Quinoa has been touted for a while now as a “superfood”. But the truth is quinoa is filled with dangerous lectins and is far from super – especially when it comes to supporting your health.
Dietary lectins can be found in all sorts of so-called “health” foods. You’ll find lectins in everything from raw kidney beans to white rice, from wheat germ to processed foods like sourdough bread. Even your favorite dairy products can contain lectins if the animals that produce the milk you drink consume lectin-rich feed. And the best thing to do when you come across lectin-rich foods like quinoa is to avoid them.
Of course, many have touted pseudo-grains like buckwheat and quinoa for their health benefits, but you should know it’s really not healthy given the lectins in quinoa.
What Are Lectins?
For starters, lectins are a plant’s system of self-defense. Since they can’t run or fight, plants need some way to deter those that come to eat them from wiping out their whole families. If consuming a plant makes you sick, chances are you won’t return to eat that plant again, right? That’s where toxic lectins come into play.
In the simplest terms, lectins are natural chemicals that act as a plant’s first line of protection. Their sole purpose is to discourage predators from eating their host plants.1 Luckily for plants (but unfortunately for humans), lectins are really good at their job. This means they can all-too-easily poison humans and affect their immune systems.
You’ll find lectins in all sorts of plant foods. For instance, nightshade fruits and veggies like eggplants and tomatoes have high lectin contents. And while some believe cooking them can reduce their effect, that’s only the case for a select few types of lectins. (Note: Pressure cooking can help reduce lectins in SOME legumes, but they should still only be consumed in moderation).
Still, most lectins are ruthless when they get into your system. To better understand why avoiding lectins is important, you should first learn about the dangers of these tiny, toxic plant proteins and how they can rough up your system.
How Do Lectins Attack?
You may assume that because plant lectins are actually proteins, they would be beneficial to your health, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lectins are stealthy. They’re actually antinutrients that attack the various systems in your body, from your digestive system to your immune system.
Basically, lectins latch onto the sugar molecules in your body and hold on for dear life. Once they glue themselves to the sugars in your body, they can travel like parasites riding on your blood sugar through your circulatory system. Or they can inhabit your gut or nervous system.
So when you consume high levels of lectins — like the ones in quinoa — they can poke holes in the cells that make up your body’s intestinal barrier. This barrier is your gut’s major line of defense, so if it is damaged, it won’t be able to keep bad microbes from infiltrating your gastrointestinal tract. When the barrier gets torn, the result can be immune system issues that seem a lot like food poisoning.2
In fact, lectin poisoning can occur when you eat too many lectin foods like raw legumes or wheat gluten. A lectin-free diet may help you avoid the damage lectins can cause, like serious abdominal pain, weight gain, vomiting, and diarrhea.3,4
If you limit your intake of foods with high lectin contents, you can help your system heal itself. A lectin-free diet, like the one Dr. Gundry proposes, is your best bet against lectin-induced damage.
Lectins And Grains
Now, you may have read somewhere that quinoa is a healthy grain because it doesn’t contain the lectin found in gluten. That much is true. Quinoa is gluten-free. But that does NOT make it lectin-free.
Additionally, while the pseudo-grain is high in its mineral content, it’s also high in phytic acid. And when a food is high in phytic acid, then the minerals and nutrients have a hard time being absorbed. This renders them, for all intents and purposes, useless. Phytic acid is a food inhibitor that collects good-for-you micronutrients and prevents them from being absorbed. Humans just don’t have the enzyme needed to break phytic acid down in their digestive systems.5
As far as lectins go, you can use a pressure cooker to reduce the lectin content in quinoa. (This will also work on beans, potatoes, and tomatoes). But even a pressure cooker can’t get rid of all the lectins in these foods. Because of this, it is highly recommended to consume pressure cooked quinoa in moderation — and only if you absolutely must. Otherwise, it’s best to avoid quinoa lectins altogether.
Foods To Eat On A Lectin-Free Diet
Of course, if you love quinoa or other small grains, you may be worried about finding the right lectin-free substitutes. But rest assured, there are still wonderful plant foods you can consume in place of quinoa.
One of the best substitutes for quinoa and other lectin-heavy grains is the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are resistant starches. That means they’re full of starches that escape digestion in the small intestine, but they’re also (at least partially) fermented in the colon. Sweet potatoes are also full of antioxidants like anthocyanin, which possess strong free radical scavenging potential.6
Resistant starches have been shown to carry some wonderful, potential health benefits. For instance, they may support a healthy glycemic response in your body, healthy blood cholesterol levels, and the production of short-chain fatty acids in your large intestine.7
Other great resistant starches that you should feel free to consume on a lectin-free diet include:
- Baobab fruit
- Cassava (or Yuca)
- Celery root
- Green bananas
- Green mango
- Green papaya
- Green plantains
- Siete tortillas
- Sweet potatoes
- Taro root
- Tiger nuts
- Cassava-flour tortilla chips
However, if you’re looking for a more grain-like experience, here are two wonderful options. They’re also resistant starches and will be able to mimic the experience of eating quinoa better than other resistant starches might.
Sorghum — Sorghum is a lectin-free whole grain that does well when used as an alternative for flour. But the grain also is great as a cereal. Sorghum contains helpful low digestibility proteins, minerals, and vitamins. Additionally, most sorghum contains beneficial polyphenols.8
Millet — Millet is another wonderful option when looking for a plant food that mimics grains. Millet is actually a seeded grass, but many people think of it as a grain. It’s full of protein and dietary fiber.9
Give Quinoa The Boot
In the end, if you give quinoa the boot, you’ll still have plenty of options when looking to cook something a little comforting. Try any number of the resistant starches shared in this article or look to experiment with millet or sorghum.
Again, you may find surprisingly tasty alternatives to some of your favorite quinoa dishes. And remember, just because a food says it’s gluten-free, doesn’t mean that it’s entirely lectin-free.