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In 1978, dissident writer Georgi Markov was waiting for a bus when the tip of an umbrella pierced his thigh. The man carrying the umbrella ran off and, four days later, Markov was dead.
But why on Earth was this—of all moments in history—mentioned in an Atlantic article written last week? Well, Georgi Markov was murdered with a fatal injection of purified ricin, a toxin. And as James Hamblin wrote in The Next Gluten: "In a world that fetishizes natural products and remedies, ricin is as natural as natural gets. And it is, you guessed it, a type of lectin."
What the heck is lectin?
I think we all have that friend who obsesses over avoidance diets. Soy-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, free-range—whatever. And the latest avoidance diet creeping its way into fashion is the low lectin diet. Lectins are proteins that bind to carbohydrates. They're found most abundantly in grains, legumes, many flowering plants, and dairy, but all fruits and vegetables contain at least some lectins. Proponents claim low-lectin diets reduce inflammation and decrease gastrointestinal discomfort.
But lectins aren't a recent discovery, and neither is lectin poisoning. In fact, lectins are the reason we don't eat raw or sprouted red kidney beans. Crunch through as few as four raw red kidney beans and you may start to feel the effects of lectin poisoning. Cooking deactivates the function of the lectins found in kidney beans that makes them poisonous to humans.
Of course, lectin aside, there are plenty of other edible plants that can hurt you if prepared incorrectly. Tomatillos are poisonous before the husk splits open, peach pits contain a little bit of cyanide, and you'll never find cashews in the grocery store without their toxic shells removed. So if the avoidance-diet trend is going to continue to follow foods that could be poisonous under certain conditions, like gluten to sufferers of Celiac disease, we're afraid there's no shortage of sometimes-poisonous plants to draw new diet ideas from. Low-lectin may just be the next in a series.
What can I serve a low-lectin dieter?
As it stands right now, there's basically no academic literature on the subject of low-lectin diets. Nevertheless, Google queries for "lectin" have tripled since this time last year. So what can you serve a low-lectin dieter if you encounter one in real life?
Mushrooms are good, they're a low-lectin food and one of the only "complete" vegan proteins (meaning they have all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for humans). Other low-lectin foods include onions, broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, leafy greens, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, carrot, and asparagus, as well as berries, citrus fruits, pineapple, cherries and apples, according to this list on Livestrong.com. Animal proteins are also fine, as are fats from olive oil, lard, avocado, and dairy.