There’s a reason grandma never cooked her beans without thoroughly washing and soaking them. Soaking the beans and even nuts and seeds before consumption reduces the content of lectin, a type of protein, and makes it easier on digestion. In fact, raw or sprouted kidney beans should never be consumed as they contain a dangerous lectin (Phytohaemagglutinin), which gets degraded on cooking.
Lectins are type of proteins that choose and bind to carbohydrates on cell membranes and form complexes (glycol-conjugates) on the membranes. In other words, dietary lectins are metabolic signals for the gut and are capable of modulating immune and hormone functions.
Lectins have a role to play not only in immune function but also impact digestion and regulate body weight. Common digestive problems like bloating, flatulence, hyperacidity, IBS, reflux, diarrhoea and constipation can be associated with lectins in food. Other conditions which could be linked with lectin include like arthritis, fatigue, chronic allergies, eczema, psoriasis, autoimmune disease, diabetes, heart disease, migraines, depression and autism.
They are present in most plants, especially seeds, nuts, cereals, legumes, beans, potatoes, tubers and dairy. They are also present in small amounts in some fruits, vegetables, seafood and to some extent in human body.
Some dietary lectins can be life threatening. For example, Ricin, a lectin from castor bean, even in small amounts can cause clotting of red blood cells and death.
Soaking, fermenting, sprouting and cooking helps in reducing lectins and increasing nutrient availability. Sprouting seeds, grains or beans decreases the lectin content. The longer the duration of sprouting, lower is lectin content.
Fermentation also allows beneficial bacteria to digest and degrade some lectins. No wonder traditional foods like idli, dosa, dhokla and yogurt are easy to digest for most people.
Almost everybody has antibodies to some dietary lectins. The diet and genetic inheritance determines how and to what degree lectins can affect us. It implies that the diet sends the right signals through the right food to heal cells. The role of lectins in health and their relationship to degenerative disease is, however, still an emerging science and more needs more scientific research.
Ishi khosla is a former senior nutritionist at Escorts. She heads the Centre of Dietary Counselling and also runs a health food store. She feels that for complete well-being, one should integrate physical, mental and spiritual health. According to her: “To be healthy should be the ultimate goal for all.”