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THE BALANCED LIFE | Lectins simplified

Much like modern politics, distinguishing facts from conspiracy theory is a challenge
20210226 Banff Food Rescue 0550

Lectins, also known as anti-nutrients, are proteins that bind to carbohydrates. There is much discussion about whether they are harmful or beneficial to our various body systems. Comments and papers can be confusing and difficult to understand — too many options, counterclaims, and speculative conspiracy theory-generated data. Some say lectins are good for us, others that they’re bad for us, and still others say it’s all a matter of degree, limited doses of most lectins are okay.

I struggled to make sense of it all until I found this from the Harvard School of Public Health: “(Lectins) are stable in acidic environments. When consumed, lectins in their active state can cause negative side effects. The most publicized accounts report severe reactions … that cause red blood cells to clump together. Milder side effects include bloating and gas.”

Then it hit me. To understand lectins, think of them as a miniature Canadian political system inhabiting our bodies.

Provincial and federal legislatures are frequently an acidic environment, yet most elected representatives are stable within that environment, sort of. Danielle Smith could be the exception that proves the rule, a conservative free radical locked in a never-ending battle with a mutating strain of Ottawa-based antioxidant.

Politicians in their active state can cause negative side effects just like lectins, and the most publicized accounts report severe reactions. Think of Pierre Poilievre as an undercooked red kidney bean in this case study from the National Health Library. To promote “Healthy eating day,” a hospital served 31 lunches of red kidney beans. Within the next four hours one third of those eating the red kidney beans suffered profuse vomiting and diarrhea. All recovered the next day, and it was discovered that the beans contained an abnormally high concentration of the lectin phytohaemagglutinin (PHA). Those at the luncheon had no idea what PHA was, but when the red kidney bean leader said not to worry, they swallowed the beans whole.

All the red blood cells clump together whenever Justin Trudeau finds himself in difficulty — a direct response to too many election, sorry, lectin molecules being in their systems. In Ontario, a similar situation is occurring regularly. Tory blue cells are clumping together, but it’s unsure that lectins are the cause.

That our provincial and federal political systems generate mild side effects including bloating and gas exactly replicates the difficulty dietary lectins cause our gut biome. The solution is in knowing when we’ve reached our maximum tolerable level of consumption, then refraining from eating lectins to avoid filling our own chambers with gas.

Think of them as a miniature Canadian political system inhabiting our bodies

Lectins are proteins found to some degree in almost all food, particularly grains, edible seeds, raw beans and other legumes. Plants manufacture lectins to resist insects, microorganisms, and various pests including animals. Lectins are usually found in the “skins” or outer layers of the plant, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re thin skinned or thick skinned. Lectins make seeds indigestible, allowing them to pass through animals’ bodies intact and ready to germinate once deposited outside the animal.

Humans can’t digest lectins either, and they usually pass through our system without problem. There are situations, including pre-existing gastrointestinal issues, when lectins remain in our systems and create problems.

Wheat lectins, called gliadins, bind to mucosa cells in human intestines, causing celiac disease. Other digestive system impairments including Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and similar inflammatory conditions that increase gut wall permeability. Binding lectins can expand this permeability which allows toxins, bacteria and undigested food particles to enter our blood stream with painful results.

Some sources claim lectins increase the chance of autoimmune diseases, but there is no consensus, a situation similar to CSIS asserting the Chinese government interfered in our elections by providing false data, but the federal Liberals failing to confirm it happened.

Further complicating the issue is that many foods high in lectins are also healthy for us. There are a significant number of peer-reviewed studies that link legumes, whole grains and nuts with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and positive weight loss because of their high amounts of B vitamins, fibre, protein, minerals, healthy fats and protein.

Once more, the burden of getting lectin consumption in our diet right —sorry, correct — falls to us voters. How do we ensure the best from our lectin representatives while minimizing potential damage? Think Doug Ford and the Greenbelt. It turns out that lectins break down harmlessly when their feet are held to the fire by boiling them, and that most are water-soluble. A good, long soaking and cleaning will dissolve lectins’ ability to bind and cause us trouble.

Numerous studies show that cooking high-lectin foods thoroughly reduces their number of active lectins to almost zero. Raw red kidney beans contain 80,000-100,000 HAU (a unit measure of lectin content) which is considered toxic. Vigorous boiling for 10 minutes reduces that to only 200-400 HAU, a level considered safe. Boiling or other high-heat cooking methods, but not slow-cooking, cause significant reductions in HAU levels in peanuts, whole grains, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and other foods high in lectins.

As well as high-heat cooking, other methods of preparation have been scientifically proven to reduce lectins’ binding ability. Soaking foods like white beans, chickpeas, green peas, most grains and seeds, and soy products in water for approximately five hours before cooking will destroy water-soluble lectins.

Fermenting and sprouting reduces active lectins in all of the above, and many other foods too. Think fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and sourdough bread. Sprouts are “seeds” that have germinated, including grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds which can all be consumed as sprouted foods with reduced active lectins.

Because lectins gather in a plant’s skin and surface areas as natural defence, some dieticians recommend peeling tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers if eating them raw.

How we ultimately vote depends on understanding what each option offers us. Getting our B vitamins, protein, minerals and healthy fats from lectin-rich foods can pose risks if we’re not careful in preparing them. Yet with so many different choices for cooking them, eating lectins should have a healthy outcome if we get it right. The verifiable research suggests the benefits of nutrient-rich plant-based foods will negate the effects of trace amounts of lectins.

Nutrition science is constantly evolving. Speak to a dietician if you’re unsure.

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John Swart

About the Author: John Swart

After three decades co-owning various southern Ontario small businesses with his wife, Els, John Swart has enjoyed 15 years in retirement volunteering, bicycling the world, and feature writing.
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