The Plant Paradox and The Oxygen Paradox: Don’t Hold Your Breath for Health

It is with great guilt that I write this article while eating both a tangerine and chickpea-containing hummus tonight. I may have exposed myself to high levels of dangerous plant compounds known as lectins. These carbohydrate binding proteins found throughout the plant and animal world may act as a defense mechanism against some predators but could be ruining your health just as I have ruined mine tonight with citrus and legumes. Does these sound like odd dietary comments that fly in the face of the Blue Zones diagram above? Surely you heard about the new research by an internationally known cardiovascular surgeon showing that fruit makes you gain weight and should be always be avoided, that vegetable skins and seeds are all toxic requiring their complete removal from our diet, and that high fat dairy is supporting your health? If you haven’t read these sexy new research headlines it is because there is no new research on this topic, or even older research to support it. Two strategies that work well in the media and for medical authors are to tell people what they want to hear and to scare them with data that seems to have firm scientific support and turns all existing knowledge upside down. That is exactly what is being done with a new and dangerous bestselling book written by a prominent cardiovascular surgeon with endorsements from some of the biggest names in media. The book subtitle “Hidden Dangers in Healthy Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain” is almost enough to make me swear away all apples and grapes and buy the supplements that support the program. But I know better and so should you. Are lectins the newly discovered poisons that the public did not know about but must eliminate completely to preserve their health? And what are the consequences of following a diet focused on eliminating them from your plate?

I kid you not but on pages 263–265 of this high profile book are foods that you are allowed to eat and foods to say no to. On the approved list is the one and only fruit that is permitted, the avocado. While I rather like avocados and recently wrote about them with praise, the fact that all other fruits are banned would seem to contradict dozens of studies supporting the life sustaining aspects of eating fruit. Real data from real people in published studies demonstrate that the more portions of whole fruits consumed a day, the less the risk of disease and early death. Yet, all fruit is banned. How about whole grains? Gone completely because gluten is one of the dangerous lectins and all humans must now avoid them completely. The doctor said so. Full fat dairy is on the approved list with 18 versions like high fat Switzerland cheese recommended. Meat and poultry, admittedly in small amounts, are endorsed while pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and chia seeds join peas, all beans, all legumes and all lentils (his wording, he is seriously opposed to all legumes so it is repeated over and over) are banned completely.

If this were a joke it would be a bad one. As a best-selling book praised by people who reach millions and millions of loyal followers, it is dangerous and akin to pointing out the risks of oxygen which is known to have the potential to damage tissues. As my colleague David L. Katz, MD, Director of the Yale University Preventive Research Center, suggested, why not write the Oxygen Paradox and offer the advice to hold your breath from now on to avoid all damage? In fact, holding your breath, like avoiding all fruits and legumes, would eliminate any potential problem of exposure to oxygen and lectins respectively, but would have some undesirable consequences. The fact that scientifically proven strategies to prepare foods naturally high in lectins, like red kidney beans, in a manner that eliminates possible consequences on health have been known for decades is downplayed. Do you know anyone crunching on raw red kidney beans as a snack? The brand of canned beans I buy is organic, packed in BPA-free cans, and has been pressure cooked before canning so that the actual product on the shelves has had the lectin risk eliminated. They are a great food choice for all.

The follies and dangers of this author’s diet recommendations have recently been pointed out by Dr. John McDougall wherein he commented on a prior book by this same heart surgeon. In that newsletter, he correctly identified that lectin-containing foods are dangerous not because they have been proven to do harm to the human body (with the exception of gluten containing products in those with Celiac disease), but because following a diet constructed to avoid foods high in lectins, as is recommended on pages 263–265 of this newer book, concentrates food choices on animal products and deprives followers of some of the healhiest foods on the planet like fruits and legumes. Please ignore the Plant Paradox, just as you should ignore all books that recommend the dangers of fruit, legumes as well as breathing oxygen, for not being worth the paper they are printed on. I will finish my oil-free hummus dip and nectarine in peace while breathing deeply. I suggest you do the same. In contrast, for a scientifically supported path for healthy eating I suggest you read the new book by John Mackey and co-authors, The Whole Foods Diet, and enjoy the fruits of their efforts to lead you to health.

I am sharing more of Dr. McDougall’s thoughts on why you should not avoid high lectin-containing starchy foods as they actually promote a healthy life. This is from his recent newsletter and should be read in full.

“High Lectin-containing Starches Promote a Healthy Life

* A recent review (2012) of 45 prospective cohort studies and 21 randomized-controlled trials (RCT) compared people who rarely or never consume whole grains with those reporting an average consumption of three to five servings per day, and found by comprehensive meta-analysis that those consuming the grains had a 26% reduction in the risk of type-2 diabetes and a 21% reduction in the risk of heart disease (independent of known CVD risk factors). Furthermore, there is an inverse relationship between whole grain intake and weight gain. Examples of whole grains included whole wheat, dark bread, oats, brown rice, rye, barley, and bulgur.

* Whole Grains — Summary of American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium concluded, “There is consistent epidemiological evidence that whole grain foods substantially lower the risk of chronic diseases such as CHD, diabetes, and cancer, and also play a role in body weight management and digestive health.”

* The Journal of Cereal Science in 2014 reported their review on the health effects of dietary lectins: “… as consumed in cooked, baked, or extruded foods do not support negative health effects in humans. In contrast, consumption of WGA (wheat germ agglutinin) containing foods, such as cereals and whole-grain products, has been shown to be associated with significantly reduced risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, as well as a more favorable long-term weight management… Despite numerous speculative assumptions that wheat germ lectins cause intestinal damage and disease, there is at present neither evidence that this is the case nor reason to recommend the healthy population to abstain from whole-grain food products.”

The same review concluded, “Hitherto, the consumption of most whole-grain foods prepared for human consumption (cooked, baked, extruded) has been associated with numerous health benefits. It is therefore recognized and advised to consume breakfast cereals and a variety of whole-grain foods. Although this advice is contradicted by some health professionals based on their lectin contents, it can be concluded from the current available scientific evidence that there are no data to generalize this negative opinion to consumption of whole grain products.”

* Lectins have also drawn a lot of attention because of their possible anti-tumor activities. The anti-tumor activities of different plant lectins has been shown for several cancer cell cultures, such as, human hepatocarcinoma cells, human bladder cancer cells, human melanoma cells, and rat pancreatic cells. It has also been suggested that some lectins induce apoptosis (death) and/or autophagy (eating and destroying) of cancer cells.

* Based on the existing evidence, there are four consensus authoritative statements from national organizations, namely the U.S. FDA, the U.K. Joint Health Claims Initiative, and the Sweden and Danish Dietary Recommendations that link consumption of whole grains with improved heart health. For example, U.K. products composed of whole grains can claim, “People with a healthy heart tend to eat more whole grain foods as part of a healthy lifestyle.” In Sweden, products with at least 50% whole grains can state, “A healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet rich in whole-grain products reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Note: Lectins are not gluten proteins and should not be confused with them. Gluten intolerance is uncommon (fewer than one in a hundred people) but very important for those who have celiac disease.”