Discovered in 1888, the modern era is revealing what many people have already discovered for themselves through dietary trial and error regarding lectins. Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins found in most plant food with a relatively higher amount contained in the seeds of legumes, fruiting bodies of mushrooms, certain grains, nightshades and animals. They have been identified as exacerbating if not causing symptoms of digestion issues like bloating and gas, inflammation. While more research is needed, in some populations lectins are correlated with several disease processes.
In 1989 Naturopathic doctor, Peter D’Adamo along with Catherine Whitney were the first to introduce lectins as contributors to the ill health of certain populations.1 In the late 90’s, their literature and research focused on the immunoagglutination (meaning, in this case, when the antigen that defines your blood type gloms together with lectin proteins) of different lectins when exposed to the variant ABO blood types. The NY Times bestseller, Eat Right For Your Type Blood Type Diet was published in 1996. Since, many more books have been written and Dr. D’Adamo has developed several supplements specific to each blood type in order to improve the health of our population. More recently, Dr. Stephen Gundry, has done a good job of popularizing lectin avoidance, based on his book, The Plant Paradox, published in 2017. His general but popular line of supplements have taken an impressive position in the multibillion dollar diet and weight loss industry. His advertisements are riveting, likely because they talk about the subject people are embarrassed to mention, even at the doctor’s office – bowel movements. Understandable, considering that many of my patients who, after seeing several practitioners in the medical field including gastroenterologists and dietitians, after undergoing extensive and somewhat invasive tests, biopsies and imaging procedures report that they were told “everything is normal” and sent on their way, perhaps with another prescription of Imodium and told to pick up some over the counter antacid like Omeprazole (because Zantac is now banned and Nexium has been linked to throat cancer) to help them with their ongoing daily episodes of painful and explosive diarrhea, massive bloating and other debilitating symptoms that they’ve had anywhere from two years to most of their lives.
In most diets, foods are identified as ‘good’, ‘bad’ or neutral. The foods in the ‘bad’ lectin category include those families that tend to have the highest lectin content.
Legumes: beans, lentils, peas, soybeans, and peanuts
Grains: barley, quinoa, rice
Nightshades: tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers including both sweet and hot peppers.
Dairy products, particularly dairy from cows: milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream
So what? Is it another fad diet?
There are actually scientific explanations for why diets become fads. One of the most compelling explanations for the success of fad diets arises from Dr. D’Adamo’s research of diet and blood types. When we take into account that the most prevalent blood type in the world is Type O, we can easily make sense of the high protein diets like The Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, even the Ketogenic diet. Type O is recognized as the oldest blood type, when humans were predominantly hunters and gatherers, eating animals, roots and plants that grew wild. While the theory falls short in some individuals, the extensive research into lectins and how the sugars and proteins interact with specific blood types, as well as individual secretor status, helps to explain why fad diets work for some but not for everyone. (Secretor status refers to the presence or absence of water-soluble ABO blood group antigens in a person’s bodily fluids, such as saliva, tears, breast milk, urine, and semen. People who secrete these antigens in their bodily fluids are referred to as secretors, while people who do not are termed non-secretors.)
But why do more people now seem to have trouble with lectins and gluten, eggs, meats and all the other foods we have determined to be “bad” by the billion dollar diet industry?
Humans have eaten lectins in plants as well as many other types of food for centuries, if not millennia. The current health issues we are seeing in the 21st century are multifactorial and not caused by the food itself, per se. The human body is capable of extracting nourishment from anything when needed to sustain life, it is able to safely defuse all types of dietary ‘bombs’, toxic chemicals and poisons, especially when we are young. However, in this day and age, the ways we grow, package, prepare and eat foods has changed and continues to change faster than at any other time in history. For example, since the 1996 introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) into our farming practices and food supply, there has been a surge of serious digestive health problems, as well as neurological and musculoskeletal issues in all age groups, but especially in the generations born after the year 2000. This group has been raised in a world predominantly fed or otherwise exposed to GMO’s. This domination of this perplexing controversy persists and continues to expand, in spite of the overwhelming evidence showing the deleterious effects of this science experiment. Jeffrey Smith, the activist, writer and founder of The Institute for Responsible Technology, has dedicated his career to extensive research on the effects of GMO’s on the planet and in the body. In his book, Genetic Roulette, he discusses the many unofficial studies farmers have conducted, leaving sacks of GMO grain and non GMO grain out for the wild animals and rodents. When given the choice, the animal reliably goes for the non GMO food. In some cases, the sacs of genetically modified grains were avoided completely, not even the rats wanted to eat it. Much of the research is limited by funding but the photographs of eviscerated bowels of rats who were fed GMO food, while still floating around, are not distributed with the same fervency invested into keeping GMO’s in production and in supply, and now, demand.
Moreover, in spite of the evidence debunking the original arguments supporting the development of genetically modified foods and organisms, that is, to “feed the world” and reduce the cost of doing so, argument persists to justify high speed slamming of the DNA of one organism into the DNA of another. Yes, that is literally how GMO’s were first created. But can the plants and animals on this planet really be improved upon by man-made sci fi experiments? Whereas organic plants are well equipped to fight off disease and insects because they have evolved to emit toxins specific to their unique attackers, GMO’s have decreased overall crop production and harvest because these plants become susceptible to other diseases and attacks from other insects and pathogens. Naturally, newer and better pesticides, herbicides and man-made plants must be manufactured to combat the pestilence.
The politics of sugar
Dollar for dollar, the laborious cost to to produce high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), one of the more predominant genetically modified food preservatives, may not exceed the price of sugar but I have yet to see a cost comparison of the deleterious health effects of diseases correlated with HFCS versus sugar. No USDA table that I’ve seen talks about the cost of feeling good, and the enormous productivity that comes of that. This controversial topic has been buried under massive amounts of blah blah blah and could get me in trouble if I dare to publish this! The arguments in favor HFCS frequently mention its 1970’s pre-GMO introduction into the food supply but they do not ever mention the now exclusive use of genetically modified corn to manufacture it. Further, the tremendous volume of research detailing the negative health effects of HFCS, obesity, altered distribution of fat in humans, cardiovascular events, diabetes to name a few, are either cleverly disguised with rhetoric or ignored all together. While sugar may not be entirely healthy, it is far less damaging to the environment and the human than drinking a soda sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, designed to outlast even Keith Richards in its expiration date. Sugar also tastes better, in my opinion.
So what can we do because this is totally stressing me out!
Unfortunately, it looks like GMO’s, although still banned in a handful of countries, are here to stay. Because of the ever increasing use of pesticide and herbicide chemicals like Round-up, the cross pollination that occurs between farms and gardens as well as the incorporation of genetically modified DNA into the soil, and therefore the animal feed and grain crops planted in adjacent and rotating crop fields, even if we grow and raise our own food, we cannot escape them. Worse, the stress regarding all of this doesn’t serve at this point, it is far better for everyone’s health and especially yours, to focus on what we can do personally and globally to decrease the use of pesticides, GMO’s, and other modern and unsafe conveniences like the use of plastics and styrofoam. Changing the source of meat, dairy and eggs we purchase for food also contributes to changing the way we raise and inhumanely slaughter our animals, which, therefore improves the health of the human as well as the planet at large. An animal loaded on synthetic hormones and plastics, mistreated and potentially terrified at slaughter, concentrates all those hormones as well as it’s own hormones like adrenaline and all the other toxic chemicals it was exposed to during its short. life, into the food product, nicely packaged and sold in the grocery store. Add to that the massive use of pharmaceutical medications for issues that could be treated and addressed in a variety of other ways and it’s not a big mystery why people are sicker with new and seemingly baffling symptoms. For the most part, these hormones and chemicals and GMO’s end up in our water supply as well.
Here’s what we can do: Trust that we are evolving in order to deal with the world we’ve created.
Education and awareness are the first steps. Blanket statements and faulty arguments are no longer acceptable. In the early 2000’s there was a 5% tipping point in which awareness of the potential dangers of these rapidly increasing additions to lifestyle and diet could have at least resulted in the labeling of products and medications that were made with or included harmful chemicals and Frankenstein Science. I think that time has passed. However, ignorance is not bliss in this case, especially when your child is sick and suffering horribly with all types of behavioral, emotional and physical issues, or you have had ongoing health problems that your doctors have been unable to figure out never mind help you resolve. I don’t care what your doctor told you! Daily, explosive and painful diarrhea, to use the above example, is not normal!
But the body, the body is amazing. Remember, our bodies are self-healing and adaptable. At the most basic level, every cell of your body is constantly seeking balance, also known as homeostasis. The body will correct imbalances and it will recover if given the opportunity. Avoidance of foods that seem to aggravate your symptoms is one way to allow this flow of healing and well-being. Additionally, to discover your body’s relationship to lectins, or any other food or substance you suspect may be problematic, my experience shows that the most valuable method, which may or may not include specific food allergy testing, is a trial of strict avoidance followed by re-introduction. The food allergy test itself is valuable, however. It can make the avoidance part of this process more manageable.
Twenty-one days is the minimum avoidance time period needed to adequately determine if the food, lectin or otherwise, is exacerbating or causing your symptoms. However, a strict avoidance of the food in question for 6 weeks is best. Six weeks gives your body 3 to 4 weeks to clear any reactions and another 2 weeks for your body to bring itself further back to balance because it’s not having to use resources to desensitize and eradicate any untoward effects of our dietary choices and ice cream indiscretions. After six weeks, a systematic introduction of each food will give you valuable information as to how, if at all, the food affects you. You will know beyond a shadow of a doubt.
However, like climbing the Cheops Pyramid, I could tell you all about it but until you experience it yourself, you’ll never really know. And this doesn’t only pertain to digestive and weight problems. I employ this protocol for all issues of environmental allergies including skin symptoms, the chronic health issues of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and its varying components, hormonal imbalances, autoimmune disease, physical pain and inflammatory symptoms as well as emotional/mental issues. For the most part, GMO’s notwithstanding, we have control over what we put in our mouth and what we consume for nourishment. When you are eating something your body has a difficult time with 80-90% of the body’s resources can go to dealing with the reactions caused by the food, resulting in all types of symptoms that you may or may not associate with your diet, especially when the food is considered “good for you”. Further, those resources would be better put to healing the ongoing and unavoidable elements and issues in our environment that potentially turn into or have already become your chronic disease. Then, you’re just a diagnosis without a cure in our conventional medical paradigm.
Alternatively, when you know that a food you love causes a specific symptom you do not love, it puts the power of your healthcare back in your hands. You get to decide whether or not you want to eat that or drink that based on what you have going on with the rest of your life. I have witnessed bodies, minds and even lives radically change with this one foundational protocol. More often, discovering this information about yourself and your health will level the playing field, clear out extraneous symptoms to help better address any other underlying causes of your health issues.
While our technology has advanced exponentially and continues to speed up in discoveries, neither technology or any supplement or medication can give you the precise information you will obtain from the avoidance and reintroduction process. Finally, if you discover that your body has trouble with lectin protein or any other food, it absolutely does NOT mean you can never eat that again. What it means is you will know how your feel and what symptoms it causes when you eat it. From there, you can choose to eat or not to eat, you will know if you’ll be needing an ibuprofen or a digestive enzyme and additional probiotics in return for that dietary indiscretion.
Just like the introduction of helpful modern practices inadvertently causing unforeseen health issues, there are just as many proven, tried and true methods to promote healing and well-being, to aid and assist the body in processing food reactions, to help mitigate the negative effects of living in our 21st century world, most of all, to help you regain your health or achieve a level of health you didn’t know was possible because all this time, you’ve been told, “all your tests are negative, you’re fine, there’s nothing wrong with you”. Naturopathic doctors, like myself, are educated, skilled, and well equipped to help you to develop general and individualized plans for you and your family in order to help you and your body navigate these transitional times.