What Are Lectins and Should You Avoid Them in Your Food? Here's What the Science Says

By: Micaela Young, M.S., C.P.T.  |  November/December 2017  |  What are anti­nutrients? Should I worry about them in my food?

Are you avoiding beans or whole grains because you're worried about lectins or phytic acid? Here's what the science says.

We've seen several of our favorite healthy foods—like whole grains and legumes—come under criticism for containing antinutrients like lectins, naturally occurring plant compounds that block the absorption of nutrients (carbs, vitamins and minerals). Sounds scary, but is it?

The buzz started decades ago but has picked up in recent years with Paleo and Whole30 diets recommending eliminating beans and grains. Back in the 1970s there were reports of violent food poisoning from eating undercooked beans. The antinutrient culprit: lectins. These proteins, ubiquitous in plants but especially potent in raw beans, interfere with carb digestion, potentially causing tummy troubles. But realistically, this problem is rare because it is deactivated by cooking. Other concerns that this antinutrient causes leaky gut or obesity are based on outdated research in mice—not real cause for panic, folks.

Recipe to Try: Roasted Vegetables & Black Bean Tacos

Should You Avoid Beans?

Short answer—no (the long answer is also no). Instead, focus on what you do reap from beans: magnesium, zinc, fiber (which, FYI, is technically an anti­nutrient too) and potassium. Plus, research consistently shows that eating legumes may protect against heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and inflammation.

Don't Miss: Healthy Bean Recipes

What About Phytic Acid?

Recipe to Try: Southwest Quinoa Cakes

Another demonized antinutrient found in grains and legumes is phytic acid. It can hinder the absorption of minerals like zinc, iron, magnesium and, to a lesser extent, calcium. However, this nutrient competition is only common when the bulk of someone's diet is just one or two types of food, so the typical American eating a varied diet shouldn't have to worry about phytic acid.

In fact, a 2017 study found that filling up on whole grains may prevent you from falling short on iron and magnesium. And there's plenty of evidence that eating whole grains increases longevity and reduces your risk of several chronic diseases. There's even preliminary research suggesting that phytic acid could be beneficial, by inhibiting cancer growth. (How's that for a plant paradox?)

There are other antinutrients found in fruits, veggies and grains, but generally, they only threaten people whose diet is limited to one or two types of food (more common in developing countries) and sometimes vegans if they fall short on key nutrients (namely zinc, iron and calcium). If you're still concerned, cooking, soaking or sprouting can counteract these nutrient-blockers.

Bottom Line

Antinutrients aren't a reason to ditch these healthy foods—beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables—which have so many other research-backed benefits.

Watch: How to Make Mediterranean Chickpea & Quinoa Bowls

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