THE BLOG
04/06/2016 02:53 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2017

Ask JJ: Lectins and Phytates

Dear JJ: I've read whole grains and legumes have lectins that poke holes in your intestines, leading to autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto's. I've especially avoided grains for years yet they are always promoted as a health food.

Cue the standard protocol: Even current U.S. dietary guidelines espouse whole grains as a crucial part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Grains like whole-wheat bread contain gluten, triggering inflammation and autoimmune reactions.

But gluten isn't the only problem here. Phytates and lectins, proteins found in grains but also other foods like legumes, can create a wide array of problems including arthritis, leaky gut, autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, and malnutrition.

Phytates and lectins are what we call anti-nutrients, or plant toxins that bind to vitamins and minerals, making those nutrients bio-unavailable. They occur in numerous foods including wheat, barley, rice, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, and soy. Let's take a look at both these proteins and their potential damage.

Lectins

Lectins are among plants' complex defense system. (Just like any living thing, plants don't want to be eaten.)

"Lectins are substances contained in legumes and grains that originally evolved to fight off insect predators," writes Dr. Jonny Bowden in The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. "But a portion of the lectin can actually bind with tissues in our body and create problems."

According to Dr. Loren Cordain, lectins in soy, wheat, and other plant foods could be partly to blame for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases as well as leaky gut.

Among their havoc, lectins stymie your saliva's enzyme production so your digestive system can't break down that food.

Your body struggles to digest lectins, sometimes mistaking them for its own proteins, which potentially creates autoimmune responses that manifest in numerous ways including leaky gut syndrome, arthritis, and thyroid issues.

Lectins also bind to insulin receptors, triggering insulin resistance and inflammation. Chronically jacked-up insulin levels shut down fat burning.

Plus lectins stick to your intestinal lining, creating more inflammation, altering gut flora, and storing excess calories as fat.

There's more: Lectins can create leptin resistance. Leptin helps regulate hunger and fullness.

Leptin resistance occurs when your adipose tissue makes and releases this hormone but your brain doesn't get that message to put down your fork. Leptin resistance creates metabolic syndrome that sparks mass havoc including obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Phytates

Phytates also create metabolic damage. These proteins bind to nutrients like calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A, and zinc, inhibiting absorption and potentially creating deficiencies.

"All grains by definition have to be milled and ground to some degree, one reason being that in their natural state they contain many 'antinutrients,' substances (like phytates) that interfere with the absorption and assimilation of nutrients in the grain, especially minerals," writes Bowden, who says soy is one of the highest-phytate foods.

Indeed, studies show you absorb 20 percent more zinc and 60 percent magnesium without phytates.

What's the Solution?

"Whole grain goodness" ultimately becomes a marketing strategy to sell processed crap like kid's breakfast cereals and breads with a misleading health halo.

I'm not anti-grain, but if you eat them, choose gluten-free varieties like oatmeal, millet, buckwheat, and amaranth. I also like sweet potatoes, quinoa, lentils, and legumes.

Even then, some nutrient-rich foods like legumes contain phytates and lectins. The good news is properly preparing and cooking these foods can minimize damage.

Studies show soaking can reduce lectins and phytates, neutralize enzyme inhibitors, increase nutrient absorption, and maximize digestion.

To soak, add grains or other foods into a mason jar or sealed container with filtered water and one to two tablespoons of raw, apple cider vinegar, which slightly ferments grains and breaks down anti-nutrients. Let grains soak for four to 12 hours.

Sprouting grains can also inhibit anti-nutrients while providing the benefits of soaking, including optimizing amino acids, increasing enzyme activity, and preserving higher amounts of B vitamins.

To sprout grains, first soak them, drain the water, and then place a cheesecloth over the top of the jar. Throughout the day, fill the jar with filtered water, mix grains around, and drain twice, creating a humid environment that allows seeds to sprout.

After one to four days, the sprouts grow a short tail, which you can eat raw or cooked. Simply rinse with vinegar and filtered water. Sprouting decreases anti-nutrients while improving nutritional value of some grains like barley.

Even if you're going gluten-free (I hope so), soaking and sprouting can improve other foods including yams, sweet potatoes, oats, and legumes. I also soak nuts in salt water and then slow-roast them to improve digestibility.

If sprouting, soaking, or fermenting isn't your thing, simply boil lectin- and phytate-containing foods to let them cook a bit longer. Boiling legumes decreases anti-nutrient content dramatically, making them easier to digest and nutrient-denser.

Simply put: When you avoid gluten-containing grains, properly prepare foods like nuts and legumes, and focus most of your meal on lean protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy veggies, you probably don't need to worry about lectins and phytates.

Additional References

Bowden, Jonny (2007-01-01). The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth about What You Should Eat and Why. Creative Publishing International. Kindle Edition.