Understanding the Lectin-Free Diet
The Plant Paradox, by Dr. Steven R. Gundry
Hardcover, 416 pages
Publisher: Harper Wave (2017)
CHAPTER 1: THE WAR BETWEEN PLANTS & ANIMALS
Don’t let the title of this chapter worry you. You haven’t mistakenly dipped into a botany textbook or parachuted into the set of Avatar. You have my assurance that this book will help you learn how to be slim and energized and lay the foundation for vibrant health and longevity. If you wonder why knowing how plants operate could possibly affect you—to say nothing of whether plants possess intention—fasten your seat belt and prepare to be amazed as we take a brief tour through the last 400 million years. Along the way, you’ll come to understand that leaves, fruits, grains, and other vegetable foods aren’t just sitting there accepting their fate as part of your dinner. They have their own sophisticated ways of defending themselves from plant predators like you, including the use of toxic chemicals.
But first, let me make one thing crystal clear. There is no question that consuming certain plants is essential for good health—and therein lies the paradox. They power your body and provide most of the hundreds of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that you need not just to live, but also to thrive. Over the last fifteen years, more than ten thousand of my patients have found that following my Plant Paradox Program results in both weight loss and remarkable reversals of numerous health problems. Meanwhile, people whose digestive issues had made them unable to keep pounds on were finally able to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Unlike the Paleo diet and other low-carb or even ketogenic diets, all of which stress heavy meat consumption, you’ll be dining mostly on certain plant foods, as well as a small amount of wild fish and shellfish and the occasional serving of pastured meat. I also provide vegan and vegetarian variations.
Quite simply, plants don’t want to be eaten—and who can blame them?
Now here’s a shocker to start off your reeducation: the more fruit I removed from an individual’s diet, the healthier he or she became and the more his or her cholesterol numbers and markers for kidney function improved. The more I removed vegetables that have lots of seeds, such as cucumbers and squash, the better my patients felt, the more weight they lost, and the more their cholesterol levels improved! (By the way, any so-called vegetable that has seeds, such as a tomato, cucumber, or squash, and even string beans, is botanically a fruit.) Plus, the more shellfish and egg yolks the patients ate, the lower their cholesterol numbers. Yes, that’s correct. Eating shellfish and egg yolks dramatically reduces total cholesterol. As I said in the Introduction, forget everything you thought you knew was true.
IT"S ALL ABOUT SURVIVAL
Every living thing possesses the drive to survive and pass on its genes to future generations. We consider plants our friends because they feed us, but plants regard all plant predators, including us, as enemies. However, even enemies have their uses. Therein lies the dilemma we plant eaters face: the very foods we need to eat have their own ways of discouraging us from consuming them and their offspring. The result is an ongoing battle between the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom.
But not all plants are created equal. Some of the very vegetables and fruits that sustain us simultaneously contain substances that can harm us. We’ve been glossing over this paradox for literally ten thousand years. Gluten, of course, is one example of a plant component that is problematic for some people, as the recent gluten-free craze has spotlighted. But glutens are just one example of the kind of protein known as a lectin and one factor in the Plant Paradox, and they may well have sent us off on a wild goose chase, as you’ll soon learn. I’ll introduce you to the larger world of lectins later in this chapter.
The Plant Paradox Program introduced in this book offers a broader, more nuanced, and more comprehensive look at how plants can sometimes hurt us and also reveals the link among lectins (and other defensive plant chemicals), weight gain, and disease. Humans and other plant eaters are not the only ones with an agenda. Quite simply, plants don’t want to be eaten—and who can blame them? Like any living thing, their instinct is to propagate the next generation of their species. To this end, plants have come up with devilishly clever ways to protect themselves and their offspring from predators. Again, let me make it crystal clear that I am not anti-plant. If you have ever had lunch with me, you’ll know that I am a devoted plant predator! That said, I will guide you through the confusing garden of plant options to teach you which are your friends, which are your foes, and which can be tamed in one way or another, perhaps with certain preparation methods or by eating them only in season.
In the deadly game of predator versus prey, an adult gazelle can often outrun a hungry lioness, an alert sparrow can take flight when stalked by a domestic cat, and a skunk can let loose a spray of noxious liquid to temporarily blind a fox. The stakes aren’t always rigged against the prey. But when the prey is a plant, the poor thing is helpless, right? No way!
Plants appeared on land about 450 million years ago, long before the first insects arrived 90 million years later. Until those plant predators turned up, it must have truly been a Garden of Eden for plants. There was no need to run, hide, or fight. They could grow and thrive in peace, unfettered in their production of the seeds that would become the next generation of their species. But when insects and other animals (and eventually our primate ancestors) arrived, it was game on. These species saw those tasty greens and seeds as dinner. And although plants don’t want to be eaten any more than you would, animals would seem to have the advantage, with wings and/or legs to propel them over to that grove of immobile greens to gobble them up.
Nightshades in the vegetable market . . . desired and abundant.
Not so fast. Plants have actually evolved an awesome array of defensive strategies to protect themselves, or at least their seeds, from animals of all shapes and sizes, including humans. Plants may use a variety of physical deterrents, such as color to blend into their surroundings; an unpleasant texture; sticky stuff such as resins and saps that entangle insects, provide protective cover by making sand or soil clump, or attract grit that makes them unpleasant to eat; or a simple reliance on a hard outer coating, such as a coconut, or spine-tipped leaves, such as an artichoke.
Other defensive strategies are far subtler. Plants are great chemists—and alchemists, for that matter: they can turn sunbeams into matter! They have evolved to use biological warfare to repel predators—poisoning, paralyzing, or disorienting them—or to reduce their own digestibility to stay alive and protect their seeds, enhancing the chances that their species will endure. Both these physical and chemical defensive strategies are remarkably effective at keeping predators at bay, and even sometimes at getting animals to do their bidding.
Because their initial predators were insects, plants developed some lectins that would paralyze any unfortunate bug that tried to dine on them. Obviously, there is a quantum size difference between insects and mammals, but both are subject to the same effects. (If you are suffering from neuropathy, take notice!) Clearly, most of you won’t be paralyzed by a plant compound within minutes of eating it, although a single peanut (a lectin) certainly has the potential to kill certain people. But we are not immune to the long-term effects of eating certain plant compounds. Because of the huge number of cells we mammals have, we may not see the damaging results of consuming such compounds for years. And even if this is happening to you, you don’t know it yet.
I learned of this connection via hundreds of my patients who respond almost instantly, often in fascinating ways, to these mischievous plant compounds. For this reason, I call these patients my “canaries.” Coal miners used to take caged canaries into the mines with them because the birds are especially subject to the lethal effects of carbon monoxide and methane. As long as the canaries sang, the miners felt safe, but if the chirping stopped, it was a clear signal to evacuate the mine posthaste. My “canaries” are more sensitive to certain lectins than the average person, which is actually an advantage in terms of seeking help sooner rather than later. You learn about some of them in the Success Stories throughout the book. (Note that all but a few names are pseudonyms to protect people’s privacy.)
SUCCESS STORY: An Unhappy 'Canary' Sings Again
Paul G. is thirty-two years old, a computer programmer, and formerly an active outdoorsman. He suffered from POTS syndrome (sudden low blood pressure) and was allergic to almost everything, breaking out regularly in severe hives. He couldn’t leave his own house or go to his parents’ house without experiencing a powerful reaction. Paul also had dangerously high cortisol and inflammation levels. Because he was allergic to most foods, he was emaciated. After ten months of following the Plant Paradox Program, Paul’s POTS syndrome was gone and his cortisol level was normal, as were his markers for inflammation. He now takes no medications and is enjoying camping and other outdoor activities. He is gaining weight and can now visit his parents’ home and other places without any allergic reactions.
PLANTS ARE MASTER MANIPULATORS
A little botany lesson here: Seeds are actually the plant’s “babies,” which become the next generation of a plant species. (No, I’m not being sentimental or anthropomorphic. Botanists and other scientists regularly refer to plant seeds as babies.) It’s a tough world out there for those potential plants, so a lot more are produced than will ever actually take root. Plant seeds can be divided into two basic types. Some are babies that plants actually want predators to eat. These seeds are encased in a hard coating designed to survive a trip all the way through the predator’s GI tract, although a large baby, such as a peach seed, might not be swallowed, and instead simply be left behind. Then there are “naked babies,” which lack such a protective coating; the plant does not want these to be eaten (more on them shortly).
Fruit trees, which bear seeds enclosed in a hull, are one example of the first type of plant seeds. The mother plant relies on animals to eat the seeds before they fall to the ground. The objective is to have their babies wind up some distance away from the mother plant, so that they don’t have to compete with it for sun, moisture, and nutrients. This increases the species’ chances of survival while also broadening its range. If the swallowed seed remains intact, it emerges from the animal along with a nice dollop of poop, to boost its chance of sprouting.
Thanks to the protective hull, there is no need for such plants to resort to a chemical defense strategy in the seeds. In fact, quite the opposite! The plant uses several devices to attract the predator’s attention, thereby encouraging the predator to eat its offspring. One is color. (For this reason, all animals that eat fruit have color vision.) But the plant doesn’t want its babies to be eaten before the protective coating is completely hardened, so it uses the color of unripe fruit (usually green) to convey the message “not yet” to the predator. Just in case the predator can’t interpret this signal, the plant often increases the toxin levels in the unripe fruit itself to make it absolutely clear that the time is not right. Before such things as the Granny Smith apple were introduced to this country, youngsters of my generation who ate green apples learned the hard way, via the green apple two-step (diarrhea), not to eat fruit before it was ripe.
So, when is the right time for the predator to consume the fruit? Again, the plant uses the color of the fruit to signal to predators that it is ripe, which means that the seed’s hull has hardened—and therefore the sugar content is at its height. Incredibly, the plant has chosen to manufacture fructose, instead of glucose, as the sugar in the fruit. Glucose raises insulin levels in primates and humans, which initially raises levels of leptin, a hunger-blocking hormone—but fructose does not. As a result, the predator never receives the normal message that it is full, which would signal it to stop eating. (Would it surprise you that great apes gain weight only during the time of year when fruit is ripe?) That makes for a win-win for predator and prey. The animal obtains more calories, and because it keeps eating more and more fruit and therefore more seeds, the plant has a better chance of distributing more of its babies. Of course, this is no longer a win-win for most modern humans, who don’t need the additional calories in ripe fruit that were so essential for hunter-gatherers and our ape relatives. And even if we still needed those calories, until the last few decades, most fruit was available only once a year, in the summer. As will soon become clear, year-round availability is making you sick—and overweight!
TIMING IS EVERYTHING . . . BUT LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING
So as we’ve learned, plants use color to communicate the message that their fruit is ready to harvest, meaning the mature seed hull is hard and has the best chance of making it through the predator’s digestive tract unscathed. In this case, green means “stop” and red (and orange and yellow) means “go.” Red, orange, and yellow signal sweetness and desirability to your brain, a concept that food marketers have long known about and employed. Next time you are in the snack food aisle in the supermarket, check out the packaging and signage and you’ll see that both forms of marketing are dominated by these warm colors.
Plants have long taught us to associate red, yellow, and orange colors with ripeness; however, now when you buy fruit in North America in December, it was likely grown in Chile or another country in the Southern Hemisphere, picked slightly unripe, and then given a blast of ethylene oxide when it arrived at its destination. The ethylene oxide exposure changes the color to make the fruit appear ripe and ready to eat, but the lectin content remains high because the protective coating of the seed never fully matured and the fruit never got the message from the parent plant to reduce the lectin content. Again, when fruit is allowed to ripen naturally, the parent plant reduces the amount of lectins surrounding the seeds in the fruit and skin and then communicates this information by changing color.
In contrast, gassing artificially changes the color of the fruit, but the lectin protection system remains in effect. Thanks to the high lectin count, eating fruit picked too early is detrimental to your health. That’s one reason, in Part II, I recommend that you eat only locally grown produce and only during key times during the year. In Europe, most out-of-season fruit is grown in Israel or North Africa. Because it does not have to travel a long distance over several days, it may be picked ripe and not have to be gassed. It’s possible that eating naturally ripened fruit with lower lectin content helps explain why Europeans are generally healthier and slimmer than those of us on the other side of the “pond.”
In the case of naked seeds, plants use a divergent strategy. These grasses, vines, and other plants that grow out in the open fields have already chosen a fertile spot in which to grow. They want their babies to fall in place and take root there. That way, after the parent plants die off in the winter, the babies will sprout the following season, replacing the earlier generation. There is no advantage to being carried off, so the plant must discourage insects or other animals from consuming its babies and transporting them elsewhere. Instead of a hard casing, the naked seed contains one or more chemicals that weaken predators, paralyze them, or make them ill, so they won’t make the mistake of eating the plant again. These substances include phytates, often referred to as antinutrients, which prevent absorption of minerals in the diet; trypsin inhibitors, which keep digestive enzymes from doing their job, interfering with the predator’s growth; and lectins, which are designed to disrupt cellular communication by, among other things, causing gaps in the intestinal wall barrier, a condition known as leaky gut. Whole grains actually contain all three of these defensive chemicals in the fibrous hull, husk, and bran. (Teaser alert: This is just one reason that the idea of “whole-grain goodness” is a huge misconception, as you’ll learn in chapter 2.)
To find out if the plant was aware of being eaten, scientists re-created the vibrations that a caterpillar makes as it eats the leaves.
Still other plant-predator dissuaders include tannins, which impart a bitter taste, and the alkaloids found in the stems and leaves of the nightshade family. You may already know that nightshades, which include such culinary favorites as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers, are highly inflammatory. We’ll come back to the nightshade family, which also includes goji berries, as well as to grains and to beans and other legumes, later.
DO PLANTS THINK?
Plotting to harm us? Concocting chemicals to deter predators? Convincing animals to transport their seeds to other locales to expand their territory? Such strategies suggest that plants are capable of intention, perhaps even of learning. Now you’re thinking, come on, surely they can’t do that. To be sure, plants don’t think in the way you and I conceive of thinking. But any living thing wants to survive and reproduce. In terms of evolutionary strategy, whether you are a “simple” plant or a complex “super” organism like a human being, any compound that can be produced, even if by accident, and ensures more copies of your genes will survive and be propagated gives you an advantage. If you’re a plant, any compound that makes your predator think twice about eating your offspring is a good thing from your viewpoint. Think about that the next time you encounter a jalapeño pepper.
Did you know that a plant knows when it is being eaten? Well, as recent research reveals, it does, but it doesn’t just sit there and accept its fate. It deploys troops to defend itself, in an effort to stop the predator. In this case, the research subject was a plant called thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), a member of the cabbage family. Thale cress was the first plant to have its genome sequenced, so researchers have a better understanding of its inner workings than of most other plants. To find out if the plant was aware of being eaten, the scientists re-created the vibrations that a caterpillar makes as it eats the leaves. They also recorded other vibrations that the plant might experience, such as that of wind blowing. Sure enough, the cress responded to the vibrations that mimic a munching caterpillar by upping its production of mildly toxic mustard oils and delivering them to the leaves to deter predators. The plant showed no response to wind or other vibrations.
Another example is the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica), which is deserving of its name. It has learned to protect itself from being disturbed, which includes being eaten, by defensively folding its leaves in response to touch. In fact, the leaf-folding behavior is more pronounced and persistent when it grows in an area where it has been particularly subject to interference than when it grows in an undisturbed area. Whoa! Thinking, reasoning plants! This isn’t their first rodeo either.
Plants also respond to circadian rhythms, just as humans and other animals do. In one study, researchers found that the so-called clock gene in plants determines the time of day a plant will produce an insecticide to coincide with the time a predator is likely to be on the prowl. When the researcher removed the clock gene from the plant, it lost its ability to produce the toxin.
Finally, let’s focus on the plant chemical you had probably never heard of until you picked up this book: lectins. Yes, you are reading that word correctly. It is lectin, not lecithin (a fatty substance in a plant or animal) or leptin (the appetite-regulating hormone mentioned above). When bugs start eating leaves on one side of a plant, the lectin content doubles almost immediately on the other side, as the plant valiantly struggles to dissuade further consumption. As you’ll come to learn, lectins play a key role in the defensive strategies that plants use to protect themselves, and they also play a key role in harming us.
Yes, there are ways to make marinara sauce without tomatoes and bell pepper. [o]
SO, WHAT ARE lectins anyway? For the most part, with one important exception, they are large proteins found in plants and animals, and they are a crucial weapon in the arsenal of strategies that plants use to defend themselves in their ongoing battle with animals. Scientists discovered lectins in 1884 as part of their investigation into different blood types. Until now, you have probably been familiar with only one famous—or, rather, infamous—lectin: gluten. There are many more, and soon I’ll introduce you to the most important of these—and believe me, you’ll want to know them. (Just as a teaser, 94 percent of humans are born with antibodies to the lectin in peanuts.)
How exactly do lectins help plants defend themselves? Well, lectins in the seeds, grains, skins, rinds, and leaves of most plants bind to carbohydrates (sugars), and particularly to complex sugars called polysaccharides, in the predator’s body after it consumes the plant. Like smart bombs, lectins target and attach themselves to sugar molecules, primarily on the surface of the cells of other organisms—particularly fungi, insects, and other animals. They also bind to sialic acid, a sugar molecule found in the gut, in the brain, between nerve endings, in joints, and in all bodily fluids, including the blood vessel lining of all creatures. Lectins are sometimes referred to as “sticky proteins” because of this binding process, which means they can interrupt messaging between cells or otherwise cause toxic or inflammatory reactions, as we’ll discuss later. For example, when lectins bind to sialic acid, one nerve is unable to communicate its information to another nerve. If you have ever experienced brain fog, thank lectins. Lectins also facilitate the attachment and binding of viruses and bacteria to their intended targets. Believe it or not, some people—those who are more sensitive to lectins—are therefore more subject to viruses and bacterial infections than others. Think about that if you seem to get sick more often than your friends do.
In addition to the potential to cause health problems, lectins can also stimulate weight gain. The reason that wheat became the grain of choice in northern climates is thanks to a uniquely small lectin in wheat, known as wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), which is responsible for wheat’s weight-gaining propensity. You read that correctly. Wheat helped your ancestors gain or maintain weight in ancient times when food was often scarce; back then, a “wheat belly” was a great thing to possess! And guess what? That WGA in the “ancient” forms of wheat is just as present in modern wheat—hence the weight gain. We will explore these implications further in the following chapters.
A plant will do just about anything to keep your mouth off its seeds and save its babies, including sacrificing its leaves. By design, lectins either kill any animal that dares to eat it outright or at the very least make that animal feel unwell. After all, a weakened enemy is more vulnerable. Assuming they survive their initial encounter with such a plant, insects and other animals quickly learn not to eat any plant (or its seeds) that makes them feel bad or fail to thrive. The animal decides that that plant is not worth eating and moves on to greener fields and other species, while the plant and its babies survive. Again, it’s a win-win situation and the détente prevails.
Ancient humans developed a host of ways to deal with lectins. Unfortunately, modern humans aren’t so savvy. Instead, if we eat something that doesn’t agree with us or makes us sick, we find or invent something—think Nexium, a stomach-acid reducer, or a drug such as ibuprofen that lessens pain—so we can continue to eat a substance designed to destroy, cause pain in, or at least weaken us.
Speaking of stomach acid, get this: Not only do we keep eating foods that are designed to hurt us, but we also feed them to animals in the food chain, which suffer similarly from their diet. Left to their own devices, cows would never consume corn and soybeans—their natural diet is grasses and other forage—but that is exactly what they are fed on industrial farms. The lectins in corn and soy are far more effective than grass in making the cow heavier and giving them a better ratio of fat. (That same corn and grain in processed foods bulk you up as well, as you will learn in chapter 5.) Both soy and corn are laden with lectins foreign to cows, causing them to develop such severe heartburn and pain in swallowing that they actually stop eating. Yes, cows develop heartburn from these lectins, just as you do. To keep their beasts eating more of this fattening food, farmers dose them with calcium carbonate, the active ingredient in Tums. In fact, half of the world’s production of this compound is added to cattle feed to stop the heartburn, ensuring that cows continue to eat their unnatural diet of corn and soybeans.
Nightshades are a common food group found in many diets, including the Paleo diet. [o]
YOU REALLY ARE WHAT YOU EAT
THE LECTINS IN beans and other legumes, wheat and other grains, and certain other plants are especially problematic for humans. First, not enough time has elapsed to allow our species to develop immunological tolerance to these substances; nor has sufficient time elapsed for the human gut microbiome to become fully capable of breaking down these proteins. Numerous health problems are the result, with gastric distress as just the tip of the iceberg. (If you are impatient to know the range of the resultant potential health problems, turn to this list, and prepare to be shocked.) Such plants are not the only place in which you’ll encounter lectins; they also turn up in animal products. When cows and other animals eat grain- or soy-based feed, both of which are full of lectins, these proteins wind up in the animals’ milk or meat. The same thing happens with the meat and eggs of chickens raised on feed full of lectins. Ditto for farm-raised seafood, which dine on soy and corn as well. Until I saw firsthand in many of my “canaries” how removing such foods from their diet was the final key to restored health, I would not have believed this.
In the mid-1980s, a personal experience effectively drove this point home. I had moved my wife and two young daughters to London, where I was a heart surgery fellow at Great Ormond Street, the renowned children’s hospital. At that time, chickens in England were fed primarily ground-up fish meal. My girls missed their favorite American food of fried chicken, so as a special treat I took them to the only KFC in town for dinner. No sooner had they bitten into a piece of chicken than they turned up their noses, claiming it was fish, not chicken. I tried to persuade them it was indeed chicken, but in a way, they were right. Because it had been fed fish, the chicken was actually a fish. At that time, I didn’t give any thought to the fact that a chicken fed corn or soybeans isn’t actually a chicken, but instead a clucking, walking grain or bean.
As the old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” But you are also what the thing you ate, ate. When you consume organically raised produce and pastured animal products—and I do not mean free-range—the nutrients in the plants and the nutrients the plants got from the soil (as well as the plants the animals ate) pass into your body and are incorporated into every one of your cells. Knowing how the food you eat was grown and raised is not just a lifestyle choice; it also directly affects your health.
There is now conclusive evidence that organically grown vegetables and fruits do contain more vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown produce, but, more important, they contain more polyphenols. (Without getting too technical, these beneficial plant chemicals are found in tea, coffee, fruits and berries, and some vegetables.) The same applies to eating pastured animal foods. But the implications of being what you eat (or what the thing you ate, ate) don’t stop there. The lectins in the grain and soy fed to conventionally raised animals end up in the flesh, milk, or eggs of these animals, and ultimately in your gut, where they can still work their damage.
Even organic and so-called free-range animals contain these lectins because they, too, are fed soy and corn, albeit organic versions. (And by the way, it is perfectly legal to keep an animal inside a warehouse its entire life and call it free-range, as long as a door to the outside is open for a mere five minutes a day. Never mind that it is unlikely that any single bird packed cheek by jowl with thousands of other chickens ever manages to work its way to this door.) There is a vast difference in a burger (or milk or cheese) made from a cow that grazed on grass in the summer and ate hay in the winter and a burger made from an animal raised in a stockyard on lectin-rich corn and soy. To start, there’s the difference in the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. With certain exceptions, omega-6 fats are inflammatory and omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory. Corn and soy contain primarily omega-6 fats, while grass is high in omega-3 fats. But there’s more to it than that. Remarkably, those same soybeans and grains make cows much fatter than do the equivalent number of calories in grass. This means that the source of calories plays an important role in how you metabolize them. Keep that in mind when we discuss weight gain. And compounding the issue, of course, is that in the United States, almost all soy and corn is also produced from genetically modified seed. We’ll delve further into the effects of consuming GMO foods in chapter 4.
SUCCESS STORY: Life After Chicken
Yvonne K., a fifty-year-old Los Angeles woman, had severe lupus with joint pain, fatigue, and rashes, despite taking immune-suppressing drugs and practicing meditation. After a friend suggested she see me, I put her on the Plant Paradox Program. Within a month, the joint pain, fatigue, and most of the rashes had resolved. She stopped her immunosuppressant medications and continued to do well. When I saw Yvonne about four months later, she was ecstatic about what had happened, except for some persistent eczema on her eyelids. She told me she was vigilant about avoiding all bad foods, and we went over the lists of good foods and bad foods with a fine-tooth comb. When we got to the good food list, I asked if she was eating any chicken. She replied that she ate only organic free-range chicken. And that’s when we figured it out: she was effectively eating what the chickens had eaten—namely, corn and soybeans. She was an indirect grain and legume eater! We immediately removed chicken from her diet, and sure enough, within two weeks Yvonne’s eczema vanished. Three years later, it is still gone, and so is the free-range chicken.
Half of my patients seek me out because they have failed to show improvement on other famous gut-healing regimens . . .
THE BALANCE OF POWER
So, where do humans stand in the war between the plant and animal worlds? Are we just pushovers for the damage that plant lectins and other chemicals can inflict on our poor bodies? Not at all. It’s important to understand that although lectins can be toxic or inflammatory and have the ability to mess with your body’s internal messaging system, all animals, including humans, have developed their own defensive systems to render lectins harmless or at least mitigate their effects. A four-pronged defense mechanism protects us from the toxic effects of plants, and specifically of lectins.
1. THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE is the mucus in your nose and saliva in your mouth, collectively called mucopolysaccharides (meaning many sugars). Guess what those sugars are there for? To trap lectins. Remember, lectins like to bind to sugars. The next time your nose runs after eating spicy foods, you’ll know that you’ve just eaten some lectins. That extra dose of mucus not only traps the lectins you just ate but also adds an additional coating to your esophagus as your meal works its way down.
2. THE SECOND LINE OF DEFENSE is stomach acid, which in many cases does the job of digesting certain lectin proteins, although not all of them.
3. THE THIRD LINE OF DEFENSE is the bacteria in your mouth and gut (part of your microbiome), which have evolved to efficiently consume lectins before they have the opportunity to interact with the wall of your gut. The longer you have been eating particular plant lectins, the longer you have been producing gut bacteria specifically designed to defuse them. That’s why if you eliminate all gluten from your diet, the gluten-eating bugs die off; then when you do revert to eating gluten or eat something you don’t realize contains gluten, you cannot digest them, causing discomfort.
4. THE FOURTH AND FINAL LINE OF DEFENSE is a layer of mucus produced by certain cells throughout your intestines. Like the mucus in your nose, mouth, throat, and extending all the way to your anus, this layer of gut mucus acts as a barrier. It keeps the plant compounds you have eaten in the gut where they belong, using the sugars in the mucus to trap and absorb lectins. If you’re a Star Wars or Star Trek fan, think of this mucosal layer as an activated force shield!
Taken all together, it’s an effective system. Nevertheless, the more troops in the form of lectins thrown at these defenses, the more the sugar molecules in the mucous layer are used up, and the more likely lectins are to get where they really want to go: the living cells that line your gut. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Of course, you do have another powerful weapon to employ in your battle with lectins—your brain. Once you know that certain foods are problematic, you should avoid them, eat them rarely, or mitigate their effects with the sorts of preparation methods our forebears long knew about, which we’ll discuss in good time. You’ll also soon learn why the use of drugs that eliminate stomach acid and the adoption of a completely gluten-free diet are ill advised except in that small portion of the population diagnosed with celiac disease. Once you understand more about your gut and the microbes that call it home, you can use your brain to better correct these missteps.
So there you have the human defense strategy—and I’ll share with you the specifics of how to fortify your defenses in Part II—but like the setup for an NFL football game, let’s now look at the lectin offensive lineup. Plants attack your formidable defense system with their own three-pronged approach, making you feel sick on several fronts.
Examples of a Plant Paradox meal plan. [o]
LECTIN ATTACK STRATEGY #1: Get Through the Gut Wall
The first mission of lectins is to pry apart what are called tight junctions between the cells in the mucosal wall lining your intestine. Believe it or not, the lining of your intestine is only one cell thick, while its surface area is equivalent to the size of a tennis court. Imagine that a wall just a single cell thick is responsible for manning this huge border. Your intestinal cells absorb vitamins, minerals, fats, sugars, and simple proteins, but not large proteins—and lectins are relatively large proteins. If all is well with your gut health and its mucous layers, lectins should not be able to squeeze past the mucosal cells. But if you ever engaged in the old playground game of red rover, think of how the big kids tried to pry your arms apart to break through the line. That’s exactly what happens when lectins attack your mucosal wall.
If one or more of the four lines of defense detailed above are breached, lectins can pry apart the tight junctions in the intestinal wall by binding with receptors on certain cells to produce a chemical compound called zonulin. Zonulin opens up the spaces between the cells of the intestinal lining, which enables lectins to access the surrounding tissues, lymph nodes and glands, or bloodstream, where they have no business being. Once there, they act like any foreign protein, prompting your body’s immune system to attack them. Think of when you get a splinter under your skin, and how your body’s response is to attack the splinter with white blood cells, creating swelling and redness. While you can’t see that response to lectins gaining access to off-limits territory in your body, I assure you that invading lectins prompt your immune system to respond in a similar fashion. I routinely see this when I measure inflammatory cytokines, which act like air raid sirens to alert the immune system to an incoming threat.
LECTIN ATTACK STRATEGY #2: Confuse the Immune System with Molecular Mimicry
There are many examples in the animal kingdom of creatures that mimic other species to their own advantage. Some moths mimic spiders to get their spider predators to leave them alone. The harmless scarlet king snake looks remarkably like the deadly coral snake, creating a powerful deterrent to predators. Likewise, plants may mimic birds or insects to keep from being eaten by them. One insect, the well-named walking stick, looks just like a dried twig, helping protect it from predators. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that plants purposely make lectins that are virtually indistinguishable from other proteins in your body, a tactic called molecular mimicry.
Lectins are nearly indistinguishable from certain other proteins in your body. By mimicking such proteins, lectins fool the host’s immune system, causing it to attack the body’s own proteins. Or the lectins bind to cell receptors, acting like a hormone or blocking a hormone, thus disrupting communications within the body and wreaking havoc (see below). I’m sure that on more than one occasion, you have had a passerby hail you down, using someone else’s name, only to apologize when he or she realizes it is a case of mistaken identity. Molecular mimicry is similarly a case of inappropriate pattern matching.
Our immune system cells and other cells use “bar-code” scanners called TLRs (toll-like receptors) to identify proteins as friend or foe. These pattern receptors, built over hundreds of millions of years, have been subjected to new patterns in certain foods that unfortunately mimic a whole different set of compounds that instruct cells—particularly, immune and fat cells—what to do. For instance, these compounds instruct fat cells to store fat when they shouldn’t be storing fat, or they tell our white blood cells to attack our own bodies in a case of mistaken identity. Some of these compounds are so new that most of our ancestors never encountered them until five hundred years ago. And some, the really bad ones, we’ve encountered for only the last fifty years! We’ll go into greater detail on the insidious effects of molecular mimicry in chapter 2.
LECTIN ATTACK STRATEGY #3: Disrupt Cellular Communication
Some lectins also disrupt transmissions between your cells by mimicking or blocking hormonal signals. Hormones are proteins that fit into actual docking ports on the walls of all cells and release information about what the hormone wants a cell to do. For example, the hormone insulin enables cells to allow glucose to enter and provide fuel. If there is excess glucose, insulin attaches to fat cells and directs them to store the glucose as fat for use when there’s less food. Once the hormone releases information, the cell informs the hormone that the message has been received and the hormone backs out of the dock, so the dock is ready for the next hormone. In order to do any of these things, the docking port for insulin has to be open and available. However, lectins can bind to important docking ports on cell walls, either giving wrong information or blocking release of the correct information. For example, the lectin WGA bears a striking resemblance to insulin. It can attach to the insulin docking port as if it were the actual insulin molecule, but unlike the real hormone, it never lets go—with devastating results, including reduced muscle mass, starved brain and nerve cells, and plenty of fat. Ouch!
A PLANT-BASED DIET
Just to reiterate, I am not anti-vegetable. Far from it! And therein lies the paradox. We may be at war with plants, but they (or at least most of them) contain the vitamins, minerals, and a long list of flavonoids, antioxidants, polyphenols, and other micronutrients essential for our microbiome’s health—and, consequently, our health.
The Plant Paradox Program is actually a microbiome- and mitochondria-centric program that recommends a diverse array of the right plant foods at the right time, prepared the right way, in the right amounts. By the time you have finished reading this book, you’ll know exactly which plant foods to eat, which to avoid, and how to prepare certain foods to mitigate the impact of lectins. But you won’t subsist on plants alone. The source of most of the animal protein you’ll be eating is wild seafood, so I call this program a “vegaquarian” diet.
Half of my patients seek me out because they have failed to show improvement on other famous gut-healing regimens, such as the GAPS diet, the SCD, and the Low FODMAP diet. What my colleagues in gut health don’t recognize is that while numerous factors are important in healing leaky gut, you must remove the offending proteins that are forcing the wall of the gut open in the first place. Until you do this, you are merely doing the equivalent of bailing water out of a leaky boat. Unless you fill the holes and stop making new ones, the boat (and you) will continue to sink.
Fortunately, there are ways to outwit the damaging effects of lectins, which I will reveal in the following chapters. Following the three phases of the Plant Paradox Program, you will initially remove the most problematic lectins so that you can heal your gut. Most people can later reintroduce some lectins, properly pretreated, in moderation. Nor is everyone equally sensitive to individual lectins. The longer your ancestors had been eating a certain leaf or other plant part that contains a lectin, the more opportunity your immune system and microbiome had to evolve to tolerate that lectin. At some point, they both evolve to merely shrug their shoulders when confronted with this particular protein.
In the next chapter, we’ll delve deeper into the world of lectins to understand how they are leading the charge in the war within your body. We’ll also explode the myth of many so-called healthy foods, which, as you’ll learn, are actually the hidden cause of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, and all autoimmune diseases. ≈ç
STEVEN R. GUNDRY is s a former cardiac surgeon and currently runs his own clinic investigating the impact of diet on health. Gundry conducted cardiology research in the 1990s and was a pioneer in infant heart transplant surgery. He is the founder and Director of the Centre for Restorative Medicine in Palm Springs, California.