Revenge of the Beans: How Lectins Suck Your Energy And Make You Weak
As you scan the Bulletproof Diet Roadmap, you’ll notice that lentils and beans, as well as some other foods like tomatoes and potatoes, are out of the green zone. There’s a reason.
This is one area where the Bulletproof Diet does not match other diets that deify all plant foods. People often ask why they should avoid things like legumes and nightshades. Here’s the science behind why some vegetables are great for you and why others knock you down.
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Lectins 101: Why lentils, tomatoes, and potatoes make you weak
Some Bulletproof Diet recommendations are based on the presence of lectin in foods. Be sure to realize that lectin is not the same as leptin, the hormone that controls whether you’re fat, or lecithin, a type of fat found in eggs, sunflowers, or soy.
Lectins matter to the performance level of everyone, but they are particularly important if you have a thyroid condition, or if you have any kind of arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cystitis, or even if you are simply 100 pounds overweight (like I was). This is because lectins are tied directly to inflammation and autoimmune reactions in your body.
Lectins are a form of protein found in nearly all plants and animals. They bind to the sugar molecules called polysaccharides that cover the surface of most cells in your body.
There are countless varieties of lectins in nature, and we have used them for more than 100 years in medical testing laboratories because they stick to red blood cells very effectively.
Why plants contain lectins
Plants evolved to reproduce. They actually have no interest in being a food source for you, or even for insects or fungi. Since they are not good at running away, plants developed natural pesticides and repellents to protect themselves and their seeds from hungry animals. Since the cells in your body use lectins as one way to communicate between each other, plants evolved to create their own lectin to “hack” the human cell communication by disrupting it. Eventually, humans and animals make the connection between eating the plant and feeling off, and get discouraged from eating the plant. Does this make plants the original biohackers?
The Evil That Beans Do
Take kidney beans, for example. Only a few raw kidney beans can kill you because the naturally occurring lectins will bind to the sugar coating on your red blood cells, which makes them stick together until you get abnormal clotting.
Perhaps you’ve heard of ricin, the extremely toxic poison featured in the Breaking Bad TV series. Vanishingly small doses will kill you, yet it is derived from the lowly castor bean. At the hospital, doctors test your blood type based on how your blood reacts to different types of lectins. And inexperienced cooks learn how lectins cause bloody vomiting.
The toxicity of lectins is known to food safety experts, but you never hear about it in popular nutrition circles. It’s no surprise that the top 8 food allergens contain higher amounts of lectins, including:
- Tree nuts
In fact, about 20% of all cases of rheumatoid arthritis are caused by lectins in the nightshade family. Common nightshades include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and bell peppers. There are perhaps 100 additional less common foods like goji berries in that family, all of which contain lectins. “Superfood” goji berries anyone? Think again.
Use Glucosamine to Bind Lectins and Improve Joint Health
Different lectins love different sugars in your body’s cells. One of the reasons wheat is so bad for you is that the lectin in wheat is attracted to glucosamine, the polysaccharide that covers your joints. You can buy glucosamine to help your joint health. It doesn’t work for some people, but for others, it’s magic. I was one of those who had constant knee pain until my mid-twenties, and my knees were always inflamed even after three surgeries. Glucosamine dramatically reduced inflammation and pain. I had not fully embraced a zero-gluten diet, which is the most likely reason it was so helpful for me. The glucosamine in my supplements was binding the lectin in my diet before it reached my joints!
The most effective form of glucosamine for binding lectin from wheat is N-Acetyl-D-glucosamine. It’s not impossible to find in supplements, but if you have read this far, you already know that wheat is simply not food for high-performance humans. I do not use glucosamine regularly today.
Several More Problems with Lectins
If you are still not convinced that you should avoid the more toxic lectins, check out what happens when you add lectins from edible plants, including lima beans and kidney beans, into the diets of rats. Scientists who did this found depressed growth, pancreas enlargement, depressed insulin, and disruption of normal protein, fat, and carbohydrate intermediary metabolism. The researchers hypothesized that it was most likely due to the hormone mimicking actions of lectins (although it may have been also related to enzyme inhibitors found in legumes). Either way, it’s not Bulletproof.
Another anti-nutrient: gliadin in wheat
It’s not just beans, either. Gliadin is a component of wheat gluten that can activate inflammatory proteins, the ones involved in a myriad of acute and chronic inflammatory disorders, including autoimmunity and infectious diseases. High performance people avoid things that make you weak, like autoimmune conditions and rampant inflammation. One more reason to avoid wheat…
Lectins affect hunger and satiety hormones
Then there’s leptin, the hormone that signals when you’re full. When your metabolism breaks, you get resistant to leptin before you get insulin resistant, and both forms of resistance lead to obesity. Guess what? Lectin is associated with leptin resistance.3
GMO foods have higher lectin levels than non-GMO foods
GMO foods are not on the Bulletproof Diet for lots of reasons. One primary reason is that the genes inserted into crops often increase the amount of lectin, and add new lectin to GMO strains. Lectins are one reason that GMO foods are more allergenic than non-GMO foods.
Perhaps most insidious of all is that lectins cause leaky gut. When they damage the lining of your gut, other proteins from food you eat enter your bloodstream and program your immune system to attack other parts of your body. That means you may have cross-reactivity with your nervous system tissue, your heart, your skin, your thyroid, or even your brain.
In an episode of Bulletproof Radio (iTunes), Dr. Steven Gundry, author of “The Plant Paradox” and “The Longevity Paradox,” explains how lectins affecting one system can snowball into another system. He uses the relationship between the thyroid and high cholesterol as an example.
“Lectins are a really good way of blocking thyroid hormone. You may actually end up with a thyroid hormone receptor problem as the cause of your [high] LDL and it’s not the pound of bacon you’re eating every morning,” Gundry says.
I believe that excessive lectins from my careful former raw vegan diet contributed to the large increase in food sensitivities that I experienced as a vegan. There are dozens of former vegans who have written in to the Bulletproof site expressing similar experiences. Lectins are not the sole cause – toxins from mold, another anti-nutrient, also may play a role.
Autoimmune conditions and associated inflammation are tied to IBS, colitis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (I fixed mine by avoiding grains, molds, and many lectins), Crohn’s, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome, in addition to different forms of arthritis. There is even a link to autism and its little brothers, Asperger syndrome and ADHD. It’s no wonder that people with ADHD love the Bulletproof Diet.
I learned a lot of these things when I bought a college level biochem book about 7 years ago, called Plant Lectins (Pusztai, Cambridge University Press, 1991). In it, the authors cite a study from 1980 showing that 30% of fresh and processed foods contain lectins. Lectins from green salads, fruits, spices, seeds, dry cereals and nuts showed lectin activity, and some of them interact with blood serum or saliva and bacteria from the oral cavity. Ever noticed excessive salivation, or extremely thick saliva after a meal? Now you know why.
FAQ: Why is Butter Ok but Dairy is not?
If you are reading carefully, you probably noticed that dairy is high in lectin. However, grass-fed butter, a staple of the Bulletproof Diet, is not! Grain-fed milk is higher in lectin than grass-fed milk. Pasteurized, homogenized milk (the stuff I recommend you avoid) has less SIgA, an immunoglobulin that is present in raw milk. SIgA binds to dangerous lectins. This is why I recommend you consume raw dairy, but only if you tolerate it.
Dealing with Lectins
How do you avoid lectins in your diet?
Eat high-fat, low-carb
Plant-eating animals in the wild favor quick energy in the form of carbohydrates, which is why high-carb vegetables and seeds typically contain high lectin. Going low-carb and high fat automatically shifts you to foods that do not have as high of a lectin content. Also, limit lower carbohydrate high lectin nightshades, and pay attention to your body’s response to them.
Choose white over brown
The next best thing is to mechanically remove the parts of the food that have the most lectin in them. This is why, throughout history, the higher economic classes would choose white rice over brown rice and white flour over whole wheat. This is also one reason why white rice is ranked higher than brown rice on the Bulletproof Diet. Who needs extra fiber when it’s wrapped in lectin?
Cooking, fermenting, and soaking
Historically, people have used a variety of techniques to try to reduce these food toxins. Cooking sometimes helps, but some lectins are made stronger in the presence of heat. Dry heat doesn’t work very well to break down lectins, which is why baking with “gluten free” garbanzo bean flour is a bad idea. The best cooking method to destroy lectins is pressure-cooking.
You could also try fermenting. The only problem is that when you allow bacteria to breakdown proteins, including lectins, you get the creation of histamine, which triggers allergies. Oops. Still, it’s better to allow bacteria to digest the lectin than it is to allow it in your body. This is why, if you must eat soy, you should stick with fermented soy like miso, tempeh, tamari, and natto. But the histamine and phytoestrogens in soy, fermented or not, should keep you away if you read this blog! As far as I can tell, no one has ever written about how soaking to reduce lectins can increase histamine, and improper fermentation techniques can cause the formation of mold toxins.
Then there’s soaking and rinsing. Your grandmother probably soaked beans overnight, then rinsed and boiled them again, possibly with baking soda. She might have done this so you, her lovely grandchild, would have less intestinal gas, but the reason for this effect was that she was removing some lectins.
One of the reasons people rely on the Bulletproof Diet Roadmap is because you don’t need to know any of the details in this blog post in order to take advantage of them. This knowledge is built in so that if you are choosing foods in the green zone, you are automatically choosing to eat less lectin.
That said, biohackers like me want to understand how and why things work. So now you know!
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