Those tomatoes and yellow peppers might look innocent enough but, according to The Plant Paradox, a wildly-popular new diet book by Dr. Steven Gundry, certain plants are deadly assassins. Or, at least, jerks who gain revenge on us in their afterlife by making us feel terrible after we eat them.
Since Gundry will be speaking, both Saturday and Sunday, about the world’s most dangerous plants at the Total Health Showat the Metro Convention Centre, we thought we’d look into his controversial theory that “lectins” (a protein found in tomatoes, peppers and a range of other plants) are responsible for a lot of modern health problems, including weight gain, coronary artery disease, dementia and arthritis.
“Plants, believe it or not, were here first,” says Gundry. “And they had it really good before animals arrived, because nobody wanted to eat them. When insects, the first plant predators, arrived, plants couldn’t run and they couldn’t fight, but they were chemists of incredible ability, so used biological chemical warfare to make the animals that ate them feel poorly.”
The biological weapons they use on the animals are the lectins we mentioned earlier, sticky proteins that, when consumed in large quantities, make animals and people sick. Gundry cites a study in which rats were injected with lectins and became so depressed they lurked in a corner of the cage, refusing to come out even for food — pretty good from the plant’s standpoint, he points out. (See Gundry’s yes and no list at gundrymd.com/plant-paradox-shopping-list/)
Humans aren’t rats, of course. But we do have problems digesting high levels of lectins. People can become violently ill, for example, if they eat even a small amount of raw or undercooked beans, since they have a lot of lectins. We survive an encounter with a three-bean salad only because we cook them—a process that significantly reduces the number of lectins to a harmless amount. Gundry, however, advises people to avoid even small amounts of lectins.
“Lectins look for certain sugar molecules to latch onto and these sugar molecules are in the wall of our intestines, and they’re in the wall of our blood vessels, and they lie in the lining of our joints,” says Gundry. “They bind to these areas and they actually are the cause of leaky gut. I used to think leaky gut was a joke and, 15 years ago, I would have laughed you out of the room. Now I think all diseases stem from leaky gut and lectins are one of the major causes of that.”
All diseases? That’s the sort of far-reaching claim that raises eyebrows. So, I went to the University of Toronto nutritional sciences department, which kindly pointed me to a rebuttal published by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, an American researcher who advocates a plant-based diet. According to him, there’s no peer-reviewed research backing up these claims and, what’s worrisome is that these claims might scare people off plant-based diets, which are finally making their way into people’s hearts and minds.
That was Toronto-based registered dietitian Julie Mancuso’s concern, too.
“Many of the foods that carry significant amounts of lectin are nutritious and needed by the body for many reasons,” says Mancuso. “A complete elimination may lead to nutrient-deficiencies, which can manifest in various other ailments and conditions, perhaps worse than those imposed by a lectin-rich diet.”
Most nutritionists, as does the vast majority of scientific literature, tend to agree that the lectins aren’t out to get us — at least at the levels we normally consume. So, why are his books bestsellers? Chalk some of it up to star power — Tony Robbins endorses it and Kelly Clarkson lost a lot of weight on it — and, according to Gundry, the rest is up to word of mouth. People try it and lose weight and some of his patients, he reports, have had nearly miraculous reversals when it comes to arthritis.
“Research pertaining to the elimination of dietary lectins as a way of curing medical conditions is inconclusive,” says Mancuso. “That said, it is possible for someone to feel better after a reduction in lectins from his or her diet. But that’s a common occurrence with all types of food, not just lectin-rich ones.”
Elimination diets, which, by definition, change our eating patterns, often force us to pay more attention to what we eat and, since most diet plans tell you to eat less processed food, the immediate results are often good. Gundry, for example, suggests people eat something close to a high-fat Mediterranean diet with plenty of leafy greens, frisée and endive dressed in olive oil. These are friendly plants, he says, which are on our side and rooting for us to thrive.
It’s also popular, though, because the human gut is having a moment. We all want a healthy one and a leaky gut sounds just terrible. In fact, though, all intestines are a little permeable. Some may be more permeable than others, but there’s no peer-reviewed science that concludes the leakage leads to other diseases like coronary artery disease and dementia, let alone all of them.
What we do know, though, is that it’s probably good to have a lot of diverse bacteria, and the best thinking right now suggests we do that by avoiding the overuse of antibiotics (often found in factory-farmed meats that Gundry says we should avoid), and eating a lot of plants like leafy greens, frisée and endive, which help us make our own good bacteria.
In addition, however, almost every nutritionist would also include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lentils and red kidney beans (cooked, of course), since, almost everyone suggests we eat as wide a range of plants as we can stomach. Even the ones plotting to use biological warfare against us.
Our technology, after all, is even more advanced. We know how to cook them.