Q.: I read Dr Sandi Nye’s article on grain consumption with interest, and was shocked to learn that she considers legumes, nuts, dairy products, potatoes, tomatoes, brinjals, peppers, peas, lentils and peanuts undesirable foods because they contain lectins. What are vegetarians to eat if they cut all these foods out of their diets?
I was also surprised to learn that she suggests that sprouting wheat is detrimental to our health – what then of all the ‘raw’ foodies among us who rely on fresh wheat grass, or wheat grass or barley grass in their powdered form, for their health benefits?
I look forward to your reply. SH
DR SANDI NYE REPLIES:
I know it can be stressful for those who have food sensitivities to find that some of their staple foods may be problematic for them. It was not my intention to shock, but to provide food for thought. While the content was not intended to be prescriptive, but informational and relatively generic, I’d like to make it clear that the article is backed by published scientific research and international empirical data, and not based on un- founded personal claims.
Just as some people tolerate substances like alcohol better than others, some tolerate grains, dairy, eggs, citrus and so on better than others. However, the levels of food sensitivity or intolerance seen in clinical practice are significant. People with digestive and inflammatory disorders usually find that it’s worth investigating whether or not what they put into their bodies may be the cause of their problems, rather than only treating various symptoms. With regard to grains, in biological time, which is not so long ago, cereal grains were considered alien to human diets, and were consumed in considerably lower amounts than the staggering quantities we ingest today. The cause-and-effect link appears too strong to dismiss out of hand. It’s often the effect of excessive ingestion of certain foods, grains being one of them (due to the effect of wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) on the immune system) that is the core of the problem. Besides this aspect, unlike classic wheat or gluten allergies, there is evidence that wheat lectin does not require immune mediation to produce adverse effects – so it’s not only those with auto-immune disorders who are at risk. Ergo, only those with perfect gut health are likely not to be affected by lectins.
Some people are genetically susceptible to developing auto-immune diseases. Although it isn’t clear what exact mechanism triggers these diseases (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes), research strongly implicates introduction of Neolithic foods, such as the ones mentioned in your letter. With regard to vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes in particular are problematic owing to chitin-binding lectin, which is functionally identical to wheat lectin.
An irrefutable example of how common food substances such as wheat, rye, barley and oats can cause health problems is the effect of gluten in the development of coeliac dis- ease. Once all gluten-containing substances are removed from the diet, the condition goes into total remission. That’s scientifically proven – nice and neat. But what about the very real clinical and sub-clinical negative effects experienced by people who suspect that grains may be causing their problems, but cannot prove it with traditional medical tests? This is where empirical reports have value, as many clinicians have observed re- mission or exacerbation of symptoms when substances such as grains, legumes and dairy are removed from the diet, or introduced back into it. The proof is in the proverbial pudding with regard to symptoms, cause and effect.
Each of us needs to evaluate what effect substances, in this case grains, has on our in- dividual physiology. If no adverse effects are experienced, there may be no need for avoidance. Life is all about balance – some people can tolerate more than others. Everything in moderation is practical advice for many, especially when taking into account how much grain people consume daily. And amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa seem to be reason- ably well tolerated by many people who can- not tolerate other grains, so there are options.
Getting to your wheatgrass and barleygrass query, although there is mixed evidence re- garding the lectin effect of various grains, it is accepted that wheatgrass is very high in the infamous wheat grain lectin, WGA. Some state that a healthy gut can digest lectins, the substance considered to be Nature’s inbuilt pesticide. Granted, there is a lot of controversy and/or confusion when it comes to sprouting and grains per se. Some claim that enzymes present in raw food, including soaked and fermented food, dismantle lectins and reduce their anti-nutrient content, while cooking deactivates them. Others disagree. WGA is retained in the sprout of germinating wheat grains, as well as being dispersed throughout the plant. So although sprouting appears to be less problematic in grains that are not wheat, e.g. barley/barleygrass, a certain amount of residual lectins will remain in these too. Hence, while soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains (other than wheat) may be OK for some, it continues to pose problems for others.
As the saying goes, ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’. There are many foods that vegetarians can enjoy, fruit and veg, other than the lectin-laden ones mentioned. We have the advantage of free will – you can choose to ignore the information presented in the article, or view cutting out potentially disruptive protein elements from your regular food sources as a creative culinary challenge. Otherwise, as I said in the article, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it … and count yourself lucky that you can eat things that don’t negatively impact on your health and well-being. Ultimately, all I advocate is for people to be alert, and let their bodies be their guide.