Food has been recognised as a medicine. Good food is medicine and can help delay, prevent and at times treat diseases. Wrong food can make us unwell and sick. Several dietary constituents and nutrients are well established with their protective roles in health and disease. A relatively less talked about concept is the role of food as a messenger carrying information and detailed instructions for every gene and cell in the body. It enables them to repair, regenerate, restore, heal, harm or damage, depending on what you eat.
One such component of food is lectins. The word ‘lectin’ comes from the Latin word legere, meaning to pick out or to choose. This is exactly what lectins do. They are a type of proteins that choose and bind to carbohydrates on cell membranes and form complexes (glycol-conjugates) on the membranes. These 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 and seafood. Lectins are also present in the human body to some extent.
Lectins, not to be confused with the endocrine hormone leptin, play a major role in health affecting immune functions, cell growth, cell death and body fat regulation. Human lectins in our bodies act protectively as part of our immune system. However, lectins consumed in food act as chemical messengers that can in fact bind to the carbohydrates (sugars) of cells in the gut and the blood cells, initiating an adverse inflammatory response. Lectins may cause gastro-intestinal problems–cramping, bloating, flatulence, hyperacidity, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. They are also implicated in food intolerances, inflammatory and auto-immune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Other common manifestations of lectin induced damage include skin rashes, joint pains and even increased urinary infections. Many food allergies are actually immune system reactions to lectins.
Interestingly, lectins in food protect the seeds from micro-organisms, pests and insects. This is the reason why genetic modification of plants created a fluctuation in lectin content to develop pest-resistant varieties. In our bodies, lectins are not digested and we create antibodies against them.
Scientific literature shows that dietary lectins disrupt intestinal flora by reducing natural killer cells, the important defences against viruses and other invaders, thereby affecting our immune functions. Other mechanism affecting our health is their ability to influence inflammation.
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.”