IF you’re still feeling a bit queasy after the festive splurge, the fault may lie with, not your own greed, but a hitherto unknown toxic substance that has unleashed chemical warfare in your body.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to be bombarded by advertisements promising to protect me from this dire threat.
Every social media platform seemed to be infested with warnings about a particular kind of protein called lectins, described on one site as “the cloaked thugs of the anti-nutrient underworld”.
Daredevil that I am, I ignored the doomsayers and ate pretty much what I would always eat at this time of year, by which I mean a bit too much of all the good things.
Had I taken the warnings seriously, however, I would have struggled to eat much of anything at all.
High lectin foods to be avoided at all costs apparently include: grains of any kind, especially whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, potatoes, milk and dairy products, eggs, seafood, and most fruits and vegetables, especially those of the nightshade family.
Actually, reading some of the sites, you might come to the conclusion it would be better to avoid all foods entirely and get your nutrition instead from a range of pills, which, helpfully, many sites have for sale at a special price for today only. You’d better be quick, though, as stocks are limited.
Lectins, in case you haven’t encountered them before, are a diverse group of small carbohydrate-binding proteins that are present in pretty much all living organisms, including humans. This means, obviously, that they are present in just about all foods.
Some are, indeed, toxic to humans, especially in high doses. Eating raw kidney beans is a bad idea, for example, but does anybody do that and, if so, why? Other lectins may actually be helpful, though research on that is limited.
The foremost proponent of the current antilectin charge is US cardiac surgeon-turned-entrepreneur Dr Steven Gundry.
Lectin-containing plants “are literally declaring war on our bodies – dropping little bombs that wreak havoc on our intestines and immune systems,” he explains on his Gundry MD website.
The site seems at times to take its tone from TV evangelism.
“If you’ve tried everything and nothing has worked … I’d like to offer you HOPE,” Dr Gundry promises potential customers.
The “Gundry Way”, with its long list of foods to be avoided, might tax even the most disciplined dieter but, happily, Dr Gundry has a solution for the weak-willed among us.
Among his cornucopia of revolutionary potions, variously designed to help you look younger, lose weight or feel less stressed, is the “lectin shield” dietary supplement said to block the evil protein invaders (just US$79.95 for 30 days’ worth).
The tablets’ nine “cutting-edge ingredients” will apparently nourish your gut lining, support your immune system, reduce your appetite and help relieve joint discomfort. But that’s not all, the spiel goes on:
“… and [they will] help you get the body you want, the energy you deserve, and the vitality you know is inside – just waiting to break free*”
*individual results may vary
On top of all that, the tablets promote “regularity and pleasant bathroom visits”, which sounds like something out of a 19th-century health manual – perhaps not inappropriate when you consider that century’s enthusiasm for cure-all potions.
So, do we need to be worried about lectins? Dietitian Cara Rosenbloom doesn’t think so.
“Articles that promote the lectin-free diet cite it as a miraculous cure-all for arthritis, multiple sclerosis and even cancer,” she writes in the Washington Post. “That’s the first sign it’s a fad – overblown promises of astonishing health benefits before any clinical proof exists.”
The little research done has mostly looked at isolated lectins, rather than actual foods, Rosenbloom says, making it of little use when considering our human diets.
On top of that, a lectin-free diet would mean cutting out a huge number of foods known to have health benefits.
“Whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, dairy, eggs and fruit – they’re all out,” Rosenbloom writes. “That’s pretty much my entire grocery list. Obviously, this diet is not sustainable, and it unnecessarily cuts out a wide range of nutritious ingredients.”
But, hey, who cares about a balanced diet when there’s inner vitality to be unleashed at just $79.99 a pop.
Jane McCredie is a health and science writer based in Sydney. You can find her on Twitter @janemccredie
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless that is so stated.