FOOD MYTHS: Lectins are Silent Killers?

You probably didn’t know that the lectin in raw kidney beans have killed more people than Hannibal Lectin….er, Lector.   Yeah, it turns out that lectin doesn’t play nicely with the human body.   In fact, it’s quite poisonous.   The inconvenient thing about lectin is that is in the majority of foods that we eat.   Yikes!  So, should we avoid any foods with lectin?  That’s what some in the medical and nutritional world are advocating, including Dr. Steven Gundry.

What are Lectins?

But before we dive deep into the details,  it might be useful to know that lectins are a type of vegetable protein found in many, many foods.  Specifically, lectins are proteins that bind to carbohydrates or glycoproteins; which are proteins that allow cells to bind and interact with one another.  Lectins have been linked to intestinal diseases, as well and internal inflammation.  Gundry, a former heart-surgeon,  views lectin as the “#1 biggest danger in the American diet”.  HOWEVER, there are two problems with his hypothesis, as presented in his book “The Plant Paradox”:

  1.  Lectins have also been found to have healthful benefits for the human body, namely helping identify and fighting cancer cells.
  2.  Lots of foods have poisons in them….which is why we cook so many of our foods.

For example, cashew nuts have urushiol, which is neutralized by steaming or roasting (BTW, ‘raw’ cashews actually have been steamed, they aren’t actually raw).  The oleuropein in raw olives render them inedible, which is why olives are brined.  Raw castor beans have so much lectin in them that it is used to create ricin (the very dangerous poison).  Most all meats must be cooked, especially pork and chicken.  The majority of naturally occurring mushrooms will seriously sicken you.  It’s the same with cassava root, potatoes (lots of solanine), peanuts (aspergillus mold), and a host of other commonly consumed foods.   So just because a plant has lectin doesn’t make it dangerous, unless it isn’t cooked.

Dr. Gundry, and some other bloggers, maintain that even cooked lectin poses a danger that, over time, will harm the human body in subtle but notable ways.  They have espoused a “lectin-free” diet that will cure digestive issues, obesity, depression, headaches, aching joints and just about any other illness out there….including heart disease.   In fact, Gundry’s efforts to cure heart disease through diet (rather than surgery) is what led him to discover the lamentable lectins that pollute our daily diets.

Gundry’s Recommended Diet

That discovery has led Gundry to write books, post a website and give lectures warning Americans away from lectin-rich foods.   And to some extent, Gundry is on to something, as he encourages people to avoid dairy products (derived from cow’s milk), wheat, sweets, processed foods and empty carbs like pasta, baked goods and cereals.   As a general rule, his diet cuts out a lot of excess calories and, thus, will promote wellness.   However, his loathing of lectins has also led him to urge his patients to avoid many foods that would, on their face, seem healthful:

  • Beans and legumes
  • All soy products
  • Fruits
  • Seeds and some nuts
  • Grain-fed animal proteins
  • All nightshade plants (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant)
  • All squashes

Wow!   His complete list of good and bad foods is contained in a free list posted at his website.  And it’s pretty controversial.  Consider the fact that beans are one of the primary elements of the Mediterranean Diet and that of the “Blue Zone” longevity locations in the world.  Similarly, soy is a staple of the Asian diet.   And most any squirrel can attest to the healthfulness of seeds and nuts.  So what gives?

Even more controversial is that Dr. Gundry operates a website that aggressively push high-priced supplements that he claims will help protect you from lectins.  His Lectin Shield product is a proprietary blend of obscure ingredients that he hawks for $79 per bottle.  A bottle of 120 capsules will last you about a month.   So, in effect, for about $1000 a year, you can be protected from lectins that sneak into your diet.   That’s pretty steep.  And the sell is hard-core, replete with an 30-minute infomercial and aggressive marketing pitches.

Is Gundry a Scammer?

The answer is a closer call than it should be.   The NutritionFacts.org website certainly takes issue with Gundry’s pitch.   Dr. Michael Greger takes serious issue with Gundry’s lectin-free pitch in a short video.  And Dr. Dan Buettner also challenges Gundry’s anti-legume stance in a lengthy The Atlantic article entitled “The Next Gluten?”   We certainly have some concerns about Gundry’s heavy-handed marketing style.   However, while lectins may not be the enemy as portrayed by Gundry, his proposed diet does have some validity.   It largely mirrors the Paleo diet and does eliminate a lot of processed foods.   And unlike many Internet diet scammers, Gundry is quite transparent about his diet ideas and his research.  You don’t have to buy his book (or his supplements) to benefit from his findings.   And he backs up his claims with some of his own research, as well as others’ inquiries into lectins.   So, no, he’s not a scammer, exactly.

But it turns out his service uses hard-core marketing.   We signed up for a three-month supply of Lectin Shield and tried it out.   After two weeks of taking the pills, as recommended, we found that we felt continually bloated and uncomfortable.  When we stopped taking the pills, the discomfort disappeared.   So, we weren’t impressed.  Fortunately, we were impressed with the retailer’s willingness to honor its three-month guarantee  (although we had to pay for shipping).   So,  we tried it and didn’t like it.  That happens.  It may be beneficial to others.  It didn’t help us.

Gundry’s dietary recommendations are pretty solid and you can’t go too wrong if you rely upon his list of good and bad foods.  But remember that everyone’s body is different, so feel free to modify if it doesn’t work for you.

Perhaps the most distressing part of Gundry’s offering is the hard-core marketing.   We have been on the Gundry email marketing list for 8 months and have received almost 70 emails  (about 1 per week, and sometimes more) pushing us to buy one of their many products.   If you consider buying from Gundry, be prepared for slick and expensive promotions.   It is regrettable that the good doctor feels the need to resort to petal-to-the-metal marketing.

In short, the Gundry lectin-free diet may be beneficial to people who are lectin-sensitive or, through the consumption of lectin-rich foods, have developed a sensitivity.   Those who consume lots of grains, processed foods and sweets would also see quick health improvements if they went lectin-free.  As Gundry acknowledges, going entirely lectin-free would be an extreme and difficult endeavor.  Thus, his Lectin Shield…..but does it really have to be that expensive?  And does he have to market like an Internet scammer?

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