In this day and age, technology has allowed us unlimited access to scientific information regarding health and nutrition. From food groups to compounds, we have the power to educate ourselves about the substances that we feed our body. One interesting component found in our food is lectin. In this article, we will be scrutinizing the benefits and risks linked to lectin.
Lectin is a protein component naturally found in plant foods. They have the ability to bind to cell membranes, especially to certain types of sugar. One of its main functions is to keep molecules attached without involving the immune system, thus supporting the interaction of cells without the aid of complex chemical activities.
In 1888, Peter Hermann Stillmark, a microbiologist has been credited for constructing the first definition and description of lectins. He presented findings regarding an experiment he conducted for his doctoral thesis at the University of Dorpat. This certain experiment involved isolating ricin, a type of toxic lectin present in castor beans.
Although lectin primarily originates in plants, it’s present in a variety of foods. Foods rich in lectin include grains, legumes, beans, peas, nightshade vegetables, and fruits. Lectin can also be found in some animal-derived products such as milk and eggs, considering that cows and chickens are often fed grains such as corn and wheat—rich sources of lectin.
It has been suggested by many health advocates and gurus that lectin is toxic to the gut and may even cause autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease. That is why many diet plans encourage the elimination of lectin-rich foods. However, although lectin consumption is proven to cause some adverse effects, it also brings various benefits to the body.
Lectin offers multiple benefits that are mainly grounded on its ability to bind to carbohydrates and sugar. These proteins also play large roles in many functions within the body.
- Promote adhesion of cells: As previously stated, lectins promote the adhesion of molecules without involving the immune system. By doing so, the immune system can focus solely on its function to fight disease-causing pathogens.
- Enhances synthesis of glycoproteins: Lectins are also largely involved in the production of glycoproteins. Lectins attach themselves to carbohydrates, an activity which leads to the formation of glycoproteins. These glycoproteins are responsible for performing many important bodily functions such as supporting the immune system and regulating levels of protein in the bloodstream.
- May combat harmful microbes: Several studies have found that lectins may have antimicrobial properties. In fact, clinical findings suggest that lectins are effective against specific types of bacteria, which include E. coli and the strain causing staph infections.
- May fight viral and fungal infections: Lectins have shown potential in combating fungal and viral infections. In fact, clinical studies available in the PubMed Central database show that in in-vitro trials, lectins are found to be effective in blocking the growth and spread of a certain type of fungus that cause yeast infections.
- Shows promise in preventing cancer: Some significant studies report that lectins may have anticancer properties as well. A particular review from China, published in the Cell Proliferation in 2015 has suggested that plant lectins can prompt a modification in the expression of some immune cells, thus, interfering with the progression and spread of cancer cells. Lectins also show promise in blocking the growth of cancerous tumors.
Significant research has linked lectins to the development of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. A particular study conducted by the Colorado State University’s Department of Health and Exercise Science has found that lectins can trigger symptoms of autoimmune conditions including fatigue and chronic pain. Another study has discussed that lectin found in wheat germ may harm the immune system by increasing inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a major contributing factor in many serious illnesses including heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
Lectins are also called anti-nutrients which increase the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies due to their interference in food absorption. They are also difficult to digest, thus the consumption of lectin-rich foods can potentially damage the digestive tract.
According to Miriam Amselem, a practicing dietician and fitness expert, when lectins attach to the gut wall, this action can lead to the development of leaky gut syndrome, a condition that causes leakage of harmful substances into the bloodstream. Other common adverse effects of lectin consumption include bloating, joint pain, skin issues, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, stomach cramps, and fatigue.
Lectins are indeed proven to cause many negative effects such as digestive issues, inflammation, and higher risks of developing autoimmune diseases. However, does this mean that you must avoid eating foods containing lectin?
According to Jacalyn See, a clinical dietician at Mayo Clinic, eliminating foods rich in lectin may bring more harm than good to your body. It’s also important to note that most clinical findings on lectins are results of animal or test-tube studies. In addition, these studies have examined isolated lectin, and not the foods containing this protein group. Following a lectin-free diet is also not widely recommended by health professionals as its efficacy still lacks the support of scientific evidence.
The nutritional benefits that lectin-rich foods provide also significantly outweigh the side effects of lectins. For instance, beans are believed to be a diuretic that aids in expelling waste products and harmful toxins. Tomatoes are helpful in improving digestion and promoting heart health while supplying the body with antioxidants that combat free radicals. Eggs are a rich source of vitamin B2, B6, B12, D, and selenium, as well as minerals such as zinc, copper, and iron. Potatoes are loaded with fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C.
In addition, eliminating lectin-rich foods is unnecessary, considering that lectin content can be minimized through cooking and fermenting. A study retrieved from the Division of Nutritional Sciences in the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland has found that boiling soybeans just for five minutes can entirely eliminate lectin activity.
Most lectin-rich foods, especially legumes and grains also require cooking before they can be consumed. For instance, who enjoys eating raw beans and potatoes? Thus, rather than completely cutting out food groups from your diet, it’s advised that you focus on reducing lectin content by cooking your food properly. This way, you’ll benefit from the nutrients they offer while avoiding the adverse effects of lectin consumption.