Lectins & The Gut

Lectins & The Gut

June 5, 2022 7:19 am

Lectins have caused many conflicting opinions in the nutrition field, over the past few years. In some cases, lectins are seen as problematic, while in others, they are seen as irrelevant and safe. The theory is that they trigger inflammation and intestinal permeability, contributing to chronic disease. However lectins have also been seen as a manageable factor within healthy foods. The contradicting lectin has recently rose to the surface in health experts minds, as we are trying to understand and get to know the lectin a little better.

What Are Lectins?

Lectins are a diverse family of carbohydrate binding proteins found in most plants and animals. Lectins are the family of proteins that are found in almost all foods, in differing quantities. While animal lectins play various roles in normal physiological functions, the role of plant lectins is less clear. However, they seem to be involved in plants defences against insects, other herbivores and now, humans.

Are Lectins A Problem?

Lectins now days are a little unheard of, as they seem to be safe to be recommended in daily diets. This may be the case but some research has discovered plant lectins to even be toxic. Lectins are thought to play a role in immune function, cell growth, cell death, and body fat regulation. So why can lectins be seen as toxic? This is where we need to touch on lectins and inflammation. They can promote inflammation responses, intestinal permeability, and increased risk of food allergies or intolerances. Triggers of lectins may result in diseases such as crohn’s disease, systemic lupus, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and cause leaky gut or gastrointestinal dysbiosis. With the impact being increased gut permeability and drive autoimmune diseases, may begin all with this uncommon suspect. While it’s true that certain lectins can be toxic and cause harm when consumed in excess, the specifics are yet to be discovered. Research states that lectins can disrupt digestion, interfere with nutrient absorption, and cause intestinal damage if eaten in large quantities over a prolonged period of time, as of any details, the truth is less clear. 

Cold Turkey On The Lectins?

So with research being far and few between and the lectin lying under the radar, should we re consider calling out all lectin rich foods from the get go? Yet we still want to incorporate all these healthy, nutrient rich foods, without the potential harm they may have. There can be easy methods to get rid of the indigestible lectin, through cooking and food preparation. However the importance of buying organic is significant when thinking about lectin exposure.  

While animal lectins play various roles in normal physiological functions, the role of plant lectins is less clear. However, they seem to be involved in plants defences against insects and other herbivores. Because we do not digest lectins, we often produce antibodies to them. Almost everyone has antibodies to some dietary lectins in their body, meaning our body has evolved to adapt and not react to the lectin. This means our responses vary as some may have multiple antibodies to specific lectins whilst others may not.

Which Foods Contain Lectins?

They are found in all plants, however when looking at lectin quantities, the foods that contain the highest quantities of lectins include:

raw legumes, beans, lentils, peas, soybeans, peanuts, nightshade vegetables and whole grains like wheat, containing the highest amount of lectins.

Legumes, beans, pulses and grains are the main sources of lectins. This is why, in order to enjoy these foods and still receive their nutritional benefits, we must look to the preparation methods. Lectins are inactivated and diminished by boiling or pressure cooking. They aren’t destroyed by microwaving, baking, or roasting. We can use sprouting or fermentation, as these processes help reduce lectin activity. The recommendation is to soak beans, pulses, legumes and grains and then boil or pressure cook them until well done. 

Plants Surely Can’t be The Problem?

Plants are extremely beneficial, miracle gifts from the ground. Plant based foods are our weapon to reducing inflammation and creating happy health bodies and guts. Contradicting opinions on plant based lectins causing inflammation beg to differ, but still we need to see the beneficial effects of the foods, just not the lectins. Lectins are how the plants defend themselves against insects and other herbivores. We can recognise the lectin as the plants chemical defence mechanism, used to protect themselves. We have adapted to the lectins, over time. We have been eating leaves for millions of years. Our bodies are intelligent and research suggests we have created antibodies overtime to be able to eat foods containing lectins. However we all adapt to lectins differently! I cant express bio individuality enough here. some people can be genetically prone to react to lectins in healthy ways whilst others can show instant negative reactions, as these peoples lectin response antibodies are low.

What The Body Does When A Lectin Is Present ?

Our bodies do try to eliminate the lectins, and use the adaptive antibodies that we have evolved to have over time. But the body does not digest lectins, they bind to cell membranes lining the digestive tract, where they may disrupt metabolism and cause damage.

The Lectin Symptom Lookout

Too much of anything thing (even good) can be a bad thing! Eating large amounts of certain types of lectins can damage the gut wall. This causes irritation that can result in symptoms like diarrhoea and vomiting. It can also prevent the gut from absorbing nutrients properly. What to look out for:

  • Bloating, gas, and abdominal cramps.
  • Painful and swollen joints.
  • Fatigue and tiredness.
  • Skin rashes.
  • Hormonal fluctuations.
  • Nausea.
  • Allergy like symptoms.

Lectin Free Diet And Who Should Try?

The lectin free diet involves either reducing your intake of lectins or eliminating them from your diet. But do we really  need to avoid lectins? Well they’re everywhere, so we can’t really, and don’t need to because not all lectins are harmful. However experimenting with reducing certain sources and quantities of lectins, may be beneficial for some people with food sensitivities. If a person is currently experiencing digestive sensitivities, then eating food containing high lectin levels may cause digestive distress in some people. So for many people currently experiencing lectin lookout symptoms, navigating a low lectin diet or even eliminating high level lectin foods, for a period of time, until the gut lining is stronger may be the answer. 

However, the lectin free diet is restrictive and eliminates many nutrient dense foods, even those generally considered to be healthy. So if your currently not having any inflammatory symptoms or gut dysfunction, going lectin free may become actually an unhealthy choice for the gut, as the microbes that feed from these foods will starve.  

Specific Lectins Sensitivity 

How Do I Know Which Lectins Effect Me?

The easiest way to see which lectins effect us individually, is to take an allergy sensitivity test. Allergy tests provide specific information about what you are sensitive or allergic to. Once we indicate what foods are associated with lacking antibodies. We can reduce symptoms and allergic reactions. Now-days tests can be accessed easily, and done at home, with results being fast and efficient. 


Only about a third of the foods you eat likely contain a significant amount of lectins. These lectins are often eliminated by preparation processes like cooking, sprouting, and fermentation. These processes make the foods safe, with lowering the lectin levels. If experiencing the lectin lookout symptoms, the high lectin foods may cause problems for some people. If you’re one of them, you may benefit from limiting your intake. However all the foods mentioned in this blog post have important and proven health benefits, even those containing lectins. They’re also important sources of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Currently, knowledge about specific lectin content is lacking so widely there is no suggestion to avoid. Bio individuality, self experimentation and listening to our own cues from the foods we eat and adapting to the responses, is the answer we are all looking for. 

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This post was written by Amelia Crossley