The Plant Paradox and Lectin Free Diets: Are Beans Toxic?
We’re living in what many people describe as the post-truth era, meaning that just because something isn’t true, doesn’t mean that some people refrain from speaking about it as if it is.
Intelligence has nothing to do with whether you believe these untruths; coming from people who are supposed to be trusted professionals, they sometimes sound, well, really true and logical. It’s no wonder, then, why people like Steven Gundry sell thousands of books like The Plant Paradox.
It’s so sad when doctors who know nothing about nutrition (I’m looking at you, Dr. Wheat Belly and Dr. Oz, among many) think they’re qualified to school people on what they should be eating. It’s even sadder when their crazy ideas confuse and scare people about food.
Impressionable people seem to see MD credentials after someone’s name and it’s as though they lose any sense of critical thinking. My father was a surgeon, and I’ve worked with many, many doctors in my life.
Most have one thing in common: They know very little about nutrition. In-depth nutrition education is just not in their curriculum, and although some learn nutrition skills after the fact, I’ve literally never seen a fad diet doctor who speaks the truth about food.
Gundry claims that for the past fifteen years he has tried to better himself by focusing on integrative practices, and in his typical self-serving language, says, ‘The rest of the medical world is still catching up’. Excuse me.
This from a man who sells fat blockers and probiotic skin cream, and who is endorsed by Goop and Dr. Oz.
The Plant Paradox has recently been in the news because Kelly Clarkson claims that this diet is the reason why she lost a pile of weight and corrected her thyroid condition. She claims that she didn’t even exercise.
Naturally, people are curious if it will have the same effect on them. Just so you know, food doesn’t correct a thyroid condition unless – and this is a big unless – you’re already deficient in iodine, and then you start eating a diet that’s high in iodine. The chances that Kelly Clarkson, or any of you, are iodine-deficient is very low.
When someone loses a ton of weight on any eating plan, I like to take a look at what they were doing before. Chances are, her diet wasn’t great to begin with. What likely happened with Kelly’s weight loss then is that she simply improved the quality of her diet, started eating whole foods, and ate fewer calories.
Essentially, the same thing that can be achieved on any diet and preferably just with healthy eating habits.
In other words? It’s not about the lectins.
What is The Plant Paradox?
The basic premise of The Plant Paradox is that lectins, which are proteins found in around 30% of the foods we eat, are toxic and that even in low doses, lectins can cause long-term health effects like chronic disease and inflammation. This is why we need to take them, plus sugar, out of our diets.
Let’s talk more about lectins for a bit, because if they’re so poisonous, you should at least know what they are.
What are lectins?
Plants naturally produce lectins as a defence mechanism. Lectins can cause significant gastrointestinal distress in humans when they’re consumed in raw foods, but they’re mostly denatured by proper cooking.
This is why you can get severely ill from eating raw kidney beans, but not from canned kidney beans: The cooking process has denatured the lectins in the canned beans, rendering them harmless (the beans and the lectins).
Lectins aren’t generally a problem unless you’re eating raw kidney beans or raw grains (crunch crunch…um, no). Other common lectin-containing foods are nightshade vegetables, pulses, and grains, and seeds, like quinoa and chia.
While it’s fair to say that some people don’t tolerate lectin-containing foods as well as others, I disagree with the suggestion that nobody should be eating them.
I also strongly disagree with scaring people by calling lectin-containing foods – or any food – ‘toxic’, but that seems to be a popular tactic these days for people who have something to sell, hence The Plant Paradox. Humans have lectin antibodies which protect us from lectins, and no, your antibodies probably aren’t faulty.
Other fad diets including Bulletproof, Tom Brady’s TB12, The Blood Type Diet, and Paleo diet have all made the same ‘toxic’ claim against lectins.
Do I need a lectin-free diet?
If you are someone who has dysfunctional enzymes, then lectins may cause autoimmune issues for you as they may compromise your intestinal barrier. It’s entirely probable that autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis are related in part to dietary factors, and lectins could be one of them. If you have an autoimmune disease or a digestive disease such as IBD, you may do better by eliminating lectins from your diet, or you may not.
Even if removing them helps with your symptoms, you probably don’t have to eliminate all lectin-containing foods: An elimination diet can reveal which ones cause you issues, and which ones don’t. Making a huge deal about how terrible lectins are for everyone and how sick they’re making the world is how Gundry has taken a kernel of truth and blown it completely out of proportion.
In addition to seeds and legumes, Gundry says fruit is ‘toxic candy’ and should be eaten as such. He also believes that non A2 dairy, which is basically any dairy outside of Southern Europe and specially-marked A2 dairy in the US and Canada – is harmful to our health because of the A1 casein, which is a ‘lectin-like protein’.
On his website, Gundry claims that A1 dairy can cause ‘immune attacks on the pancreas’ and in his typical fashion, cites a completely unrelated study to back this claim up. He does this often.
Gundry recommends only grass-fed and pastured meats, because feed grains have toxic lectins in them, which he claims get into the animal’s flesh and subsequently into our system once we eat it. That’s pretty far-fetched and not at all proven, sort of like the rest of his ideas.
The Plant Paradox diet is extremely expensive and restrictive, so if you’re poor, you’re basically screwed: Resign yourself to autoimmune diseases and lectin poisoning right now, because there’s no way you’ll be able to afford all the required grass-fed beef and organics, not to mention Gundry’s $pecial $upplements..
Even Kelly Clarkson admits that this diet is prohibitive, and I’m pretty sure she has more money than all of us. The Plant Paradox approved food list is a lesson in privilege, since most people can’t afford grass-fed French butter and they sure as heck have zero clues about baobab fruit. Is this guy for real?
The Science behind lectin-free diets.
As with most pseudoscientific fairytales, this one starts with a kernel of truth. Just a kernel, mind you, but Gundry (I refuse to refer to him as Doctor Gundry, because we’re supposed to be able to trust doctors not to cause us harm, and he obviously doesn’t take that oath seriously) twists that truth like taffy into something completely untrue.
The funny thing about this diet is that it’s so easily debunked. As you can imagine, lectins have been around as long as humans have, and we’re still here. We’re also getting sicker, not healthier, even though the overall consumption of beans, fruits, and vegetables worldwide has decreased.
The healthiest, longest-living people on earth, who live in the Blue Zones, eat a plant-rich diet. And, they don’t avoid soy or other lectin-containing foods. Gundry’s answer to that? The antioxidants in the other foods they eat counteract the lectins. That doesn’t even make sense! Why not sell us a high-antioxidant diet, then?
Oh, that’s right, there’s no money in that.
Chickpeas have been cultivated since at least 3200 BC, and lentils enjoyed for at least 8000 years. If they’re toxic, why haven’t we learned not to eat them? Aztecs used tomatoes in their cooking in 500BC. So doesn’t it strike you at strange that these civilizations grew and prospered and we have continued to eat these foods through to modern days?
We aren’t just figuring this whole lectin thing out now; we’ve evolved to not get sick from them and, to cook food to denature them. Why do we have higher incidence of chronic disease than countries such as Greece and Italy, where they commonly eat legumes, grains, and nightshades as part of their diets?
Don’t tell me it’s the antioxidants in their diet. Please.
The current obsession with ‘toxic’ foods is modern and based in fear. Fear sells, but if you can put it aside for just a moment, reflect on the well-researched fact that a mostly plant-based diet appears to promote health and prevent disease (and here), and for the majority of people, that includes lectin foods and pretty much all the foods Gundry’s ‘no’ list.
The Plant Paradox has all eight of my fad diet red flags:
Scare tactics: The foods you’ve thought were healthy – PLANTS! – are TOXIC!! OH MY GOD!
A personal transformation: As in, I lost 70 pounds and now want to share will all of you how I did it! That makes me a nutrition expert!
Promises with no persuasive human research to back them up: Eat this diet, and you’ll get rid of everything that ails you, including diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis, suggests Gundry.
Expensive food requirements: Grass fed beef, all organics, no fruits except for in-season berries and avocado (good luck if you live in Alaska)
Twisted science: Meaning, not making clear that not everyone reacts to lectins, and that plant-based diets have consistently been proven to be beneficial, not harmful.
A diet that doesn’t make sense: What this review is about.
$upplements that of course, he $ells. What a SHOCK!! Financial conflict of interest. Plus, the disingenuous claim that it’s impossible to get all the nutrients you need without supplements. Gundry also sells fat blockers and ‘herbal mood support’ pills, and has an ‘online grocery store’ at Amazon, which undoubtedly uses affiliate links so he makes money with every click.
Promise of a huge reveal: As in, you’ll be part of a special club that knows the secret to weight loss/health/etc. that other people don’t know! Just buy my book!
Gundry also thinks he’s a skincare expert! He has a line of skin creams, including one that contains probiotics. Is it legit to put probiotics on your face and believe that they’re actually going to have an effect on your skin? The ‘doctor’ said it would! He’s like a jack of all trades. Red flag.
What the research says about lectin-free diets.
Much of the research the Gundry cites to support his claims is faulty and irrelevant. One of the most common things I see from fad-diet followers is the tendency to believe that any research is solid proof of something.
DO NOT be sucked into believing that, and don’t think that just because you don’t know how to read research, that you’ll go ahead and take what the author is citing as accurate.
The Plant Paradox is the ultimate example of why you should be critical of ‘supporting’ research that people are spoon-feeding you. Even when I cite something in my own posts, I expect you to check it out with a critical eye.
As a dietitian, I want to see compelling evidence behind a diet before recommending it to my clients and to the public. The Plant Paradox is based on the shoddiest research available, and by that I mean embarrassing, it’s so bad. For all his education, Gundry should understand what constitutes a credible research study, but clearly he doesn’t or, more likely, he’s intentionally misleading readers.
Many of the studies that are cited in the book don’t support his claims at all. Many of them have faulty methodology or are extremely small – like 10 people. Or, they’re rodent studies or worse, studies done on cells in a lab. These types of studies do NOT prove anything in relation to humans. It’s all theoretical.
For all the work he has done on this supposedly incredible diet, Gundry hasn’t published even one research study proving that it has a significant effect on people; he has based his entire Plant Paradox empire on anecdotal evidence.
Don’t you find that strange, even a little bit? It’s like using testimonials as proof that something works, and you all know how I feel about testimonials: Not worth the paper they’re written on.
Lectin-free diets, in short:
I know that some of you will read this review and be upset. I know that you’ll send me emails saying that I’m wrong and that this diet has helped you. I know that some of you will never have your minds changed by anything I write, and that’s okay!
If you try this diet and find that your health issues resolve, that’s good! But I want you to understand that any resolution of your problems is independent of Dr. Gundry’s irresponsible blanket statement that lectins are toxic for everyone.
The resolution of your symptoms and any weight loss that may occur may be because The Plant Paradox forbids a huge number of foods that you may otherwise be eating, and it appears to also be restrictive and low in calories. It may not at all be because you took lectins out of your diet.
When you stop eating certain ingredients that are in pretty much every ultra-processed food, you’re sure to lose weight, but you’ll probably be miserable if you do it long-term. Because good nutrition sometimes includes cake. And pizza. And enjoying meals with friends and family without being anxious about what you’re eating.
The Plant Paradox lectin-free diet uses scare tactics to sell its concept. It perpetuates unproven, inaccurate beliefs about ‘toxins’ in our diets, and Steven Gundry is making bank on peoples’ panic.
The truth is that most people don’t eat enough plants, and it’s irresponsible of Gundry to scare them away from what they need more of. This should make you angry, not excited.
Due to a lack of credible research on low-lectin diets, any evidence that a diet like this one works is purely anecdotal, and if your diet book is based on anecdote, don’t lie and say it’s based on hundreds of studies that supposedly back you up.
No bueno, Gundry, but you’re laughing all the way to the bank in sunny Palm Springs.
Above all else, consider this:
What sort of person will sell you a diet labelling as toxic plant foods that have never been proven to be harmful, but then at the same time will sell you synthetic supplements that you don’t need? Do you really need a fat blocker or an $80 bottle of lectin-blocker?
What sort of doctor would be so irresponsible as to use scare tactics and tell people that plant-based diets as we know them are ‘toxic’?
What sort of doctor would say that his diet cures cancer and Parkinson’s Disease, when those diseases have never in history been proven to be cured by diet?
I want you to know that being judicious and skeptical when you encounter a fad, can go a long way in preventing you from being taken advantage of, so do your research and remember my fad diet red flags.
For writing this book, I think Steven Gundry is truth-bending, disingenuous, and deceitful.
And, he’s downright wrong with his lectin-free diet, the Plant Paradox.
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