nightshades, cucurbits (both fruits, not vegetables) and melons are highest in lectins:
- Goji Berries
- Melons (all types)
- Pumpkins (all types)
Processed Foods High in Lectins
Lectins are not exclusive to whole foods. On the contrary, it is precisely industrial processing that makes lectins – usually in the form of refined carbohydrates – even more concentrated and thus harmful:
- Potato Chips
- Agave syrup
- Acesulfame K
- Energy drinks
- Diet soda
- Zero Beverages
Grains and Pseudo-Grains High in Lectins
As we have already pointed out, it is precisely grains that contain various sorts of lectins.
Furthermore, you will find pseudo-grains, such as quinoa, among these foods highest in lectins:
- Barley Grass
- Brown rice
- Corn products
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Wheat Grass
- White basmati rice
- White rice
- Wild rice
Nuts and Seeds High in Lectins
Besides seeds, it’s – strictly speaking – legumes such as peanuts and cashews that are exceptionally high in lectins:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Chia seeds
Oils High in Lectins
The following oils contain not only lectins but also omega-6 fatty acids that promote inflammation:
- Partially hydrogenated
Dairy High in Lectins (Casein-A1)
Northern European cows give milk that contains the milk protein casein A-1 instead of casein A-2. And this casein A-1 is converted into a lectin-like protein called beta-casomorphine during digestion.
Beta-casomorphine is considered one of the primary causes of type 1 diabetes. It attaches itself to the insulin-secreting beta cells in the pancreas, where the immune system attacks it.
Unfortunately, Northern European cows are mainly used for milk production, as they give more milk and are therefore more profitable than Southern European cows. You can find this milk in dairy products such as:
- Cottage cheese
- Ice cream
- Yogurt (incl. Greek)
- Yogurt ice cream
Lectin-Free Food List
For example, it makes absolutely no sense to eat fructose bombs like dates if you want to improve your overall health, lose weight, and prevent insulin resistance and diabetes.
Besides leafy greens, most sorts of cabbages are native to Europe and low in lectins:
- Algae (Nori)
- Brussels sprouts
- Chinese cabbage
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Mustard leaves
- Pak Choi
- Perilla (Shiso)
- Salad tips
- Seaweed (Kelp)
- Swiss chard
- White and red cabbage
Although most fruits are fundamentally bad for health, that is not true for avocados, which shine with healthy fats and nutrients. Additionally, berries and citrus fruits are tolerable in moderation:
- Citrus fruits (no juices)
- Lemon juice
Lectin-Free Nuts and Seeds
Besides the lectin bombs already discussed, there is also a variety of foods among nuts that do not contain lectins:
- Brazil nuts
- Coconut (not water)
- Coconut milk
- Flax seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Macadamia nuts
- Pine nuts
Among lectin-free oils, coconut oil should be the first choice for frying, as it has the highest proportion of stable saturated fatty acids:
- Cod Liver
- Extra Virgin Flaxseed (cold-pressed)
- Extra Virgin Olive
- Hemp seed
- Red Palm
- Shiso (Perilla)
- Virgin Coconut
On the lectin-free foods list, the following fish is ideal, if not farmed:
- Mackerel (North Atlantic)
- Sea Wolf
If the animals were not excessively fed with grains, corn, or soy and treated with antibiotics, the following options represent foods low in lectins:
- Wild boar
- Grass-fed beef
In contrast to Northern European cows, goats, sheep, buffalo, and Southern European cows still produce casein A-2 milk, which is contained in the following lectin-free foods:
- From France/Italy/Switzerland
- Buffalo (Italy)
- Casein A2
- Heavy cream cheese
- Coconut yogurt (no dairy product)
- Sour cream
- Grass-fed butter
- Goat and sheep
Lectin-Free Resistant Starch
Whether resistant starch is the most efficient choice for losing weight is arguable. Nevertheless, the following foods are free of lectin:
- Baobab fruit
- Green bananas
- Green papaya/mango
- Konjac Tuber
- Palm lily blossoms
- Sorghum Millet
- Sweet potatoes
- Taro root
- Yam bean
Not only in the low-carb and keto cuisine but also generally, the following lectin-free foods enjoy great popularity as flour substitutes:
- Almond flour
- Arrowroot flour
- Chestnut flour
- Coconut flour
- Flax flour
- Flour from green bananas
- Hazelnut flour
- Manioc flour
- Sesame flour
- Sweet potato flour
- Tigernut flour
Lectin-free Spices and Dressings
Besides these lectin-free spices, you can also enjoy Tabasco sauces in moderation:
- Vinegar (without added sugar)
- Herbs and spices (not chili)
- Sea salts (pink Himalayan, Celtic, Redmond)
As with losing weight in general, no juices are allowed in a lectin-free diet – no matter how often they are marketed as organic or natural:
- Mineral Water
- Lemon water
- Herbal Tea
- Green Tea
- Black tea
- Red wine (one glass a day)
Foods High in Lectins Are Not Vital Anymore
In summary, lectins were able to ensure the survival of humanity in ancient times.
When food was scarce, the lectins in grains and beans could provide body fat to survive rough winters.
However, today, in times of abundance, the same effect works against us.
Since the supermarket does not close from November to March, the fattening effect of foods high in lectins is redundant.
Especially since they promote a variety of diseases, it makes sense to avoid foods high in lectins.
Besides harming gut health, lectins can cause autoimmune, Parkinson’s, or mental diseases, such as depression and anxiety.
Although they are not the only factor in developing diseases, a lectin-free diet can be decisive for curing them.
Foods High in Lectins FAQ
What foods are the highest in lectins?
Nightshades (e.g., potatoes, tomatoes 🍅), cucurbits 🎃, legumes, grains, and processed foods are highest in lectins.
What foods contain lectins to avoid?
Nightshades (potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes 🍅, …), beans and lentils, peanuts 🥜, all sorts of grains and bakery 🥨 contain lectins to avoid.
Are eggs high in lectin?
🥚 Eggs aren’t high in lectins – especially not if they are pasture-raised.
Are lectins bad for your gut?
Lectins can damage the gut mucosal lining causing a leaky gut. Furthermore, they can bring bacteria and viruses into your body when overcoming this intestinal barrier. As a result, lectins can cause inflammation, autoimmune and other diseases.
Studies and Books
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Stephan is a writer and a true man of science, holding multiple diplomas and master's degrees in different research areas. His greatest passion is closing the gap between the conventional perception of health and the latest scientific evidence – always following the data.