Paleo is passé. Lectins are the new enemy, and they will destroy you. Or so we’re told. Does the lectin-free diet have any potential to alleviate fatigue, clear brain fog, and restore your GI to its fullest potential? Or will you drive yourself to the brink of insanity when you realize there are only ten foods you can now eat? Most importantly, are there any potential benefits to adopting a lectin-free diet for ME/CFS?
The lectin-free diet has gained attention recently, thanks to celebrity endorsements and Dr. Steven Gundry’s popular books, including The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain. I came across the lectin avoidance diet through the work of Joe Cohen, the researcher behind SelfHacked.com, a trusted natural health resource. Joe’s approach is less about self-aggrandizement and supplement hawking and is more focused on reducing the body’s inflammatory response. This is not about demonizing lectins, but rather, identifying individual foods that might be troublesome for you.
What Are Lectins?
After years of decrying the evils of gluten, many may wonder: what are lectins? Lectins are proteins found in a variety of plants, including grains and certain vegetables and fruits, and these proteins bind to carbohydrates. According to Dr. Gundry, lectins are part of the plant’s self-preservation apparatus. Lectins are generally thought to be harmless, though in extreme cases (ricin, for example), lectins can be lethal. But Dr. Gundry hypothesizes that lectins (which cover a broad category of proteins and include gluten) are the root of inflammation and a number of cardiovascular diseases.
Why Go Lectin Free?
The supposed benefits of lectin avoidance include weight loss, less inflammation, improved cognitive function, cardiovascular disease reduction, more energy and better GI function. Dr. Gundry claims that lectins interfere with thyroid hormones, which could contribute to fatigue.
Symptoms of lectin sensitivity include fatigue (especially after eating), GI dysfunction, brain fog, weight issues, inflammation and joint pain. (You can find a full list of possible symptoms here.) Many of the potentially lectin-related symptoms are also ME/CFS symptoms.
Common Lectin Foods
If you’re going lectin-free, these are some of the foods with lectins to avoid. Lectins are present in plants such as:
- Grains and pseudo-grains (wheat, oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, corn, quinoa, etc.)
- Legumes (lentils, beans, peanuts, etc.), and
- Nightshades (eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, etc.)
- Seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds)
- Fruits (melons, goji berries)
Lectins also show up, according to Dr. Gundry, in some surprising place. For example, most conventionally-raised meat comes from animals who were fed grain-heavy diets. The same goes for most dairy, though Dr. Gundry allows milk from A2 cows, as well as sheep’s milk cheese.
Low Lectin Foods
- Leafy greens, such as arugula, romaine, and spinach
- Wild-caught fish
- Pastured organic meat and eggs
- Berries (except goji)
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage
- Herbs, such as basil, oregano, and thyme
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
Cooking and Other Ways of Reducing Lectins
It’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate lectins from your diet, but there are ways to mitigate against the risks of eating lectins. If you decide to eat rice, Dr. Gundry recommends eating white rather than brown. Pressure cooking can help reduce lectins in potatoes and other vegetables, and pressure cooking also reduces the lectins in grain-fed meat. Peeling and seeding vegetables, like tomatoes and cucumbers, can also reduce lectins. Further, Dr. Gundry recommends supplements, such as MSM, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate to help with digesting whatever lectins end up in your diet.
Is a Lectin-Free Diet Right for You?
Is this diet scientifically sound? Probably not. Dr. Gundry relies heavily on anecdotal evidence. However, for those of us with ME/CFS, anecdotes can be extremely helpful and far preferable to waiting decades for double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trials to prove definitively whether or not this works. Further, diets seem to be highly individual, heavily influenced by genetics, environment, and one’s own unique microbiome. These and other factors make it difficult to declare one diet to be better or more effective than all others. Food allergy testing is expensive and can produce questionable results, leading many to go through the drudgery of elimination diets.
But this approach might actually be the way to look at lectin avoidance. For those who have tried paleo or other diets and still have symptoms, eliminating lectins may be a starting point. After eliminating these foods, you can decide if your symptoms have improved enough to warrant continuing such a strict diet. Then you can gradually reintroduce foods, paying attention to how you respond to each new addition.
It’s also important to remember, as with any new diet protocol, that what you include is as important as what you eliminate. If you eliminate lectins but spend your days eating nothing but pineapple and oranges, you’re probably not going to reap the intended benefits of this diet. Rather, focus on including a wide variety of lectin-free vegetables, some fruit and plenty of olive oil and wild-caught fish, assuming these are foods you tolerate well.
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This is more or less my approach: over the next few weeks, I will do my best to eliminate, or at least limit, lectins and focus on pressure-cooking whenever possible so I can still enjoy butternut squash and the occasional bit of tomato sauce. Lectins coexist with other beneficial nutrients in many vegetables, so I find it better to aim for limiting lectins, rather than eliminating them completely. Unless this experiment yields no benefit for me, in which case, give me back my beloved cucumbers.
Take this as a choose-your-own-adventure guide to eliminating potentially harmful foods from your diet, rather than a dogmatic cure-all philosophy.
If you’re interested in learning more about lectins and lectin-free diets, here are some additional informational resources:
Rachel Horton is a freelance writer and researcher based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was diagnosed in 2008 with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia, and now saves her energy for sailing and dinner parties. She graduated with a degree in Economics from Indiana University, and now applies her analytical skills to finding new treatments and experiments, which she chronicles at https://chronicfatiguesanity.wordpress.com/. Follow her on Twitter @cfsanity.