Everything you Need to Know About a Lectin-Free Vegan Diet

A bowl of fruit and vegetables

You may not have heard of the “lectin-free” diet, but you probably know people who avoid eating legumes, whole wheat and nightshades because they’re trying to avoid lectins.

But what, exactly, are lectins? And should you be following a diet that restricts or eliminates lectins? That depends. Here’s a little bit more information to help determine whether or not you need to be paying attention to the lectins in your diet.

What are lectins?

A plate of food with broccoli

Lectins are proteins that bind to other carbohydrates. They’ve been referred to as “anti-nutrients” because they aren’t digestible in the human gastrointestinal tract, and could potentially prevent your body from absorbing key minerals like calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc.

Lectins also attach to the cells lining your intestines and can stay there for a fairly long period. Because of this, lectins have the potential to cause an autoimmune response—and this is, in part, what’s fueled an anti-lectin movement (for proof, check out the popularity of the paleo diet and the Whole30 diet, both of which eschew many lectin-containing foods).

So, what foods are high in lectins?

A piece of cake on a plate

All plants contain lectins. In nature, lectins serve as a kind of protective measure for plants, as they aren’t digestible, and thus should be unappealing to would-be consumers like animals and humans. That strategy hasn’t actually worked though, as lectins are still present in about 30% of the food we eat.

That said, lectin levels vary. They’re highest in raw legumes—such as peas, beans, lentils, soybeans and peanuts—and in whole grains such as wheat, which contains some of the highest lectin levels in the plant world.

Nightshade vegetables (eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and seed spices), squash and fruit are also higher in lectins, which has led many lectin-free diet promoters to advocate for avoiding these foods.

What foods are low in lectins?

  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables
  • Celery
  • Cooked sweet potatoes
  • Garlic
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Pasture-raised meats

Should I avoid eating lectins?

Probably not. Most health experts point out that the research around lectins and the harmful effects of consuming what are called “active lectins” (such as those found in raw beans) is limited. We don’t actually eat many active lectins because we rarely consume foods containing high amounts of lectins raw. Soaking or sprouting high-lectin foods deactivates the lectins, as does cooking them with high heat (boiling, stewing, etc.). This is one of the main reasons why we cook (and sometimes also soak) beans—raw beans are full of active lectins that will upset your stomach. Fermentation is a third way to deactivate lectins.

Plus, the benefits of eating foods that are high in lectins, such as whole grains and beans, largely outweigh the potentially negative effects for most people. Legumes provide fiber, protein, magnesium and zinc, and may protect against diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and inflammation, while research shows that eating whole grains increases longevity and reduces your risk of several chronic diseases.

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