Why athletes shouldn't fear the plant protein
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In ourdaily news series, experts address some of the latest fitness, nutrition, and health topics.
Today’s Topic: Are lectins dangerous?
The Science:According to Steven Gundry, MD, author of Plant Paradox, lectins (a compound found in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) are the number one dangerin the diets of Americans. The buzzy new nutrition book got everyone from health-conscious athletes to the PhDs at Equinox talking. However, it turns out that the book’s main focus, that lectins are toxic and should be avoided, "is total BS," says John Berardi, PhD and co-founder of Precision Nutrition.
Expert Insight: "The key thing with lectins (and most nutrients, for that matter), is the dose. As the old saying goes, the dose makes the poison," says Brian St. Pierre, R.D., a fitness and nutrition coach with Precision Nutrition. "Lectins are a protein that bind to cell membranes," he says. Legumes, grains, and nightshades like tomatoes and eggplant contain the most lectins, while leafy greens, squash, berries, and apples are lower on the scale. However, what's important is the preparation. "They can cause damage to intestinal tissue if you consume very large amounts or don’t cook certain plants first (just a few sprouted red kidney beans, for instance, would result in some terrible GI symptoms)," says St. Pierre. "But people don't eat raw legumes, we eat cooked legumes and cooking dramatically lowers lectin content, as well as the activity of the remaining lectins to a point where there is no harm for most folks, and even potential benefits," he notes. "The body uses them for basic functions like cell-to-cell adherence, inflammation control, and programmed cell death. Lectins may even reduce tumor growth and decrease incidence of certain diseases," he adds.
The Bottom Line: Eliminating lectins from your diet isn't the answer, but rather, "the key is to keep the dose in perspective," notes St. Pierre. Simply cooking foods greatly reduces lectin content. Raw kidney beans contain from 20,000 to 70,000 lectin units, while fully cooked beans usually contain between 200 and 400, explains St. Pierre."As usual, things fall on a bell curve: minimal to no lectins consumed equals no harm, but possibly some missing benefit; moderate amounts of lectins consumed equals minimal to no negative effects as well as some possible health benefits; high lectin consumption equals potential for harm," he says. When you compare raw tomatoes against cooked ones, assuming enough heat was applied during the cooking process (not a simple al dente searing), then the lectins within the cooked tomatoes may very well be rendered inactive," adds Kurtis Frank, BASc in Applied Human Nutrition and the research director at the independent nutrition site Examine.com. Still, you'd be missing out by eliminating raw tomatoes, and other lectin-containing foods since "they offer benefits from other nutrients such as fiber, phytonutrients, and micronutrients," adds St. Pierre. Plus, "humans don't generally consume large enough doses of uncooked foods [like raw tomatoes] so it's highly unlikely you'd reach a too-high amount of lectin consumption," he says.