The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in ‘Healthy’ Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain

This article was originally published by our friend Dr. Mercola

Are you eating a healthy, whole food diet yet still struggle with weight gain and health problems? Part of the problem might have to do with lectins. Dr. Steven Gundry,1 author of “The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in ‘Healthy’ Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain,” makes a strong case for a lectin-free diet.

While trained as a cardiothoracic surgeon, Gundry now specializes in treating patients holistically, focusing on food. He’s been director of The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine for the past 17 years. Before that, he was a clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health, where he invented devices that reverse cell death associated with acute heart attacks.

He’s also been a professor of surgery and pediatrics at the Loma Linda School of Medicine and chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Loma University Medical Center. I read about 150 books per year, most of which relate to health. Many of these books I can read in less than an hour, because they’re just saying the same old thing. Gundry’s book is not one of those. It’s a great resource filled with novel information.

What Are Lectins?

From an evolutionary standpoint, any creature, including plants, has a built-in imperative to grow, thrive and propagate. Plants, being rooted into the ground, cannot outrun a predatory insect. Instead, plants use chemistry for self-defense. One of the plant kingdom’s self-defense systems is lectins — not to be confused with lecithin or leptin.

Lectins are plant proteins, sometimes called sticky proteins or glyca-binding proteins, because they seek out and bind to certain sugar molecules on the surface of cells. There are many types of lectins, and the main difference between them is the type of sugar each prefers and binds to.

Some — including wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), found in wheat and other grass-family seeds — bind to specific receptor sites on your intestinal mucosal cells and interfere with the absorption of nutrients across your intestinal wall. As such, they act as “anti-nutrients,” and can have a detrimental effect on your gut microbiome by shifting the balance of your bacterial flora — a common precursor to leaky gut.

“I like to think of it as they hack into our communication system, or any predator’s communication system,” Gundry says. “For instance, in insects, they attack a sugar called sialic acid which, among other things, sits between the endings of nerves. One nerve talks to the other nerve by acetylcholine jumping through that space.

Sialic acid allows that to happen. Lectins bind to sialic acid and so interrupt nerve transmission. If you think about it, paralyzing an insect is a great defense system because if the insect can’t move, bingo, you’ve solved the problem. One of the things I’ve learned through the years through my patients is we’re just a giant insect to a plant.

What may happen to an insect fairly instantaneously by eating some plant lectins may take years in us, who are giant insects, to manifest. It may manifest as neuropathy, it may manifest as brain fog, arthritis or heart disease. But the longer I do this, the more I’m convinced that almost every disease process … can be traced back to … plant lectins.

That’s a long-winded explanation for how plants don’t like us. They absolutely don’t want to be eaten. They’ve had 400 million years to work out defense systems — a really long time.”

The Role of Your Microbiome

One of the things that struck me about Gundry’s approach is that it targets the mitochondria and the microbiome, both of which are vital for optimal health. Few physicians, even those in the integrative medicine field, fully understand the importance of mitochondrial function, but Gundry certainly does. And, while the human genome has received a majority of the scientific attention, the bacterial microbiome genome is actually far more important. As noted by Gundry:

“Our microbiome is, I think, our early warning system, because about 99 percent of all the genes that make up [the human body] are actually nonhuman, they’re bacterial, viral and fungal … [from which] we’ve uploaded most of the information about interacting with our environment … because the microbiome is capable of almost instantaneous changing and information processing that we actually don’t have the ability to do.

We’re beginning to realize … that the microbiome is not only how we interact with plant materials … like lectins, but probably more importantly, our microbiome teaches our immune system whether a particular plant compound is a friend or foe [based on] how long we’ve known that plant compound.

There are lectins in everything. But the longer we’ve interacted with lectins and the longer our microbiome has interacted with them, the more our microbiome kind of tells our immune system, ‘Hey, guys, it’s cool. We’ve known these guys for 40 million years. Chill out. They’re a pain, but we can handle them.’

The Importance of Mitochondrial Function

With regard to mitochondria, “mitochondrial flexibility is one of the unique things that make us human,” Gundry says, comparing the human race to a “fat-storing ape.” Whether you ascribe to the evolutionary theory or not, humans and apes have many genetic similarities, but the ability to store fat is a unique human feature. No other great apes can do that.

Chimps, gorillas and orangutans carry 3 percent body fat. Few humans could ever achieve that low of a body fat percentage unless we were near death from starvation.

“The reason we’re designed to [store fat is to] be able to access fat for fuel,” Gundry says. “The reason why [humans] have been able to take over all parts of the world … [is] because we can cycle back and forth, having our mitochondria use fat for fuel or glucose for fuel. We’re designed to shift very quickly … even within 24 hours.

[Most people] no longer have that metabolic flexibility [because] we’ve been constantly bombarding our mitochondria with an overload of glucose as a fuel, and that really underlies, I think, most disease processes.”

How Intermittent Fasting Boosts Mitochondrial Flexibility

One of the strategies Gundry recommends and uses to improve his own metabolic flexibility is intermittent fasting. For nearly a decade now, he’s been fasting for 22 hours a day, five days a week, from January through June 1, which means he eats all his calories for the day during a two-hour window. On the weekends, he eats lunch and dinner.

“I don’t eat breakfast. I don’t eat lunch. I eat my calories between 6 and 8 o’clock at night. I do that because my wife and I are at home at that time. If I was really smart, I would [eat] earlier in the day, but, you know, you’ve got to be practical in one way or another …

In summer, I’ll have a smoothie with some MCT oil in it, half an avocado, some romaine lettuce, spinach, half a lemon and a little bit of vanilla or stevia. Then I won’t eat lunch. At dinner, same sort of thing, I try to pack all of my calories in between 6 and 8 o’clock at night … 

[June 1], I finished my winter fast, if you will. Now, why do I do that? [Historically], food was a rare thing to find [during the winter]. Again, our metabolic advantage is we’re really good at starvation. It’s what allowed us to survive.

We know that during food scarcity, not only do our mitochondria rev up, but more importantly, our entire immune system and genetic monitoring basically says, ‘Look, times are tough. We don’t know when the next good food supply is going to come. We’ve got to make it through to that next period. We’re going to look at every cell in our body. We’re going to look at whether they’re pulling their own weight.

Are they odd? Are they not very fuel-efficient? We’re going to jettison that. We’re going to create apoptosis until these cells commit suicide.’ It’s kind of like if we were in a hot air balloon and we’re heading for the mountain and we’re going to crash, we’ve got to start throwing things overboard to get more lift.

I think that’s a fundamental principle that you’ve known for a number of years and that I’ve certainly preached for a number of years. The more we understand that that’s how successful aging occurs and study successful agers, one of the things that’s fascinating, particularly in an animal model, is that this intermittent fasting, this challenging [your mitochondria], is the way to do it.”

Although I used to do 14- to 16-hour intermittent fasts, because I felt that it was wise to increase glycogen stores prior to strength training, I have come to realize that’s not true. In fact, it’s counterproductive, as carbs after strength training can increase insulin and diminish IGF-1 response and blunt the anabolic stimulus. So now I am fasting for 18 to 20 hours a day and do all my strength training in a fasted state.

The Importance of Ketogenic Cycling

Gundry also understands the importance of cycling in and out of nutritional ketosis. While your body is still burning sugar as its primary fuel, you’ll want to be quite strict about not going over your net carb allotment. But once your body has regained the metabolic flexibility to burn fat, it’s really important to cycle in and out or on and off.

I suggest doubling, tripling or even quadrupling your net carbs two days a week, because the metabolic “magic” actually happens during the refeeding phase. As noted by Gundry:

“You have to look at it evolutionarily. It really was feast or famine. When we hit large amounts of food, whether it was a fruit tree or whether it was honey or a wildebeest or a mastodon, there was no food storage system. People tend to forget that nobody walked out of their cave and said, ‘What’s for breakfast?’ There was no refrigerator to have organic berries in every day.

When we chanced upon fuel, then our beautiful design [allowed us to] eat large quantities of [food] and store it as fat. Because, very shortly, whether it was a period of drought, whether it was a period of winter, we were going to regress. I’d like people to think of circadian rhythms. Obviously, we have a 24-hour clock. We have a moon clock. We have seasonal clocks.

What I like people to think of is that we have a period of every year where [we’re in] a growth cycle … That’s the time of growth and it’s a time to reproduce. Then there’s a time of involution, whether it’s a tree dropping its leaves, whether it’s an animal hibernating.

That’s the time where we kind of take stock of everything. That yin and yang, that flow that would happen every year on seasonal basis has completely been lost. We have to have periods where we consume excess calories, then we have to have periods where the exact opposite happens.

Lectins Are Strongly Associated With Autoimmune Diseases of All Kinds

Since we just talked about carb-loading at least once or twice a week (once you’ve regained the ability to burn fat for fuel), it’s worth stressing that these ought to be healthy carbohydrates, and ideally lectin-free. While intermittent fasting and eating a ketogenic (high-fat, low-carb, moderate protein) diet will dramatically reduce your risk of chronic disease, lectins may still cause trouble. One of the primary issues is autoimmune diseases.

“One of the things I talk about in the book that really made me hyper-focused on lectins was a friend of mine who was a very early adopter of my first program. I call him Tony in the book. Tony had really bad vitiligo. That’s … where the [skin] pigmentation is lost. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disease.

What happens is we attack the pigment-forming cells in our skin called melanocytes. Melanocytes are actually modified neural cells. They migrate from the neural crest to our skin in embryonic development. When Tony started my program, a few months later, he came up to visit me. He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. My vitiligo is gone.’ I’m looking at him and I’m going, ‘Wow. That’s impressive.’

He said, ‘How did that happen?’ I could have said, ‘Well, this is a very anti-inflammatory diet. It’s high in antioxidants.’ But because I’m a researcher, I said, ‘No. That’s too simple.’ I said, ‘Melanocytes. Neural Cells. What’s the target of lectins in insects? Neural cells! Could it be that lectins are why [his body is] attacking his neural cells? What I’ve done is I’ve removed lectins from his diet.’

I lost track of him for a number of years. I was on a health panel in New York City two years ago. I saw him and he’s covered with vitiligo again. I said, ‘What happened?’ He says, ‘You know. I fell off [the diet]. I really need to get back on.’ I said, ‘This is a great experiment. Come on. Here’s the list. Go for it.’

We were just on a panel at Harvard two months ago. He’s chairing the panel. He says, ‘I’ve got to show you — everybody — the vitiligo’s gone because I took lectins back out of my diet. It sounds silly but here’s the proof.'”

Which Foods Have the Most Problematic Lectins?

Lectins are found in many of our most cherished foods, such as: 2,3

Potatoes Eggplants Tomatoes Peppers Goji berries Lima beans
Cashews Peanuts Sunflower seeds Chia seeds Pumpkin seeds Kidney beans
Squash Corn Quinoa Soybeans Wheat Lentils

Another common lectin is the A1 casein protein, found in most of today’s dairy cows. I’ve talked a lot about the benefits of raw milk on my site. The devil’s in the details however, and aside from being high in sugar, even raw dairy may cause problems if it has A1 casein.

“Casein A2 is the normal protein in milk, besides whey. It’s present in sheep, goats and water buffalos. But, most of the cows in the world are now casein A1 producers. They make a lectin-like protein called casein A1, which is metabolized in our gut to make beta-casomorphin, which is a very interesting thing. They can attach to the beta cell of the pancreas and incite an autoimmune attack on the pancreas.

I and others are pretty convinced that [many cases] of Type 1 juvenile diabetics is because of the casein A1 in milk. I’ve been convinced through the years that not only is it the problem, but people who think they’re lactose intolerant or that milk gives them mucus, it’s the casein A1 … Raw milk is great, as long as it came from the right cow … [Some] Jerseys are A1 and [some are] A2. Holsteins are A1.”

More and more people are now starting to recognize this, and there are even grassroots movements pushing for A2 milk in California and Ohio. Jeni’s Ice Cream gets all her milk from Snowville Creamery, which is an A2 farm. “I’ve actually talked to those people. They get it,” Gundry says. There have even been attempts to introduce A2 milk on a larger scale, but each attempt has been crushed by the American Dairy Council, for obvious reasons.

Fruit and Berries — Seasonal Treats

Gundry’s first rule is that what you stop eating is more important than what you start eating. “It’s absolutely true,” he says. “If you take away certain foods, you’ll be amazed [to find] that it’s certain foods that are the troublemakers.” His second rule is, take care of your gut microbiome. Rule No. 3 is “fruit might be as good as candy.” While he doesn’t expound on the importance of burning fat for fuel in his book, that’s really part of the equation. Once you’re able to burn fat, fruit can be a healthy carbohydrate to add once or twice a week.

“Exactly. I think part of the problem is the vast majority of Americans are insulin-resistant. One of the things that people should realize is that the modern fruit has been bred for sugar content … One of the things I ask people to do initially is give fruit the boot.

Fructose is a major toxin. We take fructose directly to our liver and detoxify it into triglycerides and uric acid. It always amazes me the number of people with gout who consume more concentrated fruit, like wine or beer. Beer is one of the underlying reasons that they have gout.

The other thing people should realize is that fructose is a direct renal toxin. The more fructose I can get out of people, the better. Having said that, once you get to a point where you have metabolic flexibility, I think things like berries are probably one of the best ways to carbohydrate load on the day you decided to do that … Sweet potatoes are great as well, [and] I’m a big fan of taro root.

Years ago [in June] … my wife and I were at a Santa Barbara farmers market. I was taking these gorgeous organic peaches and putting them into my bag. She says, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Aren’t you the guy who says give fruit the boot?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah. But it’s June and it’s time to eat fruit.’ She says, ‘OK, smart guy. Let’s do this. This summer, we’re going to give up fruit to see what happens’ …

So, we gave up fruit for one summer. We didn’t change anything else in our diet. My wife lost 6 pounds and I lost 8 pounds. It brought home to me that, again, our ancestors and the reason we have two-thirds of our tongue devoted to sweet taste is we are great fruit predators. Fruit was only available once a year. We utilized that fruit to gain weight for the winter … [Now] we can have it 365 days a year, but that’s not normal. So, always keep that in mind.”


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