The Plant Paradox
It’s Not Your Fault
Suppose that in the next few pages I told you that everything you thought you knew about your diet, your health, and your weight is wrong. For decades, I believed those lies as well. I was eating a “healthy” diet (after all, I’m a heart surgeon). I rarely ate fast food; I consumed low-fat dairy and whole grains. (Okay, I will admit to having a penchant for Diet Coke, but that was better than drinking the original sugar-filled brew, right?) Nor was I a slouch in the fitness department. I ran thirty miles a week and worked out at the gym daily. Despite the fact that I was hauling around excess weight, had high blood pressure, migraine headaches, arthritis, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance, I continued to believe that I was doing everything right. (Spoiler: I’m now seventy pounds lighter and no longer have any of these health issues.) But a nagging voice inside my head kept asking the same question: “If I’m doing everything right, why is this happening to me?”
Does this sound eerily familiar?
If you’re reading this book, you, too, probably know that something isn’t right, but you don’t know what. Maybe you simply can’t take control of your raging appetite or cravings for certain foods. Low-carb, low-fat, Paleo, low-glycemic, and other diets haven’t helped and were unsustainable—or after initial success, the lost weight quickly crept back. Nor has running, speed walking, weight training, aerobics, CrossFit, yoga, core training, spinning, high-intensity interval training, or whichever exercise program(s) you’ve embarked upon banished those stubborn extra pounds.
Excess weight (or being significantly underweight) is a serious problem, but perhaps your primary concern is food intolerances and cravings, digestive issues, headaches, brain fog, lack of energy, aching joints, morning stiffness, adult acne, or a host of other conditions you just can’t shake. Possibly, you suffer from one or more autoimmune diseases or a disorder such as type 1 or type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or a thyroid or other hormonal condition. Perhaps you have asthma or allergies. You may feel that somehow you’re at fault for your poor health or your excess pounds, adding guilt to your heavy load. If it is any comfort, you are not alone.
All that is about to change for you. Welcome to The Plant Paradox.
First, repeat after me: “I am not to blame.” That’s right: your health problems are not your fault.
I have the solution to what ails you, but please prepare to have all your assumptions about what you thought you knew about living a healthy life challenged. This information will dispel myths that are embedded in our culture, and introduce concepts that may initially blow your mind. But here’s the really good news. The secrets I’ll share with you will reveal what is keeping you sick, tired, depleted of energy, overweight (or underweight), fuzzy headed, or in pain. And once you discover and remove the roadblocks standing in the way of vibrant health and a slim body, your life will change.
You see, with all modesty, I’ve found there is a common cause for most health problems. It is based on ample research, including my own papers, published in peer-reviewed medical journals, but no one has put it all together before. While health “experts” have pointed to our laziness, our addiction to fast food, our consumption of beverages full of high-fructose corn syrup, and the host of toxins in the environment as causes for our current ailments (among many others), sadly, they are wrong. (Not that these things don’t contribute to poor health!) The real cause is so well hidden that you would never have noticed it. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Starting in the mid-1960s, we have seen a rampant rise in obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, asthma, allergies and sinus conditions, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. Not coincidentally, in the same period, there have been many seemingly imperceptible changes in our diet and in the personal care products we use. I’ve discovered a significant part of the answer to the mystery of why our collective health has declined and our collective weight has risen so drastically in just a few decades—and it starts with plant proteins called lectins.
You’ve probably never heard of lectins, but you are definitely familiar with gluten, which is just one lectin among thousands. Lectins are found in almost all plants, as well as some other foods. In fact, lectins are present in the vast majority of foods in the current American diet, including meat, poultry, and fish. Among their other functions, lectins level the playing field in the war between plants and animals. How so? Long before humans walked the earth, plants protected themselves and their offspring from hungry insects by producing toxins, including lectins, in the plants’ seeds and other parts.
It turns out the same plant toxins that can kill or immobilize an insect can also silently destroy your health and insidiously impact your weight. I titled this book The Plant Paradox because while many plant foods are good for you—and form the bedrock of my eating plan—others that have been regarded as “health foods” are actually to blame for making you sick and overweight. That’s right, most plants actually want to make you ill. Another paradox: small portions of some plants are good for you but large amounts are bad for you.
We’ll delve into more detail on all of this shortly.
Have you ever been told, “You’re just not yourself today”? As you’ll learn, thanks to subtle changes in the foods we eat most often, the way food is prepared, the use of certain personal care products, and the drugs that you assume will improve your health, you really aren’t “yourself” anymore. To borrow a term from the computer world, you’ve been hacked. The entire collection of cells, the inputs and outputs within you, and the way your cells communicate with one another have been altered.
Not to worry. This alteration can be reversed, allowing your body to heal and achieve a healthy weight. To begin the restoration of our collective health, we need to take a step back—actually several steps—in order to move forward. We chose the first wrong fork in the road thousands of years ago and have continued to take additional wrong paths at almost every opportunity. (Just to be clear, the so-called Paleo diet is the furthest thing from what I am talking about.) This book will provide the road map to get back on track, starting with eliminating our overreliance on certain foods as our primary form of sustenance.
What you have just read might seem so unbelievable that you may be wondering about the experience I’ve had that could have led to such claims, or if I’m even really a doctor. I assure you I am. As a bit of background, after graduating from Yale University with honors, I got my MD from the Medical College of Georgia and then entered the cardiothoracic surgery program at the University of Michigan. I later won a prestigious fellowship in research at the National Institutes of Health. I spent sixteen years as a professor of surgery and pediatrics in cardiothoracic surgery and head of cardiothoracic surgery at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, where I saw tens of thousands of patients with a spectrum of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, and obesity. Then, in a move that stunned my colleagues, I left Loma Linda.
Why would a successful practitioner of conventional medicine leave such an important position at a prestigious medical center? When I turned my own health around and went from obese to slim, something in me had shifted: I realized that I could reverse heart disease with diet instead of surgery. To this end, I established the International Heart and Lung Institute—and within it the Center for Restorative Medicine—in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, California. I published my first book, Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution: Turn Off the Genes That Are Killing You and Your Waistline, which described the changes my heart, diabetic, obese, and other patients experienced on my diet plan—and which revolutionized my medical practice and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of readers. It also helped propel me on the path that ultimately led to this book.
In addition to being a physician, I’m a medical researcher and inventor of many of the devices used to protect the heart during heart surgery. With my former partner, Leonard Bailey, I performed more infant and pediatric heart transplants than anyone in the world. I hold multiple patents on medical devices and have written extensively on transplant immunology and xenotransplantation. That mouthful of a word refers to fooling the immune system of one species to accept the organ of another species. Thanks to my work with xenotransplantation, I happen to hold the record for the longest-surviving pig-to-baboon heart transplant. So, yes, I know how to fool the immune system—and I know when the immune system is being fooled. I also know how to fix it.
Unlike so many authors and so-called health experts, this isn’t my first rodeo. I wrote my senior thesis at Yale University about how food availability at different times of year prompted the evolution of great apes into modern humans. As a heart surgeon, cardiologist, and immunologist, my entire career has been about how the immune system makes decisions about what is its friend and what is its foe. The wealth of these experiences made me uniquely qualified to discover the solution to your health and weight problems introduced in this book.
In my evolving role as a health sleuth, I came to find that many patients who had used my diet to reverse coronary artery disease, hypertension, or diabetes (or a combination of two or three) related that their arthritis also quickly began to subside and their heartburn disappeared. My patients also noted improved mood and resolution of fairly chronic bowel issues. Excess pounds disappeared effortlessly, along with food cravings. As I studied the results of the elaborate lab tests I devised for each patient and experimented with the allowed foods, certain striking patterns emerged, which made me start tinkering with the original dietary program.
Rewarding as these results were, it wasn’t enough for me just to see these dramatic improvements in my patients. I needed to know the whats and whys. (Remember, I’m a researcher as well as a physician.) What altered that had made them ill and overweight? Which items on the lists of “good” and “bad” foods that I gave all my patients restored their health? Or, more important, which eliminated foods had been part of the problem? And were factors other than dietary changes also playing a role?
A meticulous review of my patients’ histories, physical conditions, specialized lab tests, and tests on the flexibility of blood vessels convinced me that most of them (and most likely you, as well) are literally at war with themselves, thanks to common “disruptors” that interfere with the body’s natural ability to heal itself. These disruptors encompass changes in how food animals are themselves fed, as well as in some foods that are regarded as healthful—whole grains, lentils, and other beans, for example—plus a host of chemicals, including herbicides like Roundup, and the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics. On top of that, I’ve found that antacids, aspirin, and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have drastically changed the environment in your gut.
Over the past fifteen years, I have presented my findings at prestigious academic medical conferences such as the American Heart Association and published them in peer-reviewed medical journals, all the while refining my program.1 As a result of this work, I have become an acknowledged expert on the human microbiome, the bacterial and other organisms that live in you and on you.
As it stands, the Plant Paradox Program consists of a cornucopia of vegetables, limited amounts of high-quality protein sources, as well as certain fruits (but only in season), tree nuts, and certain dairy products and oils. Equally important are the foods I omit, at least initially—namely, grains and the flours made from them, pseudo-grains, lentils and other legumes (including all soy products), fruits that we call vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, and their kin), and refined oils.
You may be in a rush to get started on the Plant Paradox Program ASAP, but I’ve found that my patients are far more likely to succeed in healing themselves when they understand the root causes behind their poor health. So, before we get to the “solution,” I’ll spend Part I explaining the often shocking and frequently amazing story of those root causes and how they have affected most of us over the last several decades. When you get to Part II, you’ll learn how to start the program with a three-day cleanse. Then you’ll find out how to repair your damaged gut and feed your gut microbes the food they need to thrive, including a group of foods called resistant starches, which conveniently also help you feel satiated and shed unwanted pounds and inches. Once you’ve stabilized your health, you’ll move on to Phase 3 of the Plant Paradox Program, which becomes your blueprint for longevity. The program includes regular modified fasts to give your gut a mini-vacation from the hard work of digestion. At the same time, it allows the energy-producing mitochondria in your brain and cells a chance to enjoy a well-deserved rest. For those of you with acute health needs, I’ve provided a chapter on the Plant Paradox Intensive Care Program. In Part III, I’ll provide meal plans and simple but delectable recipes for all three phases of the Plant Paradox Program. They’ll make you forget those problematic foods that once kept you plump, sick, and in pain.
While modifying your eating habits is a significant component of the program, I’ll also recommend other changes, such as eliminating certain over-the-counter drugs and personal care products. Follow the complete program and I promise you will banish most, if not all, of your health problems, achieve a healthy weight, reboot your energy level, and elevate your mood. Once you start experiencing the effects of this new approach to eating and living—my patients start to feel better and lose weight within days—you’ll understand the remarkable changes that occur when you feed your body (and your microbiome) foods on which it thrives. As an added reward, you will simultaneously eliminate the disruptive ingredients and other agents that stand in the way of enjoying a long, healthy life.
Turn the page so I can begin to share this life-changing experience with you.
The Dietary Dilemma
The War Between Plants and Animals
Don’t let the title of this chapter worry you. You haven’t mistakenly dipped into a botany textbook or parachuted into the set of Avatar. You have my assurance that this book will help you learn how to be slim and energized and lay the foundation for vibrant health and longevity. If you wonder why knowing how plants operate could possibly affect you—to say nothing of whether plants possess intention—fasten your seat belt and prepare to be amazed as we take a brief tour through the last 400 million years. Along the way, you’ll come to understand that leaves, fruits, grains, and other vegetable foods aren’t just sitting there accepting their fate as part of your dinner. They have their own sophisticated ways of defending themselves from plant predators like you, including the use of toxic chemicals.
But first, let me make one thing crystal clear. There is no question that consuming certain plants is essential for good health—and therein lies the paradox. They power your body and provide most of the hundreds of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that you need not just to live, but also to thrive. Over the last fifteen years, more than ten thousand of my patients have found that following my Plant Paradox Program results in both weight loss and remarkable reversals of numerous health problems. Meanwhile, people whose digestive issues had made them unable to keep pounds on were finally able to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Unlike the Paleo diet and other low-carb or even ketogenic diets, all of which stress heavy meat consumption, you’ll be dining mostly on certain plant foods, as well as a small amount of wild fish and shellfish and the occasional serving of pastured meat. I also provide vegan and vegetarian variations.
Now here’s a shocker to start off your reeducation: the more fruit I removed from an individual’s diet, the healthier he or she became and the more his or her cholesterol numbers and markers for kidney function improved. The more I removed vegetables that have lots of seeds, such as cucumbers and squash, the better my patients felt, the more weight they lost, and the more their cholesterol levels improved! (By the way, any so-called vegetable that has seeds, such as a tomato, cucumber, or squash, and even string beans, is botanically a fruit.) Plus, the more shellfish and egg yolks the patients ate, the lower their cholesterol numbers. Yes, that’s correct. Eating shellfish and egg yolks dramatically reduces total cholesterol.1 As I said in the Introduction, forget everything you thought you knew was true.
It’s All About Survival
EVERY LIVING THING possesses the drive to survive and pass on its genes to future generations. We consider plants our friends because they feed us, but plants regard all plant predators, including us, as enemies. However, even enemies have their uses. Therein lies the dilemma we plant eaters face: the very foods we need to eat have their own ways of discouraging us from consuming them and their offspring. The result is an ongoing battle between the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom.
But not all plants are created equal. Some of the very vegetables and fruits that sustain us simultaneously contain substances that can harm us. We’ve been glossing over this paradox for literally ten thousand years. Gluten, of course, is one example of a plant component that is problematic for some people, as the recent gluten-free craze has spotlighted. But glutens are just one example of the kind of protein known as a lectin and one factor in the Plant Paradox, and they may well have sent us off on a wild goose chase, as you’ll soon learn. I’ll introduce you to the larger world of lectins later in this chapter.
The Plant Paradox Program introduced in this book offers a broader, more nuanced, and more comprehensive look at how plants can sometimes hurt us and also reveals the link among lectins (and other defensive plant chemicals), weight gain, and disease. Humans and other plant eaters are not the only ones with an agenda. Quite simply, plants don’t want to be eaten—and who can blame them? Like any living thing, their instinct is to propagate the next generation of their species. To this end, plants have come up with devilishly clever ways to protect themselves and their offspring from predators. Again, let me make it crystal clear that I am not anti-plant. If you have ever had lunch with me, you’ll know that I am a devoted plant predator! That said, I will guide you through the confusing garden of plant options to teach you which are your friends, which are your foes, and which can be tamed in one way or another, perhaps with certain preparation methods or by eating them only in season.
In the deadly game of predator versus prey, an adult gazelle can often outrun a hungry lioness, an alert sparrow can take flight when stalked by a domestic cat, and a skunk can let loose a spray of noxious liquid to temporarily blind a fox. The stakes aren’t always rigged against the prey. But when the prey is a plant, the poor thing is helpless, right? No way!
Plants appeared on land about 450 million years ago,2 long before the first insects arrived 90 million years later. Until those plant predators turned up, it must have truly been a Garden of Eden for plants. There was no need to run, hide, or fight. They could grow and thrive in peace, unfettered in their production of the seeds that would become the next generation of their species. But when insects and other animals (and eventually our primate ancestors) arrived, it was game on. These species saw those tasty greens and seeds as dinner. And although plants don’t want to be eaten any more than you would, animals would seem to have the advantage, with wings and/or legs to propel them over to that grove of immobile greens to gobble them up.
Not so fast. Plants have actually evolved an awesome array of defensive strategies to protect themselves, or at least their seeds, from animals of all shapes and sizes, including humans. Plants may use a variety of physical deterrents, such as color to blend into their surroundings; an unpleasant texture; sticky stuff such as resins and saps that entangle insects, provide protective cover by making sand or soil clump,3 or attract grit that makes them unpleasant to eat; or a simple reliance on a hard outer coating, such as a coconut, or spine-tipped leaves, such as an artichoke.
Other defensive strategies are far subtler. Plants are great chemists—and alchemists, for that matter: they can turn sunbeams into matter! They have evolved to use biological warfare to repel predators—poisoning, paralyzing, or disorienting them—or to reduce their own digestibility to stay alive and protect their seeds, enhancing the chances that their species will endure. Both these physical and chemical defensive strategies are remarkably effective at keeping predators at bay, and even sometimes at getting animals to do their bidding.
Because their initial predators were insects, plants developed some lectins that would paralyze any unfortunate bug that tried to dine on them. Obviously, there is a quantum size difference between insects and mammals, but both are subject to the same effects. (If you are suffering from neuropathy, take notice!) Clearly, most of you won’t be paralyzed by a plant compound within minutes of eating it, although a single peanut (a lectin) certainly has the potential to kill certain people. But we are not immune to the long-term effects of eating certain plant compounds. Because of the huge number of cells we mammals have, we may not see the damaging results of consuming such compounds for years. And even if this is happening to you, you don’t know it yet.
I learned of this connection via hundreds of my patients who respond almost instantly, often in fascinating ways, to these mischievous plant compounds. For this reason, I call these patients my “canaries.” Coal miners used to take caged canaries into the mines with them because the birds are especially subject to the lethal effects of carbon monoxide and methane. As long as the canaries sang, the miners felt safe, but if the chirping stopped, it was a clear signal to evacuate the mine posthaste. My “canaries” are more sensitive to certain lectins than the average person, which is actually an advantage in terms of seeking help sooner rather than later. You learn about some of them in the Success Stories throughout the book. (Note that all but a few names are pseudonyms to protect people’s privacy.)
An Unhappy “Canary” Sings Again
Paul G. is thirty-two years old, a computer programmer, and formerly an active outdoorsman. He suffered from POTS syndrome (sudden low blood pressure) and was allergic to almost everything, breaking out regularly in severe hives. He couldn’t leave his own house or go to his parents’ house without experiencing a powerful reaction. Paul also had dangerously high cortisol and inflammation levels. Because he was allergic to most foods, he was emaciated. After ten months of following the Plant Paradox Program, Paul’s POTS syndrome was gone and his cortisol level was normal, as were his markers for inflammation. He now takes no medications and is enjoying camping and other outdoor activities. He is gaining weight and can now visit his parents’ home and other places without any allergic reactions.
Plants Are Master Manipulators
A LITTLE BOTANY lesson here: Seeds are actually the plant’s “babies,” which become the next generation of a plant species. (No, I’m not being sentimental or anthropomorphic. Botanists and other scientists regularly refer to plant seeds as babies.) It’s a tough world out there for those potential plants, so a lot more are produced than will ever actually take root. Plant seeds can be divided into two basic types. Some are babies that plants actually want predators to eat. These seeds are encased in a hard coating designed to survive a trip all the way through the predator’s GI tract, although a large baby, such as a peach seed, might not be swallowed, and instead simply be left behind. Then there are “naked babies,” which lack such a protective coating; the plant does not want these to be eaten (more on them shortly).
Fruit trees, which bear seeds enclosed in a hull, are one example of the first type of plant seeds. The mother plant relies on animals to eat the seeds before they fall to the ground. The objective is to have their babies wind up some distance away from the mother plant, so that they don’t have to compete with it for sun, moisture, and nutrients. This increases the species’ chances of survival while also broadening its range. If the swallowed seed remains intact, it emerges from the animal along with a nice dollop of poop, to boost its chance of sprouting.
Thanks to the protective hull, there is no need for such plants to resort to a chemical defense strategy in the seeds. In fact, quite the opposite! The plant uses several devices to attract the predator’s attention, thereby encouraging the predator to eat its offspring. One is color. (For this reason, all animals that eat fruit have color vision.) But the plant doesn’t want its babies to be eaten before the protective coating is completely hardened, so it uses the color of unripe fruit (usually green) to convey the message “not yet” to the predator. Just in case the predator can’t interpret this signal, the plant often increases the toxin levels in the unripe fruit itself to make it absolutely clear that the time is not right. Before such things as the Granny Smith apple were introduced to this country, youngsters of my generation who ate green apples learned the hard way, via the green apple two-step (diarrhea), not to eat fruit before it was ripe.
So, when is the right time for the predator to consume the fruit? Again, the plant uses the color of the fruit to signal to predators that it is ripe, which means that the seed’s hull has hardened—and therefore the sugar content is at its height. Incredibly, the plant has chosen to manufacture fructose, instead of glucose, as the sugar in the fruit. Glucose raises insulin levels in primates and humans, which initially raises levels of leptin, a hunger-blocking hormone—but fructose does not. As a result, the predator never receives the normal message that it is full, which would signal it to stop eating. (Would it surprise you that great apes gain weight only during the time of year when fruit is ripe?) That makes for a win-win for predator and prey. The animal obtains more calories, and because it keeps eating more and more fruit and therefore more seeds, the plant has a better chance of distributing more of its babies. Of course, this is no longer a win-win for most modern humans, who don’t need the additional calories in ripe fruit that were so essential for hunter-gatherers and our ape relatives. And even if we still needed those calories, until the last few decades, most fruit was available only once a year, in the summer. As will soon become clear, year-round availability is making you sick—and overweight!
Timing Is Everything . . . but Looks Can Be Deceiving
So as we’ve learned, plants use color to communicate the message that their fruit is ready to harvest, meaning the mature seed hull is hard and has the best chance of making it through the predator’s digestive tract unscathed. In this case, green means “stop” and red (and orange and yellow) means “go.” Red, orange, and yellow signal sweetness and desirability to your brain, a concept that food marketers have long known about and employed. Next time you are in the snack food aisle in the supermarket, check out the packaging and signage and you’ll see that both forms of marketing are dominated by these warm colors.
Plants have long taught us to associate red, yellow, and orange colors with ripeness; however, now when you buy fruit in North America in December, it was likely grown in Chile or another country in the Southern Hemisphere, picked slightly unripe, and then given a blast of ethylene oxide when it arrived at its destination. The ethylene oxide exposure changes the color to make the fruit appear ripe and ready to eat, but the lectin content remains high because the protective coating of the seed never fully matured and the fruit never got the message from the parent plant to reduce the lectin content. Again, when fruit is allowed to ripen naturally, the parent plant reduces the amount of lectins surrounding the seeds in the fruit and skin and then communicates this information by changing color.
In contrast, gassing artificially changes the color of the fruit, but the lectin protection system remains in effect. Thanks to the high lectin count, eating fruit picked too early is detrimental to your health. That’s one reason, in Part II, I recommend that you eat only locally grown produce and only during key times during the year. In Europe, most out-of-season fruit is grown in Israel or North Africa. Because it does not have to travel a long distance over several days, it may be picked ripe and not have to be gassed. It’s possible that eating naturally ripened fruit with lower lectin content helps explain why Europeans are generally healthier and slimmer than those of us on the other side of the “pond.”
IN THE CASE of naked seeds, plants use a divergent strategy. These grasses, vines, and other plants that grow out in the open fields have already chosen a fertile spot in which to grow. They want their babies to fall in place and take root there. That way, after the parent plants die off in the winter, the babies will sprout the following season, replacing the earlier generation. There is no advantage to being carried off, so the plant must discourage insects or other animals from consuming its babies and transporting them elsewhere. Instead of a hard casing, the naked seed contains one or more chemicals that weaken predators, paralyze them, or make them ill, so they won’t make the mistake of eating the plant again. These substances include phytates, often referred to as antinutrients, which prevent absorption of minerals in the diet; trypsin inhibitors, which keep digestive enzymes from doing their job, interfering with the predator’s growth; and lectins, which are designed to disrupt cellular communication by, among other things, causing gaps in the intestinal wall barrier, a condition known as leaky gut. Whole grains actually contain all three of these defensive chemicals in the fibrous hull, husk, and bran. (Teaser alert: This is just one reason that the idea of “whole-grain goodness” is a huge misconception, as you’ll learn in chapter 2.)
Still other plant-predator dissuaders include tannins, which impart a bitter taste, and the alkaloids found in the stems and leaves of the nightshade family. You may already know that nightshades, which include such culinary favorites as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers, are highly inflammatory. We’ll come back to the nightshade family, which also includes goji berries, as well as to grains and to beans and other legumes, later.
Do Plants Think?
PLOTTING TO HARM us? Concocting chemicals to deter predators? Convincing animals to transport their seeds to other locales to expand their territory? Such strategies suggest that plants are capable of intention, perhaps even of learning. Now you’re thinking, come on, surely they can’t do that. To be sure, plants don’t think in the way you and I conceive of thinking. But any living thing wants to survive and reproduce. In terms of evolutionary strategy, whether you are a “simple” plant or a complex “super” organism like a human being, any compound that can be produced, even if by accident, and ensures more copies of your genes will survive and be propagated gives you an advantage. If you’re a plant, any compound that makes your predator think twice about eating your offspring is a good thing from your viewpoint. Think about that the next time you encounter a jalapeño pepper.
Did you know that a plant knows when it is being eaten? Well, as recent research reveals, it does, but it doesn’t just sit there and accept its fate. It deploys troops to defend itself, in an effort to stop the predator.5 In this case, the research subject was a plant called thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), a member of the cabbage family. Thale cress was the first plant to have its genome sequenced, so researchers have a better understanding of its inner workings than of most other plants. To find out if the plant was aware of being eaten, the scientists re-created the vibrations that a caterpillar makes as it eats the leaves. They also recorded other vibrations that the plant might experience, such as that of wind blowing. Sure enough, the cress responded to the vibrations that mimic a munching caterpillar by upping its production of mildly toxic mustard oils and delivering them to the leaves to deter predators. The plant showed no response to wind or other vibrations.
Another example is the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica), which is deserving of its name. It has learned to protect itself from being disturbed, which includes being eaten, by defensively folding its leaves in response to touch. In fact, the leaf-folding behavior is more pronounced and persistent when it grows in an area where it has been particularly subject to interference than when it grows in an undisturbed area.6 Whoa! Thinking, reasoning plants! This isn’t their first rodeo either.
Plants also respond to circadian rhythms, just as humans and other animals do.7 In one study, researchers found that the so-called clock gene in plants determines the time of day a plant will produce an insecticide to coincide with the time a predator is likely to be on the prowl. When the researcher removed the clock gene from the plant, it lost its ability to produce the toxin.8
Finally, let’s focus on the plant chemical you had probably never heard of until you picked up this book: lectins. Yes, you are reading that word correctly. It is lectin, not lecithin (a fatty substance in a plant or animal) or leptin (the appetite-regulating hormone mentioned above). When bugs start eating leaves on one side of a plant, the lectin content doubles almost immediately on the other side,9 as the plant valiantly struggles to dissuade further consumption. As you’ll come to learn, lectins play a key role in the defensive strategies that plants use to protect themselves, and they also play a key role in harming us.
SO, WHAT ARE lectins anyway? For the most part, with one important exception, they are large proteins found in plants and animals, and they are a crucial weapon in the arsenal of strategies that plants use to defend themselves in their ongoing battle with animals. Scientists discovered lectins in 1884 as part of their investigation into different blood types. Until now, you have probably been familiar with only one famous—or, rather, infamous—lectin: gluten. There are many more, and soon I’ll introduce you to the most important of these—and believe me, you’ll want to know them. (Just as a teaser, 94 percent of humans are born with antibodies to the lectin in peanuts.)
How exactly do lectins help plants defend themselves? Well, lectins in the seeds, grains, skins, rinds, and leaves of most plants bind to carbohydrates (sugars), and particularly to complex sugars called polysaccharides, in the predator’s body after it consumes the plant. Like smart bombs, lectins target and attach themselves to sugar molecules, primarily on the surface of the cells of other organisms—particularly fungi, insects, and other animals. They also bind to sialic acid, a sugar molecule found in the gut, in the brain, between nerve endings, in joints, and in all bodily fluids, including the blood vessel lining of all creatures. Lectins are sometimes referred to as “sticky proteins” because of this binding process, which means they can interrupt messaging between cells or otherwise cause toxic or inflammatory reactions, as we’ll discuss later. For example, when lectins bind to sialic acid, one nerve is unable to communicate its information to another nerve. If you have ever experienced brain fog, thank lectins. Lectins also facilitate the attachment and binding of viruses and bacteria to their intended targets. Believe it or not, some people—those who are more sensitive to lectins—are therefore more subject to viruses and bacterial infections than others. Think about that if you seem to get sick more often than your friends do.
In addition to the potential to cause health problems, lectins can also stimulate weight gain. The reason that wheat became the grain of choice in northern climates is thanks to a uniquely small lectin in wheat, known as wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), which is responsible for wheat’s weight-gaining propensity. You read that correctly. Wheat helped your ancestors gain or maintain weight in ancient times when food was often scarce; back then, a “wheat belly” was a great thing to possess! And guess what? That WGA in the “ancient” forms of wheat is just as present in modern wheat—hence the weight gain. We will explore these implications further in the following chapters.
A plant will do just about anything to keep your mouth off its seeds and save its babies, including sacrificing its leaves. By design, lectins either kill any animal that dares to eat it outright or at the very least make that animal feel unwell. After all, a weakened enemy is more vulnerable. Assuming they survive their initial encounter with such a plant, insects and other animals quickly learn not to eat any plant (or its seeds) that makes them feel bad or fail to thrive. The animal decides that that plant is not worth eating and moves on to greener fields and other species, while the plant and its babies survive. Again, it’s a win-win situation and the détente prevails.
Ancient humans developed a host of ways to deal with lectins. Unfortunately, modern humans aren’t so savvy. Instead, if we eat something that doesn’t agree with us or makes us sick, we find or invent something—think Nexium, a stomach-acid reducer, or a drug such as ibuprofen that lessens pain—so we can continue to eat a substance designed to destroy, cause pain in, or at least weaken us.
Speaking of stomach acid, get this: Not only do we keep eating foods that are designed to hurt us, but we also feed them to animals in the food chain, which suffer similarly from their diet. Left to their own devices, cows would never consume corn and soybeans—their natural diet is grasses and other forage—but that is exactly what they are fed on industrial farms. The lectins in corn and soy are far more effective than grass in making the cow heavier and giving them a better ratio of fat. (That same corn and grain in processed foods bulk you up as well, as you will learn in chapter 5.) Both soy and corn are laden with lectins foreign to cows, causing them to develop such severe heartburn and pain in swallowing that they actually stop eating. Yes, cows develop heartburn from these lectins, just as you do. To keep their beasts eating more of this fattening food, farmers dose them with calcium carbonate, the active ingredient in Tums.11 In fact, half of the world’s production of this compound is added to cattle feed to stop the heartburn, ensuring that cows continue to eat their unnatural diet of corn and soybeans.
You Really Are What You Eat
THE LECTINS IN beans and other legumes, wheat and other grains, and certain other plants are especially problematic for humans. First, not enough time has elapsed to allow our species to develop immunological tolerance to these substances; nor has sufficient time elapsed for the human gut microbiome to become fully capable of breaking down these proteins. Numerous health problems are the result, with gastric distress as just the tip of the iceberg. (If you are impatient to know the range of the resultant potential health problems, turn to this list, and prepare to be shocked.) Such plants are not the only place in which you’ll encounter lectins; they also turn up in animal products. When cows and other animals eat grain- or soy-based feed, both of which are full of lectins, these proteins wind up in the animals’ milk or meat. The same thing happens with the meat and eggs of chickens raised on feed full of lectins. Ditto for farm-raised seafood, which dine on soy and corn as well. Until I saw firsthand in many of my “canaries” how removing such foods from their diet was the final key to restored health, I would not have believed this.
In the mid-1980s, a personal experience effectively drove this point home. I had moved my wife and two young daughters to London, where I was a heart surgery fellow at Great Ormond Street, the renowned children’s hospital. At that time, chickens in England were fed primarily ground-up fish meal. My girls missed their favorite American food of fried chicken, so as a special treat I took them to the only KFC in town for dinner. No sooner had they bitten into a piece of chicken than they turned up their noses, claiming it was fish, not chicken. I tried to persuade them it was indeed chicken, but in a way, they were right. Because it had been fed fish, the chicken was actually a fish. At that time, I didn’t give any thought to the fact that a chicken fed corn or soybeans isn’t actually a chicken, but instead a clucking, walking grain or bean.
As the old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” But you are also what the thing you ate, ate. When you consume organically raised produce and pastured animal products—and I do not mean free-range—the nutrients in the plants and the nutrients the plants got from the soil (as well as the plants the animals ate) pass into your body and are incorporated into every one of your cells. Knowing how the food you eat was grown and raised is not just a lifestyle choice; it also directly affects your health.
There is now conclusive evidence that organically grown vegetables and fruits do contain more vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown produce,12 but, more important, they contain more polyphenols. (Without getting too technical, these beneficial plant chemicals are found in tea, coffee, fruits and berries, and some vegetables.) The same applies to eating pastured animal foods. But the implications of being what you eat (or what the thing you ate, ate) don’t stop there. The lectins in the grain and soy fed to conventionally raised animals end up in the flesh, milk, or eggs of these animals, and ultimately in your gut, where they can still work their damage.
Even organic and so-called free-range animals contain these lectins because they, too, are fed soy and corn, albeit organic versions. (And by the way, it is perfectly legal to keep an animal inside a warehouse its entire life and call it free-range, as long as a door to the outside is open for a mere five minutes a day. Never mind that it is unlikely that any single bird packed cheek by jowl with thousands of other chickens ever manages to work its way to this door.) There is a vast difference in a burger (or milk or cheese) made from a cow that grazed on grass in the summer and ate hay in the winter and a burger made from an animal raised in a stockyard on lectin-rich corn and soy. To start, there’s the difference in the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. With certain exceptions, omega-6 fats are inflammatory and omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory. Corn and soy contain primarily omega-6 fats, while grass is high in omega-3 fats. But there’s more to it than that. Remarkably, those same soybeans and grains make cows much fatter than do the equivalent number of calories in grass.14 This means that the source of calories plays an important role in how you metabolize them. Keep that in mind when we discuss weight gain. And compounding the issue, of course, is that in the United States, almost all soy and corn is also produced from genetically modified seed. We’ll delve further into the effects of consuming GMO foods in chapter 4.
Life After Chicken
Yvonne K., a fifty-year-old Los Angeles woman, had severe lupus with joint pain, fatigue, and rashes, despite taking immune-suppressing drugs and practicing meditation. After a friend suggested she see me, I put her on the Plant Paradox Program. Within a month, the joint pain, fatigue, and most of the rashes had resolved. She stopped her immunosuppressant medications and continued to do well. When I saw Yvonne about four months later, she was ecstatic about what had happened, except for some persistent eczema on her eyelids. She told me she was vigilant about avoiding all bad foods, and we went over the lists of good foods and bad foods with a fine-tooth comb. When we got to the good food list, I asked if she was eating any chicken. She replied that she ate only organic free-range chicken. And that’s when we figured it out: she was effectively eating what the chickens had eaten—namely, corn and soybeans. She was an indirect grain and legume eater! We immediately removed chicken from her diet, and sure enough, within two weeks Yvonne’s eczema vanished. Three years later, it is still gone, and so is the free-range chicken.
The Balance of Power
SO, WHERE DO humans stand in the war between the plant and animal worlds? Are we just pushovers for the damage that plant lectins and other chemicals can inflict on our poor bodies? Not at all. It’s important to understand that although lectins can be toxic or inflammatory and have the ability to mess with your body’s internal messaging system, all animals, including humans, have developed their own defensive systems to render lectins harmless or at least mitigate their effects. A four-pronged defense mechanism protects us from the toxic effects of plants, and specifically of lectins.
1. THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE is the mucus in your nose and saliva in your mouth, collectively called mucopolysaccharides (meaning many sugars). Guess what those sugars are there for? To trap lectins. Remember, lectins like to bind to sugars. The next time your nose runs after eating spicy foods, you’ll know that you’ve just eaten some lectins. That extra dose of mucus not only traps the lectins you just ate but also adds an additional coating to your esophagus as your meal works its way down.
2. THE SECOND LINE OF DEFENSE is stomach acid, which in many cases does the job of digesting certain lectin proteins, although not all of them.
3. THE THIRD LINE OF DEFENSE is the bacteria in your mouth and gut (part of your microbiome), which have evolved to efficiently consume lectins before they have the opportunity to interact with the wall of your gut. The longer you have been eating particular plant lectins, the longer you have been producing gut bacteria specifically designed to defuse them.15 That’s why if you eliminate all gluten from your diet, the gluten-eating bugs die off; then when you do revert to eating gluten or eat something you don’t realize contains gluten, you cannot digest them, causing discomfort.
4. THE FOURTH AND FINAL LINE OF DEFENSE is a layer of mucus produced by certain cells throughout your intestines. Like the mucus in your nose, mouth, throat, and extending all the way to your anus, this layer of gut mucus acts as a barrier. It keeps the plant compounds you have eaten in the gut where they belong, using the sugars in the mucus to trap and absorb lectins. If you’re a Star Wars or Star Trek fan, think of this mucosal layer as an activated force shield!
Taken all together, it’s an effective system. Nevertheless, the more troops in the form of lectins thrown at these defenses, the more the sugar molecules in the mucous layer are used up, and the more likely lectins are to get where they really want to go: the living cells that line your gut. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Of course, you do have another powerful weapon to employ in your battle with lectins—your brain. Once you know that certain foods are problematic, you should avoid them, eat them rarely, or mitigate their effects with the sorts of preparation methods our forebears long knew about, which we’ll discuss in good time. You’ll also soon learn why the use of drugs that eliminate stomach acid and the adoption of a completely gluten-free diet are ill advised except in that small portion of the population diagnosed with celiac disease. Once you understand more about your gut and the microbes that call it home, you can use your brain to better correct these missteps.
So there you have the human defense strategy—and I’ll share with you the specifics of how to fortify your defenses in Part II—but like the setup for an NFL football game, let’s now look at the lectin offensive lineup. Plants attack your formidable defense system with their own three-pronged approach, making you feel sick on several fronts.
LECTIN ATTACK STRATEGY #1: Get Through the Gut Wall
The first mission of lectins is to pry apart what are called tight junctions between the cells in the mucosal wall lining your intestine. Believe it or not, the lining of your intestine is only one cell thick, while its surface area is equivalent to the size of a tennis court.16 Imagine that a wall just a single cell thick is responsible for manning this huge border. Your intestinal cells absorb vitamins, minerals, fats, sugars, and simple proteins, but not large proteins—and lectins are relatively large proteins. If all is well with your gut health and its mucous layers, lectins should not be able to squeeze past the mucosal cells. But if you ever engaged in the old playground game of red rover, think of how the big kids tried to pry your arms apart to break through the line. That’s exactly what happens when lectins attack your mucosal wall.17
If one or more of the four lines of defense detailed above are breached, lectins can pry apart the tight junctions in the intestinal wall by binding with receptors on certain cells to produce a chemical compound called zonulin. Zonulin opens up the spaces between the cells of the intestinal lining, which enables lectins to access the surrounding tissues, lymph nodes and glands, or bloodstream, where they have no business being. Once there, they act like any foreign protein, prompting your body’s immune system to attack them. Think of when you get a splinter under your skin, and how your body’s response is to attack the splinter with white blood cells, creating swelling and redness. While you can’t see that response to lectins gaining access to off-limits territory in your body, I assure you that invading lectins prompt your immune system to respond in a similar fashion. I routinely see this when I measure inflammatory cytokines, which act like air raid sirens to alert the immune system to an incoming threat.
LECTIN ATTACK STRATEGY #2: Confuse the Immune System with Molecular Mimicry
There are many examples in the animal kingdom of creatures that mimic other species to their own advantage. Some moths mimic spiders to get their spider predators to leave them alone. The harmless scarlet king snake looks remarkably like the deadly coral snake, creating a powerful deterrent to predators. Likewise, plants may mimic birds or insects to keep from being eaten by them. One insect, the well-named walking stick, looks just like a dried twig, helping protect it from predators. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that plants purposely make lectins that are virtually indistinguishable from other proteins in your body, a tactic called molecular mimicry.
Lectins are nearly indistinguishable from certain other proteins in your body. By mimicking such proteins, lectins fool the host’s immune system, causing it to attack the body’s own proteins. Or the lectins bind to cell receptors, acting like a hormone or blocking a hormone, thus disrupting communications within the body and wreaking havoc (see below). I’m sure that on more than one occasion, you have had a passerby hail you down, using someone else’s name, only to apologize when he or she realizes it is a case of mistaken identity. Molecular mimicry is similarly a case of inappropriate pattern matching.
Our immune system cells and other cells use “bar-code” scanners called TLRs (toll-like receptors) to identify proteins as friend or foe. These pattern receptors, built over hundreds of millions of years, have been subjected to new patterns in certain foods that unfortunately mimic a whole different set of compounds that instruct cells—particularly, immune and fat cells—what to do. For instance, these compounds instruct fat cells to store fat when they shouldn’t be storing fat, or they tell our white blood cells to attack our own bodies in a case of mistaken identity. Some of these compounds are so new that most of our ancestors never encountered them until five hundred years ago. And some, the really bad ones, we’ve encountered for only the last fifty years! We’ll go into greater detail on the insidious effects of molecular mimicry in chapter 2.
LECTIN ATTACK STRATEGY #3: Disrupt Cellular Communication
Some lectins also disrupt transmissions between your cells by mimicking or blocking hormonal signals. Hormones are proteins that fit into actual docking ports on the walls of all cells and release information about what the hormone wants a cell to do. For example, the hormone insulin enables cells to allow glucose to enter and provide fuel. If there is excess glucose, insulin attaches to fat cells and directs them to store the glucose as fat for use when there’s less food. Once the hormone releases information, the cell informs the hormone that the message has been received and the hormone backs out of the dock, so the dock is ready for the next hormone. In order to do any of these things, the docking port for insulin has to be open and available. However, lectins can bind to important docking ports on cell walls, either giving wrong information or blocking release of the correct information. For example, the lectin WGA bears a striking resemblance to insulin. It can attach to the insulin docking port as if it were the actual insulin molecule, but unlike the real hormone, it never lets go—with devastating results, including reduced muscle mass, starved brain and nerve cells, and plenty of fat. Ouch!
A Plant-Based Diet
JUST TO REITERATE, I am not anti-vegetable. Far from it! And therein lies the paradox. We may be at war with plants, but they (or at least most of them) contain the vitamins, minerals, and a long list of flavonoids, antioxidants, polyphenols, and other micronutrients essential for our microbiome’s health—and, consequently, our health.
The Plant Paradox Program is actually a microbiome- and mitochondria-centric program that recommends a diverse array of the right plant foods at the right time, prepared the right way, in the right amounts. By the time you have finished reading this book, you’ll know exactly which plant foods to eat, which to avoid, and how to prepare certain foods to mitigate the impact of lectins. But you won’t subsist on plants alone. The source of most of the animal protein you’ll be eating is wild seafood, so I call this program a “vegaquarian” diet. Naturally, as a longtime professor at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, a Seventh-day Adventist vegetarian institution, I also provide an empowering approach for vegetarians and vegans to achieve optimal health.
Half of my patients seek me out because they have failed to show improvement on other famous gut-healing regimens, such as the GAPS diet, the SCD, and the Low FODMAP diet. What my colleagues in gut health don’t recognize is that while numerous factors are important in healing leaky gut, you must remove the offending proteins that are forcing the wall of the gut open in the first place. Until you do this, you are merely doing the equivalent of bailing water out of a leaky boat. Unless you fill the holes and stop making new ones, the boat (and you) will continue to sink.
Fortunately, there are ways to outwit the damaging effects of lectins, which I will reveal in the following chapters. Following the three phases of the Plant Paradox Program, you will initially remove the most problematic lectins so that you can heal your gut. Most people can later reintroduce some lectins, properly pretreated, in moderation. Nor is everyone equally sensitive to individual lectins. The longer your ancestors had been eating a certain leaf or other plant part that contains a lectin, the more opportunity your immune system and microbiome had to evolve to tolerate that lectin. At some point, they both evolve to merely shrug their shoulders when confronted with this particular protein.
In the next chapter, we’ll delve deeper into the world of lectins to understand how they are leading the charge in the war within your body. We’ll also explode the myth of many so-called healthy foods, which, as you’ll learn, are actually the hidden cause of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, and all autoimmune diseases.
Lectins on the Loose
Now that you’ve been introduced to the mischievous proteins known as lectins, let’s address the obvious questions: If our forebears have been eating most of these lectin-containing foods for thousands of years, why are they only now undermining our health? And what, if anything, has changed in recent years to make that the case?
This is where it gets really interesting. Lectins have actually been making trouble for humans for thousands of years. Through trial and error, any animal, including our own species, learned which plants to avoid. But about one hundred thousand years ago, humans made a discovery that catapulted us past all other creatures in our war with plants: fire! Cooking partially breaks down many lectins. Plus, it is an easy way to break apart the cell wall of a plant. Previously, only gut bacteria were capable of both feats. This allowed our early ancestors to evolve in a way that dramatically lessened the amount of energy (and surface area of the intestines) required for digestion—a change that made calories more accessible to our energy-demanding brain. While not a perfect solution, cooking also allowed us to utilize the underground starch storage system of plants called tubers—think of sweet potatoes—by breaking down these previously indigestible plant compounds.
After cooking came about, things were looking pretty good for Homo sapiens for about ninety thousand years. Plentiful animals and tubers produced tall, robust humans. In fact, up until ten thousand years ago, the average human stood about six feet tall. But when the last Ice Age ended, trouble began. The huge beasts that thrived in the cold rapidly died off, requiring a new resource for calories for mankind. Enter agriculture and the domestication of grains and beans (legumes) in the fertile triangle of the Middle East. Both could be stored and used later, unlike fruit, which needs to be consumed when ripe. The cultivation of grains and legumes was the ultimate double-edged sword of the plant paradox. Entirely new lectins entered our guts for the first time in millions of years, and we were, and still are—excuse the pun—ill prepared. But as you’ll soon understand, grains and beans were both the best and worst things that could have happened to our species.
Two Types of Lectins
IN THE LAST chapter, you learned about two kinds of seeds, those with and without hard casings. You also learned about the two divergent defensive strategies plants use—either to deter predators from eating their seeds or conversely to encourage predators to eat and transport them. Not surprisingly, plant predators also fall into two categories. Grazers evolved to consume single-leaf plants (monocotyledons, or monocots, for short), which we tend to think of mostly as grasses or grains. Meanwhile, tree dwellers evolved to consume tree leaves and other two-leaf plants (bicotyledons) and their fruits. The lectins in one-leaf plants are totally different from the lectins in two-leaf plants, so the sets of gut microbes in grazers and tree dwellers also evolved in two distinct paths. Gut microbes in grazers digest the lectins in single-leaf plants, while the tree dwellers have a different set of microbes capable of processing the lectins in two-leaf plants.
We know that the longer you are exposed to a compound, the more you become tolerant of it and don’t vigorously react to it. Think of how allergy shots give you a little dose of an allergen until eventually you can handle that food or other substance. But in this case, the time frame necessary for us to come to tolerate certain lectins isn’t weeks or months; rather, it is millennia.
The predecessors of cows, sheep, antelope, and other grazers have had millions and millions of years to develop and pass on microbes capable of handling lectins in single-leaf plants. By handling, of course, I mean digesting and eliminating those lectins; and if not eliminating these lectins, then “educating” the immune system not to be overly bothered, since it has been encountering them for millions of years. Mice and rats evolved as grain eaters at least 40 million years ago and have had far longer to become tolerant of these lectins: on the order of four thousand times longer than we humans. Rodents also have hundreds of times more enzymes called proteases in their gut to break down lectins in seeds, which means a rodent’s intestinal wall is not under the constant threat that lectins pose to your gut.
We humans certainly aren’t grazers, at least in the original use of the term. (We do love to graze on snack foods all day! But I can assure you that the Plant Paradox Program will cure you of that tendency.) Therefore, we are categorized as tree dwellers, or at least the descendants of a long line of tree dwellers that initially were tree shrews. I know. That may seem hard to believe, but it was at least 40 million years ago. And over that time, the microbes that now call your body home and can handle the lectins of two-leaf plants were passed down from generation to generation.1
Four Cataclysmic Changes in the Human Diet
OUR GUT BACTERIA play an important role in “educating” our immune system as to which compounds should be accepted as relatively harmless and allowed in, and which are cause for concern and should be barred from entry.2 This “border patrol” known as our immune system has been built over 80 million years, beginning long before Homo sapiens emerged. But only relatively recently have we (and our microbes) been subjected to new patterns in certain foods. Unfortunately, compounds in these foods mimic a whole different set of compounds that tell our cells, particularly immune and fat cells, what to do.
The four major disruptions in human eating patterns outlined below have upset the sophisticated balance of power between plants and humans, which allowed both of us to coexist and thrive for millennia. Each of these disruptions has forced us to accommodate (or not) a changing diet. And it’s only recently that we have uncovered the role that lectins play in this disruption. The epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems provide proof positive that we are now losing this war. To understand why this is happening now and what we can do about it, let’s take a short trip back to mankind’s ancient origins.
CHANGE #1: The Agricultural Revolution
The advent of the agricultural revolution about ten thousand years ago meant that a totally new source of food—grain and beans—became the dietary staple of most cultures relatively quickly. At that point, the human diet shifted from primarily leaves, tubers, and some animal fat and protein to primarily grains and beans. Until then, the human microbiome had never encountered lectins in grasses (grains) or legumes, and therefore the human gut bacteria, microbes, and immune system had zero experience handling them.
Fast-forward five thousand years or so. Thanks to its granaries full of wheat, ancient Egypt was able to feed its people, including the slaves who built its pyramids, enabling its rise to a great kingdom. However, analysis of thousands of Egyptian mummified remains has revealed the health status of those wheat eaters, and it wasn’t good. They died overweight, with clogged arteries. Their teeth were also decayed from a diet high in grains, which are full of simple sugars, and worn down to the gums from grinding the grains.3 The mummified remains of Queen Nefertiti suggest that she most likely had diabetes. The legendary queen was not the only one with problems related to her grain-heavy diet. In fact, oatmeal has been associated with dental problems even in modern times. In 1932, researchers found that putting young children with dental cavities and malformed teeth on a diet free of oatmeal but fortified with vitamin D and cod liver oil for a period of six months resulted in almost complete elimination of both new cavities and regression in the growth of existing ones.4 These results were dramatically better than previous efforts using only vitamin D supplementation but that allowed the children to continue to consume oatmeal.
To varying degrees, we can see that the lectins in oats and other grains, legumes, and certain other plants have always been toxic—but given the choice between starvation and some serious health trade-offs, humans will always opt for survival. Our ancestors did come up with ways to minimize the effects of lectins once the agricultural revolution brought them to our plates, using fermentation and various other ingenious preparation techniques. And clearly, without grains and beans, civilization as we know it would not have occurred.
CHANGE #2: A Mutation in Cows
About two thousand years ago, a spontaneous mutation in Northern European cows caused them to make the protein casein A-1 in their milk instead of the normal casein A-2. During digestion, casein A-1 is turned into a lectinlike protein called beta-casomorphin. This protein attaches to the pancreas’s insulin-producing cells, known as beta cells, which prompts an immune attack on the pancreas of people who consume milk from these cows or cheeses made from it.5 This is likely a primary cause of type 1 diabetes.6 Southern European cows, goats, and sheep continue to produce casein A-2 milk, but because casein A-1 cows are hardier and produce more milk, farmers prefer them. The most common breed of cows worldwide is the Holstein, whose milk contains this problematic lectinlike protein. If you think that drinking milk gives you a problem, it’s almost certainly the cow’s breed that is at fault, not milk per se. The black and white Holstein is the classic example of the A-1 cow, while the Guernsey, Brown Swiss, and Belgian Blues are all casein A-2. That’s why I recommend that if you consume dairy, you opt for only casein A-2 dairy products, which grocery stores have recently started selling, particularly on the West Coast. Alternatively, use goat or sheep milk products to be safe.
It’s the Breed of Cow!
Allison M., a longtime sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis, came to me for help. In her fifties, she had decided that spending the rest of her life on immune-suppressing drugs, which might promote cancer, was too much to deal with. Instead, she stopped the drugs and started the Plant Paradox Program. She began to thrive, and her pain disappeared—and with it the inflammatory markers. But it was the call I got from the Napa Valley that makes this success story so poignant. It seems that Allison was visiting a girlfriend who offered her some yogurt from grass-fed cows on a nearby farm, knowing that she was on this “crazy Gundry diet.” My patient declined, saying that it wasn’t the right breed of cow, which made her friend belittle the diet, saying that was ridiculous. As if the breed of cow made a difference! Allison laughed and agreed that it was silly, and that surely a little bit couldn’t hurt. So to be polite, she ate a couple of tablespoons of yogurt. That night she awoke with three finger joints in her left hand swollen and bright red. She called me, not in panic, but in delight! It was the breed of cow, after all. She told me that never had anything that hurt so badly felt so good, because now she knew that she had the secret formula for lifelong good health.
CHANGE #3: Plants from the New World
It would seem that we should have become pretty tolerant of these new lectins over the past ten thousand years, but let’s take one more trip back in time. Five centuries ago, the last of the major changes in lectin exposure—and perhaps the biggest disruption of all—occurred when Europeans reached the Americas. The explorers brought New World foods back to their native countries, and the Columbian Exchange, named after Christopher Columbus, exposed the rest of the world to a whole array of new lectins. They include the nightshade family, most of the bean family (legumes, including peanuts and cashews), grains, pseudo-grains such as amaranth and quinoa, the squash family (pumpkins, acorn squash, zucchini), and chia and certain other seeds. All are foods that until then no European, Asian, or African had ever seen, much less eaten. Half of the foods you have been told to eat for good health are actually New World plants that most of mankind had no prior exposure to, meaning your body, your gut bacteria, and your immune system are ill prepared to tolerate them. Getting to know a new lectin in five hundred years is equivalent to speed dating in evolution!
CHANGE #4: Contemporary Innovations
In the last five decades we have faced yet another unleashing of lectins in processed foods and most recently in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including soybeans, corn, tomatoes, and rapeseed (canola). Our bodies have never before encountered any of these lectins. Moreover, with the introduction of broad-spectrum antibiotics, other drugs, and a vast array of chemicals, we have totally destroyed the gut bacteria that would have normally given us a chance to process these lectins and educate our immune system about them. We’ll discuss these deadly disruptors further in chapter 4.
All four of these factors have profoundly disrupted normal messaging within our bodies. There is no way we (and our microbiome) can adapt to deal with these onslaughts of lectins in such a short time span. (Just think about those poor cows that had never encountered corn and soy lectins until about sixty years ago and are treated with Tums in order to get them to eat their weight-promoting new food.) This is particularly true if we make a practice of killing most of our microbiome daily by ingesting certain medications, including antibiotics, and other substances such as artificial sweeteners. It’s akin to expecting one of the first personal computers developed in the 1970s, with perhaps 250 bytes of memory, to allow you to stream videos, check your Facebook page, pay bills, reserve airline tickets, order groceries, and perform countless other functions now possible on even the most basic modern-day computers.
IF ONLY ONE of these four factors is based on modern-day changes, why are we suddenly so much more sensitive to lectins today? The answer to that question is nuanced. As we discussed in the contemporary innovations section above, several recent changes have impacted how we respond to lectins. The pace of these shifts is approaching warp speed, outpacing our ability—and that of our microbiome—to adapt in a comparable time frame.
In the last half century, we have abandoned many of the tried-and-true ways of eating and preparing foods, opting instead for fast food, processed food, ultraprocessed food, microwave meals, and on and on. The makeup of our diet has also changed significantly. Corn, soy, and wheat, all packed with lectins, are in most processed foods. The lectin load on humans is higher than ever before, but there’s much more to the story. In this same five-decade time span, an onslaught of herbicides, biocides, drugs, fertilizers, food additives, skin-care products, and a host of other chemicals has also disrupted your internal messaging system, your gut, and the microbes in your gut. That chemical overload has compromised your ability to deal with grains, legumes, and other lectin-bearing plants.
As I alerted you in the Introduction, much of what I will be telling you can initially be difficult to accept. It may make you question the very concept of who you are. It will challenge your notions of what causes health and disease. It will upend your concepts of what constitutes healthy foods, good foods, bad foods, and even organic foods—and it will certainly make you question the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. At the most basic level, I want you to understand why you cannot ignore the past in order to enjoy a long, healthy future.
Our present-day food supply looks very different from the one that sustained people for generations.
Consider this: In just the last fifty years, the following significant changes have taken place:
• We now eat far more wheat, corn, and other grains, as well as soybeans, in the form of processed foods, which have displaced unprocessed carbohydrates, including leafy greens and other vegetables.
• More than 43 percent of the average household food budget is spent outside the home, up from just under 26 percent in 1970.
• Instead of home-cooked meals, we increasingly rely on prepared foods to pop in the microwave, ultraprocessed foods full of questionable ingredients, and take-out meals.
• We have forgotten (or ignored) tried-and-true ways to neutralize the negative effects of consuming certain lectin-containing foods.
• Many once-familiar plants are now grown using petrochemical fertilizers and modified to be more pest resistant, ripen sooner, minimize or eliminate bruising or denting, and to make other changes that increase production and facilitate moving produce long distances.
• Even our healthy vegetables are not being raised with the eons-old help of soil bacteria, which have been wiped out by modern farming techniques and biocides. Levels of zinc and magnesium, key elements that prevent diabetes and metabolic syndrome, in the soil have also dropped significantly.
• Although we don’t necessarily connect them to obesity and other health problems, nonfood products such as over-the-counter and prescribed drugs, room fresheners, hand sanitizers, and countless other disruptors are not just a problem in their own right but also compound the negative effects of eating lectins.
What Is Healthy Food?
AS YOUR HEALTH is so dependent on your diet, it all depends upon your choice of foods and their relative amounts, as well as the preparation techniques you use. But ironically, most of my patients with disease conditions were already eating “healthy”! Or at least so they thought.
In my original diet plan for my patients, I banished white foods such as flour, sugar, potatoes, and milk, and limited brown foods such as certain whole grains and legumes. But when I subsequently removed all grains and all pseudo-grains (quinoa, buckwheat, and the like) along with all legumes, including tofu, edamame, and other soy products, my patients experienced even greater improvements. It seemed that the more supposedly healthy foods that I eliminated, the more their health improved. Their cancers regressed or disappeared—yes, you read that right—as did their type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, fibromyalgia, and autoimmune diseases. How could that be? After all, we’ve been eating these healthy foods for thousands of years. Or have we?
Many foods, including those that contain lectins, have both good and bad properties. Additionally, individuals have different tolerances for lectins, depending upon the state of their health. But to a large extent, your individual health depends on the health of your gut lining, your microbiome, and its instructions to your immune system. And it’s become clear to me that lectins are leading the charge in the war within your body.
Even when organically raised, certain lectin-heavy foods are the cause of so-called autoimmune diseases, while lectin avoidance in my patients and as reported in scientific literature has been found to cure autoimmune diseases.10 These claims may seem outrageous, but the evidence walks in and out of my waiting room every day. In one study, twenty women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were put on a water fast, during which the RA disappeared in all twenty—and when they were put on a vegan diet following that, half remained in remission, meaning that their gut had healed. But the RA recurred in the other 50 percent of the patients on the vegan diet.11 In fact, my studies have shown that eating “healthy” lectin-rich foods causes RA. We need to reframe our definition of what defines healthy, which should include limiting the intake of lectin-rich foods.
Hoping for a Second Child
Beautiful and full of life, twenty-seven-year-old Suzanna K. and her husband were seeking my help. Shortly after delivering her first child, Suzanna had developed devastating rheumatoid arthritis. She was placed on steroids and an immunosuppressant drug, but she still had extremely swollen joints. Any movement was painful, making it impossible to hold her child. Moreover, she and her husband desperately wanted another baby, but they knew that being on these drugs made it too dangerous for Suzanna to contemplate another pregnancy.
Suzanna was ready to try anything. Her blood work showed that even on these powerful drugs, her immune system was nonetheless in full attack mode. Her tests also showed the marker for lectin sensitivity. So we instituted the Plant Paradox Program and stopped her medications. It was tough going at first. We used natural anti-inflammatory compounds such as boswellia extract and high-dose fish oil and vitamin D3. With each passing week, her pain began to subside and her inflammation markers slowly descended, approaching normal. She could now play with her son without pain, and lift or hold him without wincing. About a year into her program, I met with her again, along with her husband and mother, who had both joined the program to help her stick with it. I told her that her markers had improved to the point where I thought she could try to get pregnant. Her face lit up mischievously. “I knew you would say that,” she declared, “so I jumped the gun. I just got the test back, and I’m four weeks pregnant!”
Suzanna recently gave birth to a normal baby girl, and unlike the first go-round, her rheumatoid arthritis hasn’t flared seven months postpartum.
And how about her husband and mother? Despite being a fitness nut, her husband had been plagued by chronic sinus issues, which have disappeared since he started the program. Why might that be? Lectins are the cause of sinus issues, because excessive mucous production is the first line of defense to entrap the lectins we consume. Next time your nose runs after you eat spicy salsa, remember this. And Mom? Her diabetes, high cholesterol, and arthritis are gone, she’s off all of her medications, and she’s thirty pounds lighter—just by helping her daughter change her diet. The issues faced by these three people might seem disparate, but they were all united by lectin sensitivity—and they all found success upon removing lectins from their diet.
Getting to the Bottom of Gluten Sensitivity
Skip Both Wheat and Glucosamine
The lectin WGA has a particular affinity for attaching to joint cartilage and stimulating our immune system to attack our joints. Both the inflammation and resulting pain can be temporarily alleviated with an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as aspirin (Bufferin, Anacin, or Ecotrin), ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil), naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox, Naprelan, and Naprosyn), or ketoprofen (Orudis KT). Or a physician may prescribe an NSAID such as Celebrex, Zorvolex, Indocin, or Feldene, among others.
All these drugs may provide short-term relief, but they have deleterious side effects on your gut (see “Breaching the Gut Wall”, “A Clue Emerges” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?” for a detailed discussion). Glucosamine occurs naturally in your body and is found in the fluid that surrounds and cushions joints, where it serves its role as one of the building blocks of cartilage. Glucosamine binds to WGA, relieving or eliminating the inflammation and therefore the pain. Taking glucosamine sulfate in supplement form has a salutary effect for many, but not all people. The reason it is effective is not because it magically relieves joint pain, but because it binds WGA and other lectins in the gut, which are then eliminated before they can enter your body. To break the vicious circle of taking NSAIDs to reduce the side effects inflicted by WGA, simply omit wheat and other lectin-containing foods from your diet. You’ll be shocked and delighted to see what happens.
Natural and Manipulated Lectins
UNTIL THE 1950s most people followed organic gardening methods, fertilizing their crops with manure and using mulch to protect roots and the microbes in the soil from extreme cold. By the middle of the twentieth century, thanks to petrochemical fertilizers, a remnant of the munitions manufacturing for World War II, and the development of refrigerated railcars, heirloom produce began to give way to hybrid varieties developed by seed companies to satisfy the needs of commercial growers. A major factor was the need to grow produce in Southern California, Florida, and other warm parts of the country that could be shipped in a refrigerated truck or railcar for distribution across the country. Hybrid vegetables and fruit that could withstand the journey and arrive in good shape meant that, regardless of whether you lived in South Carolina or South Dakota, you could find out-of-season produce year-round. Hybrids that made the cut were deemed desirable and varieties that couldn’t meet the shipping test fell out of favor.
However, shippable hybrids haven’t had hundreds of years to develop the natural ability to deal with inclement weather and insects and other plant predators, as well as to compete with weeds. Because these plants lacked such natural defenses, commercial farmers began to rely on heavy use of biocides (pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides). The next step in the process of making modern farming more efficient and profitable was genetic modification. In bioengineered plants, lectins are artificially inserted. Scientists selectively add foreign genes into a plant’s basic genome to command the plant to manufacture specific lectins that enhance the plant’s ability to resist insects and other pests. This is one form of genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Not only do the food staples we eat today contain far more lectins than did the vegetables and fruits our grandparents ate, they also are more likely to be GMOs. And remember, these fruits are picked unripe, leaving their lectin content intact. Finally, and let me emphasize this point: just because the produce you are eating is grown organically doesn’t mean that you were designed to eat that plant. Lectins are naturally concentrated in the leaves and seeds of all plants, regardless of whether the plant is grown organically or conventionally. This means that while you can avoid GMO foods, you cannot avoid lectins. The solution then is controlling which ones (and how much of them) you consume.
Hormesis and the Lectin Paradox
Without question, plants can mess with your body, but at the same time, they contain compounds that can be beneficial. Their toxic nature actually educates the innate immune system (the nonspecific immune system passed down from mother to infant at birth) to assist you in fighting off pathogens such as pneumonia and viruses. Other lectins are antimicrobial. One lectin inhibits the growth of the HIV virus. Lectins in garlic, bitter melon, and other herbs possess healing properties. Researchers are currently investigating the potential of some lectins to treat cancers, because they bind to cell membranes. Nonetheless, if you are lectin sensitive, the fact that lectins initiate chronic inflammation likely offsets the benefit of any anticancer action.
To understand the lectin paradox, that certain foods can be both good for you and bad for you, it helps to understand the concept of hormesis, which refers to the fact that compounds that are bad for us in quantity are often simultaneously good for us in moderation. This concept is often expressed as “the dose makes the poison.” Eating such foods educates and mildly stresses the immune system and cells in general, and therefore increases the likelihood of a longer life span. In the case of lectins, a little bit of the toxin can be protective. For example, bitter plants warn you to eat just a little of them. In general, long-lived cultures have a history of eating bitter greens and herbs. As I said in my first book: more bitter, more better!
Hormesis is actually an argument for eating a varied diet. We humans evolved as a traveling species. There is evidence that our hunter-gatherer forebears ate about 250 plant species on a rotating basis. Most humans don’t even eat a tenth of that number, which in my opinion is an excellent argument, which we will get to later, for why we need to take supplements.
The Gluten Distraction
LET ME RETURN to the particular lectin called gluten for a moment. Like a guy whose car was hijacked by bank robbers and used to commit a crime, gluten is just a minor player, and not the primary culprit in the debate surrounding the healthfulness of eating grains. In fact, in countries that depend on gluten as a major source of protein, people do just fine. Seitan, for example, a dietary staple in Indonesia, contains no WGA, just gluten. For most people, going gluten-free is like throwing out the baby (the protein) with the bathwater (the gluten). In fact, a lot of people who struggle to give up gluten actually continue to eat foods that are more problematic, thanks to the other lectins they contain. Many people assume so-called gluten-free foods are grain-free. Not so. Wheat, rye, and barley may be eliminated in gluten-free foods, but a look at the list of ingredients reveals that these grains have been replaced with corn, rice, or teff, each of which contains multiple forms of glutenlike lectins, including zein, oryzenin, panicin, kafirin, and penniseitin. These products also often include soy or other bean flours, which of course also contain lectins. And again, sugar in one form or another frequently appears high on the list of ingredients.
There is another reason that people may mistakenly think that the problems they have with bread and other baked goods stem from sensitivity to gluten. Since 1950, commercial bakers in the United States have replaced the rising agent of yeast with transglutaminase, which is also a binding agent. When I do eat bread in the United States, it makes me feel bloated, but I have no such reaction with white bread made with yeast when I am in Europe. That’s because yeast ferments and destroys the lectins in wheat, taming their effects. And guess what? In France and Italy, where bread is produced by traditional yeast-rising techniques, almost all the bread is white, not whole wheat. It contains gluten, which has been digested by the yeast, but no WGA. Would it surprise you then to learn that sourdough bread, made by fermenting wheat with bacteria and yeast, consistently ranks as one of the safest and least injurious breads, in terms of blood sugar spikes? The bacteria and yeast together “eat” the lectins and a good deal of the sugars!
And here’s the kicker: Most “gluten-free” baked products are also treated with transglutaminase to make them fluffier and more appealing. Transglutaminase is also used to bind together ground meat and seafood (fake crabmeat is one example), which is why it’s often referred to as meat glue. Unfortunately, transglutaminase can pass the blood-brain barrier and act as a neurotransmitter disruptor, making it extremely harmful and often responsible for the condition known as gluten ataxia, which is similar to Parkinson’s. Nonetheless, transglutaminase is FDA approved and does not need to appear on product labels.
It is important to note that transglutaminase also sensitizes us to glutens even if we’re not gluten-sensitive. Read that last sentence again. This means that if you assume you are sensitive to gluten because you have certain symptoms after eating store-bought bread and other products made with wheat, you may instead actually be reacting to transglutaminase.
Finally, when whole grains are used in processed foods, including bread and breakfast cereals, it is necessary to add dangerous preservatives such as butyl hydroxytoluene (BHT) to block the oxidation of the polyunsaturated oils in those whole grains. I’ll get to BHT and its cousins soon, but for now, let’s just say that you might as well be spiking your bread or cereal with estrogen. These oils reside in the germ of the grain. Unlike a saturated fat such as coconut oil, polyunsaturated fats are always on the lookout for oxygen atoms with which to bond, and when they do, the fat can become rancid. Rancid bread or crackers taste, well, rancid. A few years ago, I was lecturing in France and had to catch a very early flight back to the United States. I asked if breakfast could be delivered to my room at about 4:00 a.m. The front desk manager assured me that they would be happy to provide breakfast at that hour but said they could not deliver any croissants, since those would not yet have been made. When I suggested that leftover croissants would be fine, he became apoplectic, assuring me that they would never do that, as they would be unfit to eat.
Remember this story when you peruse the sell-by date of any commercial bread or cracker or snack product. If the date isn’t the day it was manufactured, then the product for sure contains BHT or another similar deadly preservative. There are many reasons you want to avoid BHT—among them the fact that it is a major endocrine disruptor, acting like estrogen. This is the last thing in the world you want your kids to be consuming, because estrogen prompts fat storage; it also promotes early puberty in girls and “boobs” on seven-year old boys.18 And if you need further incentive to avoid this preservative, know that BHT is used in embalming fluid, among other commercial uses. I kid you not!
BEFORE I REALIZED that lectins are largely responsible for our poor health and excess pounds, I observed specific patterns in the health of my patients—and then in the benefits they derived from my diet program. When I shifted the focus of my medical practice to restorative medicine (sometimes referred to as functional medicine), many of my first patients were overweight men with heart disease. In the most basic terms, “restorative medicine” refers to medical practices that enable the body to heal itself rather than just treat the symptoms of disease. Usually my overweight patients were dragged in to see me, kicking and screaming, by their slim wives. Each woman wanted me to “fix” her husband. Changing habits is a team sport, so in addition to the various sophisticated blood tests and genetic markers I would draw from the husband, I usually asked the spouse to have the tests taken as well as a new patient. I also took a complete medical history from them both.
Much to my surprise, these thin, supposedly healthy women had a number of health issues in common with one another. A shocking number were hypothyroid, most due to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease supposedly of unknown cause. (Not so, as you’ll learn.) A great number of them also had arthritis, often with very tender nodules in their finger joints. To relieve the pain, they typically took one or more of the NSAIDs, and most of them had also been using a stomach-acid reducer such as Prilosec, Prevacid, or Nexium for years. In addition, a huge number of them relied on antidepressants. Many would tell me, “If you were married to my husband, you’d be on them, too!” But that’s not all. Often, they were also taking one or more drugs for osteoporosis and had been told that they had IBD (irritable bowel disease). In fact, my average (supposedly healthy) female patient was on seven medications!
This compilation of hypothyroidism, arthritis, acid reflux, osteoporosis, bowel issues, and depression (and the drugs they took to relieve them) formed a pattern in these slim women. I started looking for other things they had in common. What were they eating? If you guessed “healthy” foods, you’re right! They dined on whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bagels with fat-free cream cheese, egg white omelets, and salads with dressing on the side. They avoided fats like the plague. And yet, most of them were on a statin drug like Lipitor or Crestor to reduce their cholesterol levels, as well as the fistful of drugs for ailments that they considered “normal.” It seemed that the “healthier” they ate, the unhealthier they became.
And what of their husbands? Almost to a man, they followed a now familiar pattern: the use of medications to reduce high blood pressure, acid reflux, and cholesterol, to relieve arthritis and other forms of pain, and to induce sleep. The medicine cabinets in these households must have been a regular pharmacopoeia!
When the results of these specialized tests came back, certain markers of inflammation and immune cell activation also emerged with remarkable consistency: the immune systems of my patients and their wives were in full attack mode. But once I put them on a two-page food list I had modified from the one in my earlier book, Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution, and advised them to remove certain household and personal grooming products from their homes, I consistently witnessed their body’s natural ability to heal itself.
Word gets around. Soon women with similar health issues were turning up at my office on their own, minus a portly husband. But this time, a significant number of these women were either overweight or obese. Many told a similar story: that their often vague complaints would be tossed aside by their doctors as “female issues”: hormone disorders, depression, or anxiety. Most of them had tried every diet under the sun, having gone to Weight Watchers, Lindora, Medifast, etc. Many had made a genuine commitment to exercise programs and yet here they were: fat and miserable. They carried with them the same cluster of prescriptions as my skinny women. They came because they knew something was wrong and their friends had said that I could “fix” them. And sure enough, the same dietary prescription that I gave my other patients fixed these folks as well.
Then other patients appeared with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, and immune-system diseases, such as lymphomas or multiple myelomas, Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis. I soon became known as the Fixer. Next, stage 3 and 4 cancer patients arrived. You’ll be shocked to hear this, but not only did these autoimmune and cancer patients match similar patterns, most got better by following my food list.
FROM THERE, HOW did I specifically identify lectins as a primary cause for so many patterns of health problems in my patients? Good question. It actually happened in a roundabout way. In my thirty-plus years of practicing medicine, I have come to the conclusion that the problems we have with our health are actually caused by very small things. This is particularly true of big health problems. Once more with feeling: Very small things (like lectins) can cause huge health problems. And it was a simple observation by one of the earliest adopters of my original dietary program that started me down a path that resulted in this book.
The tests I order on all my patients reveal many patterns that have helped me understand what is happening to our collective health, but it wasn’t until I worked with a patient by the name of Tony that I experienced my eureka moment. Tony was a strikingly fit, energetic, mostly vegetarian—he called himself a flexitarian—man in his early forties who had fully adopted my principles. As a result, he was eating lots of greens, and banishing grains and pseudo-grains, potatoes and other starches, as well as beans and other legumes. He had also dramatically cut back on fruit and seeded vegetables (which as you now know are botanically fruits). Tony had also upped his intake of fish, shellfish, fish oil, olive oil, avocados, and macadamia nuts.
Like all of my patients, Tony experienced improved vitality and athletic performance shortly after starting the program, and he lost ten pounds. But Tony suffered from vitiligo, a skin condition in which pigmentation is lost. (That’s why Michael Jackson, who suffered from the same problem, became paler and paler over the years.) Vitiligo is caused by the gradual destruction of the pigment-producing cells of our skin called melanocytes, which are modified nerve cells that migrate to our skin in the embryonic stage of development. Why these nerve cells die in people with vitiligo was unknown at the time, but an autoimmune process was suspected.
The term “autoimmune process” is a catchphrase used to describe how the body’s immune system gets confused and begins attacking its own cells. Patients with autoimmune disease are told that their immune system is making a mistake. In Tony’s case, his melanocytes were being treated as if they were foreign invaders and had to be killed, leaving him with patches of unpigmented skin. And, to be sure, his immune system was doing a good job of killing the cells it had misidentified.
Now, I’ve seen just about everything in my years as a physician, and I like to think of myself as pretty unflappable—but I was shocked to see and hear what happened when Tony started on my diet. Within weeks, he saw the pigment return to his skin. That’s right: His vitiligo vanished—or more properly reversed itself—and his skin pigmentation returned to normal. How did that happen? Frankly, I didn’t know at the time. I did know that my dietary protocol was highly anti-inflammatory, but that didn’t explain the resolution of Tony’s vitiligo. Thousands of years ago, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, had described the body’s ability to heal itself, which he called veriditas (green life force). He believed that the physician’s job was to identify which forces were keeping the patient from healing himself and then remove them. Veriditas would take it from there. Clearly, Tony’s new eating habits had removed the roadblocks to his body repairing itself. There was veriditas in action, right before my eyes!
So back I went to the review of my research—specifically, my xenotransplantation research as a pioneering surgeon in the art of heart transplants. What was in my program (or what wasn’t in his new diet) that made Tony’s body stop attacking his melanocytes? Had he added something, or had he removed the external force that was preventing his body’s natural process of self-healing? Based on my transplant knowledge, I picked door number 2, the removal of an external force. But what was the external force?
A word of explanation is in order. Most people with various health problems believe that certain foods or supplements are anti-inflammatory, meaning that they dampen inflammation. What I was looking for is the actual cause of inflammation, which, if Hippocrates is right (and he is), would stop inflammation in its tracks. In other words, it wasn’t that my diet was quelling the inflammation in Tony’s body, which most healing diets purport to do. It was, in fact, that my diet was removing the root causes of inflammation, and once those were removed, his body was capable of healing itself without the need for any anti-inflammatory compounds. This seemingly small discovery will change how you think about how your body functions.
Clearly, inflammation was causing Tony’s problem, but where did the inflammation come from? Strange as it seems, what I discovered was that there was inflammation in his melanocytes because they look suspiciously like lectins to the immune system. Tony’s immune system had been attacking his melanocytes because, through no fault of their own, they bore a striking resemblance to lectins. And because my diet had purged lectins, the cause of the inflammation was removed.
Over hundreds of millions of years, plants have evolved a strategy of creating proteins (like lectins) that bear a striking resemblance to critical structures in their predators. When lectins get through the gut wall, they activate the immune system, which starts shooting without first asking questions—and that means it may shoot both at the lectins and also at the critical structures that resemble the lectins. Don’t forget that one of the original purposes of lectins is to prompt an immune response on the nerves of an insect to paralyze it. In this instance, Tony’s melanocytes—remember, they are modified nerve cells—were being misidentified as foreign. It was a case of mistaken identity, or what scientists call molecular mimicry—and it led to my eureka moment. Once Tony eliminated lectins, normalcy returned. I now knew lectins were causing this problem. But how did they get into Tony’s body from his gut in the first place?
PATTERN MATCHING, a term borrowed from the computer science field, refers to the act of checking a sequence of items to find the constituents of a pattern. It happens every time you search for information on the internet using Google, Bing, or Ask. As you enter each keystroke, the search engine pattern matches and offers up what you appear to be looking for. The more information you type in, hopefully the better the match. But, as you know, the search program often mismatches, sometimes in frustrating or humorous ways. For example, perhaps you are planning a wedding and start to enter the words “white flowers,” but the search engine jumps the gun and offers up content on white flour. That wasn’t quite what you had in mind!
You will recall that I had found strikingly common patterns in all my female patients’ medical complaints, as well as in their eating habits. And many of the findings that I presented in Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution came from observing patterns in blood tests, particularly for triglyceride and cholesterol levels, that matched people’s food choices. These patterns were predictable each and every time, and in every person. This observation is so important that I am repeating it here (and you will understand the full implication when you get to Part II). The patterns followed simple time-of-year food availability and predicted whether the body was in a “store fat for the upcoming winter during the summer” mode or “burn fat to survive the winter” mode. The choices of food, even the sweetness of food, communicated with our cells, via pattern matching, about which season it was, and we responded accordingly, either by gaining weight (summer) or burning calories in the form of fat for energy (winter). Pattern matching is the secret to how every living organism—no matter how small or large—operates. And by using those sophisticated blood tests, I came to realize that pattern matching and my ability to measure their effects on my patients underlie most positive or negative health states.
Immune System Scanners on Patrol
WE’VE COME TO know only in the last few years that your immune system uses quite simple scanning systems that look for and match patterns. I mentioned these systems in chapter 1 when discussing the second of the three strategies lectins use to fool your immune system. As a reminder, these scanners are known as TLRs; that stands for toll-like receptors, but I like to think of them as tiny little radars. They are found in all cell membranes of your body (and that of every animal).
Every protein, whether it is a virus, lectin, or cell wall, possesses a unique bar code. The TLRs in your body and on your white blood cells of your immune system behave like a Star Wars early warning system, looking for patterns that indicate foreign invaders, mainly bacteria and viruses. The TLRs constantly scan and “read” the molecular “fingerprints” or bar codes of whatever protein enters your body, just as a scanner at the checkout counter reads and interprets the UPC bar code on each product you purchase, identifying it and determining its price. Once the TLRs ascertain whether a particular bar code represents friend or foe, they decide how to respond, either by letting the protein pass without a challenge or by turning on alarms and air raid sirens to alert your body and immune system that an invasion is under way.
Now envision another set of receptors, which act like a USB port on a computer, that literally scan incoming hormones, enzymes, and cytokines for instructions about what those hormones and enzymes want the cell to do. This second set of receptors, known as G-protein coupled receptors—let’s call them G-spotters—serve as docking ports on all cells, similar to those on the space station. When an incoming shuttle wants to unload its cargo and information, its docking mechanism must fit the mechanism on the space station, just as you can only use a charger with a compatible plug to recharge your iPhone 7. Likewise, only if a hormone or enzyme fits into the receptor can information be exchanged.
If this communication system within your body sounds fantastical, consider that we take for granted that our cell phones operate using invisible electrical pulses emanating from satellites or cell phone towers. Our bodies’ cellular communication works in much the same way.
In other words, your immune system’s job is to scan for friend or foe patterns, and to sound the alarm whenever it encounters recognized patterns of foreign proteins. It then shares the knowledge of the foreign protein patterns with the rest of the body, so that troops can be more easily rallied against the enemy in the future. This is what happens when you get a flu shot. A protein from the outside surface of the flu virus is injected into your arm. Your immune system sees this protein, reads its bar code as foreign, attacks it—and then it makes scanners on white blood cells and immune-signaling proteins that will be permanently on the lookout for the flu protein bar code. If the real flu virus gets in your system, wham, your body is ready. The TLR scanners—remember them as tiny little radars—recognize the incoming missile as a foe, they send out messages to alert the body, the missile defense system is launched, and white blood cells attack the foreign protein like a smart bomb. Result: no more flu virus. Victory!
The Search for Patterns
THE DESCRIPTION OF these scanners won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2011. A year later the discovery of the receptors (G-spotters) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Together, these discoveries allowed me to connect the final dots between patients who had what initially appeared to be completely unrelated problems.
As I discovered, the cause of all my patients’ problems was that their cells’ TLRs and G-spotters were scanning for patterns, detecting patterns, turning on alarms, or activating cellular machinery. That’s because their TLRs and G-spotters were receiving information from input sources that never existed fifty years ago, thanks to a fundamental alteration in the foods people eat and the drugs and personal care products they (and you) use. In short, you have been hacked. And as a consequence, this process had devastated the health of my patients—and is almost certainly responsible for your health problems as well.
How can I know for sure that this is what is happening, and that the constant scanning is largely responsible for an array of health problems? After all, these lethal events are unfolding within you at the cellular, molecular level without your knowledge. The compounds that trigger these receptors are so small, so invisible, that they seem insignificant. But thanks to the inflammatory hormone measurements and tests that I use, I’ve been able to track them for the last few years.
The information I have gained from working with my patients has helped me find patterns in the immune system and the inflammation it generates that until now have been hidden from view. And what I’ve found is that lectins, and perhaps other foreign proteins, play a big role in disrupting communication between cells. Because lectins are master pattern mimickers, much of the information they communicate to cells is inaccurate. And the cause of all of my patients’ problems is that their TLRs were inappropriately turning on alarms or that their receptors were receiving inappropriate information. Regardless of my individual patients’ health issues, the common denominator was a disruption in messaging. The patterns being detected by their immune system had set off an immunologic and hormonal firestorm within each and every one of them, devastating their health. These conditions resolved when proper communication was restored. And the good news? It’s all about making simple changes in your diet and lifestyle.
A Deadly Case of Mistaken Identity
WHEN YOU WERE a kid and got a sore throat, your mother probably worried that it was caused by a bacterium called beta-hemolytic streptococcus, known colloquially as strep throat. If you have kids of your own, you have the same concerns. Strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever, a very severe illness. But rheumatic heart disease, which is what happens after surviving rheumatic fever, is what interests heart surgeons like myself. This condition used to be the primary reason for heart-valve replacement, because survivors’ valves were almost always destroyed later in life.
How valve destruction happens in rheumatic heart disease is important to you, even if you’ve never had strep throat. The cell wall of the streptococcus bacteria is made of fats, sugars, and proteins and is identified by its characteristic bar code. If you’ve been infected with this particular strain of streptococcus, your immune system makes scanners that patrol your bloodstream, ever on the hunt for the same bar code. Unfortunately, this bar code looks remarkably like the ones on your heart valve’s cell wall surface. Imagine the streptococcus scanner’s surprise as it floats past your heart valves and comes across what it perceives is a streptococcus bar code! The scanners send messages to attack and kill what it mistakenly identifies as streptococcus. Then your immune system goes into full attack mode, day after day, year after year, silently and painlessly attacking your heart valve. Finally, the valve is so damaged that it stops functioning, and I’m called in to replace it.
As I remove that valve, I notice that the contents of the valve look a lot like the crud inside of the coronary arteries on which I do bypasses. That’s another clue to the puzzle: modern coronary artery disease looks just like the immune system attack that causes rheumatic heart disease. I’ll tell you what causes that immune attack on your coronary arteries a bit later, but be prepared. Scanner confusion in response to apparently similar bar codes results in unwarranted attacks, and it is the underlying cause of most of our current diseases and health issues.
EACH PROTEIN HAS a unique bar code, but as you just saw with streptococcus bacteria, many bar codes are remarkably similar. And some lectins are specifically designed by the plant to resemble compounds that are considered harmful by the body—such as lipopolysaccharides (LPSs), which are molecules that make up the cell walls of certain bacteria in our microbiome. I’m not one for swearing, but I can’t resist calling them “little pieces of shit,” because that’s exactly what they are! LPSs are fragments of bacteria that are constantly being produced as bacteria divide and die in your gut. They travel through your gut wall and out into the body by riding on and hiding in saturated fats.
Your immune system cannot tell the difference between a whole bacterium and a fragment of one, so it treats LPSs as a threat, just as though a true bacterial infection was present in your blood or elsewhere in your body. Your immune system then summons your white blood cells—I think of them as fighter jets and troops—into the attack, causing inflammation. But the extra bad news is that our immune cells, which are ever on patrol for these foreign bodies, can mistake the pattern of lectins for the pattern of LPSs and attack them, as though bacteria were loose in your system—further inflaming your body as a result.
But the most dangerous trick pulled by lectins, which I now see on a daily basis in my patients, is that they bear an uncanny similarity to the proteins on many of our important organs, nerves, and joints. Now, in an abundance of caution, your immune system doesn’t want to make a mistake in defending your body by not attacking something important. In the days before antibiotics, you would have been in big trouble if bacteria were present in your body, which is why your immune system is hypersensitive to anything that even remotely resembles a bacterial cell wall or other foreign protein.
My colleagues in rheumatology call this response autoimmune disease, but it is actually “friendly fire.” If an animal eats something containing lectins and gets sick, doesn’t feel well, or doesn’t thrive, it rapidly figures out that eating that particular plant seed or product isn’t a good idea. Remember, a weakened enemy is the best kind of enemy from a plant’s standpoint. And if you can get your enemy to shoot himself in the foot, you’re ahead of the game. When a plant predator (including a human) attacks itself with an immune reaction, it becomes less likely to eat the plant (and therefore its “babies”). Equally as important, it is less likely to reproduce and create more plant predators, again helping ensure the survival of the plant species.
A God Learned How to Cure Himself
My good friend Tony Robbins called me about five years ago, looking for help. An eminent guru, a holy man considered a “god” to twelve million people around the world, was in a hospital in India, awaiting an urgent five-vessel coronary artery bypass grafting for severe coronary artery disease. Could I intervene and help him avoid surgery? My answer was a resounding yes! It’s not every day that I meet a god.
The sixty-two-year-old guru’s blood work did not look promising. Not only did he have severe coronary artery blockages, he was also terribly diabetic, with HbA1Cs—a marker of sugar and protein intolerance—of greater than 9.0 (normal is less than 5.6), and advanced kidney failure. When he consulted me via Skype, I asked him if he was indeed a god, and he replied that people call him a god because he performs miracles and cures people. I responded by asking, why he doesn’t just cure himself, if he performs miracles. His reply? “You know how this god thing works; I can cure anyone else, but I can’t cure myself! That’s what I need you for.” We hit it off immediately.
The guru was being treated by an ayurvedic physician, and he ate a traditional Indian diet heavy on rice, legumes, and naan, a kind of flatbread. He had a classic “Delhi belly,” aka a beer belly. When I made it clear that the foods of his faith were the cause of his diabetes, heart disease, and kidney failure, he was shocked. These were the foods recommended by all the gods before him. How could they be so unhealthy? My reply was the same as it is to anyone else who eats “healthy”: How’s all that healthy eating working out for you if you have all these diseases?
As Einstein was fond of saying, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I put the god on the Plant Paradox Program, and within a few weeks his chest pain was gone and his blood sugar level started to decline. Things were going well for about three months, until his blood tests results were suddenly terrible again. When we next Skyped, I asked him what happened. Apparently, every three months there is a festival to worship him and all the monks, and his followers shower him with foods for the gods, which he is obliged to eat. This pattern repeated itself for about two years; two steps forward, one step back every three months when another festival occurred.
Finally, on a Skype call a few years in, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Aren’t you god to your followers?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Well, doesn’t god make the rules about what god likes to eat and what pleases him?” I asked. “I never thought about it like that,” he said. “I will tell my monks and my followers that we must all eat Gundry style to please me.” And that’s just what he did.
Today, the guru’s skin has a radiant glow of health. His stress tests on his heart are normal, and his kidney failure is history, as is his diabetes. Without medications, his HbA1C is an acceptable 5.5 and going down. Oh, and one more thing: His ayurvedic doctor now also eats Gundry style!
Each one of us has the power, the green life force energy, to heal from within once the external forces that prevent that natural ability are removed. The god had the power to heal himself, after all. As he and I agreed, I can show you the path, but it is you who must walk it.
Patterns Causing Problems
ANOTHER IMPORTANT LESSON I’ve learned from my patients is that your immune system reacts to lectins to a greater or lesser degree depending on who you are—meaning your family history and genetics—and, more important, whether those lectins are getting past your previously intact intestinal barrier. It seems simple, right? Not so. In the next chapter, we’ll look more closely at our current health crisis and specifically the rising tide of obesity and related diseases. Most important, we’ll look at how to reverse it. Because as it turns out, the ability of lectins to mimic other proteins and confuse the body’s messaging plays a major role in many, many conditions. By using the forthcoming principles and my updated dietary program, I have seen patients resolve the following health problems:
• Aching joints
• Acid reflux or heartburn
• Age spots, skin tags
• Autoimmune diseases (including autoimmune thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s, colitis, and lupus)
• Bone loss (including osteopenia and osteoporosis)
• Brain fog
• Canker sores
• Chronic fatigue syndrome
• Chronic pain syndrome
• Colon polyps
• Cramps, tingling, and numbness
• Decline in dental health
• Diabetes, prediabetes, insulin resistance
• Fat in the stool (due to poor digestion)
• Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Barrett’s esophagus
• Gastrointestinal problems (bloating, pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea)
• Heart disease, coronary artery disease, vascular disease
• Infertility, irregular menstrual cycle, miscarriage
• Irritability and behavioral changes
• Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
• Low counts of immunoglobulin G, immunoglobulin M, and immunoglobulin A
• Low testosterone
• Low white blood cell count
• Lymphomas, leukemias, multiple myeloma
• Male-pattern baldness
• Memory loss
• Migraine headaches
• Nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorption—e.g., low iron levels
• Parkinson’s disease
• Peripheral neuropathy
• Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
• Skin rashes (including dermatitis herpetiformis, eczema, and psoriasis)
• Slow infant and child growth
• Unexplained bouts of dizziness or ear ringing
• Weight loss or weight gain
Okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking: I’ve cited just about every illness and health complaint out there! How can one thing cause them all? Believe me, twelve years ago I myself would have tossed this book out the window if you had suggested that everything on this list was caused by consuming lectins, in collaboration with chemical and other disruptors that have infiltrated our bodies. However, my experience with tens of thousands of patients is proof that this is in fact the case—and that following my protocol will heal what ails you.
What Has Changed?
IF WE’VE KNOWN about lectins for more than a century and we eat lectins daily in a huge variety of foods—you’ll find a complete list on “The Just Say “No” List”—why isn’t everybody being attacked by lectins? Well, maybe they are. Or, if they weren’t attacking us in the past, why are they attacking us now? And what has changed? I have uncovered how lectins are infiltrating our bodies, and we’ll look at those disturbing factors in the next two chapters.