If you ask most people why legumes are not a part of the Paleo diet, they usually answer with one of the two following answers:
- They weren’t eaten by our Paleo ancestors
- They contain lectin and phytic acids (phytates)
First I would like to address the theory of eating only what was available in the Paleolithic era. I think that while the intentions of these folks is good, it’s really unrealistic. The Paleolithic era spanned over millions of years and diets varied wildly by region, and throughout the year. I also would like to keep my tea and occasional dark chocolate too thanks. The “allowable” foods on the Paleo diet food list have practically reached a dogmatic level, where reasoning and scientific data seems to be swept under the rug to prevent an changing of ideas.
Yes it’s true, our cave pals didn’t eat beans. You know why? They didn’t soak them for hours and then cook them for an appropriate amount of time. Grandpa Og wasn’t into cooking. Paleolithic people were nomadic; didn’t have the inclination to soak nuts, legumes, and seeds, and they probably only used fire for cooking meats. They tried them like they found them, and like all of the plant foods they ate, they were raw. Have you ever eaten a raw bean? If you did, you likely didn’t eat another.
About Lectins and Phytates
The other argument you’ll commonly see against eating legumes is the lectin and phytate content. Lectins are a type of protein that bind to cell membranes which impair growth, damage the lining of the small intestine, interfere with pancreatic function, and destroy skeletal muscle. Sounds pretty bad when you first hear about it. Truth is, this is a natural defense that most plants have to keep predators from eating them. Studies are done to animals from purified lectins from raw legumes. Cooking legumes destroys most of the lectins they contain. Simple sugars (carbohydrates) combine to the remaining lectins rendering them inert. Exposure to dietary lectins is very common and it’s time that this is brought to light.
Just a quick mention here that peanuts are a whole different bag of nuts due to their aflatoxins that I will cover in a separate article. Due to the allergy issues and amounts of Scientific data that is conflicting, I generally advise people to steer clear of this legume in general.
Phytic acid is the storage form of phospherous that binds to minerals like iron and zinc which prevents us from absorbing them, which eventually leads to mineral deficiencies. Phytates also interfere with digestive enzymes like pepsin (break down proteins), amylase (break down starch), and trypson (protein digestion). I think that the real issue here lies in the individual tolerances of any said food, as well as the dosage. If you eat 20 pounds of the healthiest food on earth, you’re likely going to have issues because you don’t have enough variety. No food is perfect by itself, and we must acquire a wide range of food types for maximum nutrient density- which is our goal in fueling our bodies for optimal health.
Looking at the other side of the coin, you should know there are actually some benefits to phytic acids too. I refuse to sweep facts under the rug because they’re not convenient and might not fit an ideal “Paleo diet”.
Here are some surprising benefits of phytic acids:
- Phytic acids prevent the formation of free radicals which means it’s an antioxidant.
- Phytates prevent the accumulation of heavy metals in the body because it binds to the metals and carries them out of the body.
- Phytic acid also plays a role in cellular communication.
The problem with telling people to avoid legumes because they contain phytic acids just like lectins, is there are many other foods that are on the Paleo diet that contain phytic acids and lectins. Some of the most favored Paleo foods even have more phytates!
Checking out one of our favorite Paleo snacks: Almonds vs. Lentils
Almonds/100g have 350-942g phytic acid, while Lentils/100g have 260-1500mg phytic acid. See how we need to be reasonable with what we consider Paleo and why?
Okay so lectins are in practically every plant we eat, and lectins can be mostly extracted from legumes, nuts, and seeds with proper soaking and roasting/cooking of them. Please check out the proper way to extract lectins.
So should you go ahead and eat your legumes as a part of your Paleo plan?
This depends on you and if you have any issues digesting them. If you have undergone a complete 30 day, clean eating Paleo challenge to heal any gut issues and to detox, then it’s perfectly reasonable to consider slowly reintroducing foods to see what fits your particular needs.
I tend to stick to excluding legumes from my diet for two reasons, but they’re not the reasons listed at the top of this article. I have logical, scientific, and personal reasons for my (relaxed) exclusion.
Why I don’t include legumes in my Personal Paleo diet:
Legumes are not particularly nutrient dense when compared to other foods. When looking at a nutrition chart of highest nutrition density, organ meats are top then, herbs and spices, meats, shellfish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and legumes are one of the last! Maximizing nutrient density is one of the top priorities on the Paleo diet. The main goal of the Paleo diet is to improve your health, therefore nutrients are one of the absolute tenants to this lifestyle. Because legumes in general are lower in nutrition density, they should not be primary source of protein.
The big kicker for me is they also contain FODMAPs (fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) which is a class of carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed by some people. This is why some people get heart burn, gas etc. This doesn’t mean that beans are going to kill you, but they will make you and those around you rather uncomfortable (or entertained depending on your company).
Not everyone has troubles digesting legumes though, so after you’ve done a strict Paleo 30-day challenge, you can slowly reintroduce foods (one by one) into your diet to see which foods you can tolerate well after your detox/healing period. If you’re uncertain about your sensitivity, I recommend starting off with lentils, which is one of the easiest legumes.