The latest in a slurry of no-grain bestsellers is The Plant Paradox by cardiologist Steven Gundry, MD. While I do have some issues with his premise, the book has a lot of merit and his research is clearly taking him in the right direction. For example, his upcoming book will be about the importance of seasonal eating—something key to Ayurveda and the topic of my second book, The 3-Season Diet, written in 1999.
As I write this review, I do believe we have much common ground to celebrate. That said, some of his statements both stretch the truth and jar a logical mind! For example, on p.170, he writes, “The next time you ask for a fruit salad as a ‘healthy’ breakfast, I suggest that instead you order a bowl of Skittles candy. Go ahead—it’s the same poisonous stuff.” I’m sorry, but fruit and Skittles are not the same to our bodies!
Low-Starch or Seasonal?
The Plant Paradox is another low-starch diet in disguise in that he blames the seeds in fruits, anti-nutrients in grains and beans, and nightshade properties of potatoes and tomatoes to explain why most starchy foods should be avoided.
I have one argument regarding this premise. Researchers believe that 1-2 million years ago, our ancestors evolved to express a gene to manufacture our own amylase, a digestive enzyme exclusively engineered for starch.15 Why would we express a gene for eating starch if we were not eating a significant amount of starch?
Plus, as most foods, starches are seasonal, and we did not eat them year-round. Our diets and microbiomes shift dramatically from one season to the next, giving our digestive systems a break, so the body does not overeat, become dependent on, or get too good at digesting any one food group.16
Eating the same food over and again, as we do in the West, breeds digestive complacency and digestive overuse issues like the food intolerances we see today.
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Antinutrients + Lectins
The basic premise of his book is that humans are not equipped or have lost ability to digest lectins, antinutrients on many nuts, seeds, grains, beans, and a host of other foods, like fruits and nightshades, which include peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, and others.
Many plants have armed themselves with antinutrients that make seeds and outer skin on, say, eggplants or tomatoes “poisonous” to ward off bacteria, fungi, and predators like us! So, he basically suggests a lectin-free diet, which excludes most seeds, all grains, some nuts, all beans and legumes, nightshades, and places significant limits on fruits.
Gundry suggests nightshades, such as goji berries, eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes, along with zucchini, cucumbers, and others originated in South America and have only been available to the Western population for about 500 years. Therefore, he says, we do not have the genetics to digests lectins on the seeds and skins of these foods.
I might agree with him if that were true, but nightshades like eggplant,3 ashwagandha,5 goji berries (a superfood), and many other nightshades,4 along with mung beans,2 garbanzo beans,1 and ancients grains, like wheat and barley, originated in Asia, India, and/or Africa, where they have been consumed as part of Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
Gluten, Wheat + Dairy
Researchers from the University of Utah found gluten residues in ancient hominids in Africa from some three million years ago,7 which debunks the popular notion that we only stated eating wheat after we started growing it. Bread baking was recently dated back as far a 16,000 years ago and it was the baking and our love for bread that is thought to have spawned the need to grow our own wheat.6 Other studies found that hunter-gatherers in Asia were making flour with naturally occurring wheat and barely 23,000 years ago.8
I dive much deeper into the origins of wheat in my book Eat Wheat.
David Perlmutter’s book, Grain Brain, is another with the premise to get off food that makes you feel bad. I have debated him on this point in two podcasts:
We Recommend056: Eat Wheat + Grain Brain Debate Round 1
These ideas have given us a $16-billion-a-year gluten-free industry, which never existed before in the history of humankind.
People often do feel better getting off of wheat, which is what I experienced in 1984 when I first started in practice and regularly took my patients off wheat and dairy for their digestive woes. It was very clear that they felt better without wheat and dairy . . . for a spell . . . but then the digestive concerns came back worse. So now, as I predicted, Grain Brain has been replaced by the next bestseller, The Plant Paradox, where not only is wheat bad, but anything with a lectin or anti-nutrient is bad as well.
The diet road we are going down today is one that says the cause of your digestive, mood, weight, or health problem is the food you eat and once you take the right foods out of the diet, all your health concerns will be solved.
In Eat Wheat, I cite 600 studies to make the case that it is not wheat, dairy, or lectins but our ability to digest them that matters. Simply removing foods is symptomatic relief at best.
Dangers of a Gluten-Free Lectin-Free Diet
The Hygiene Hypothesis, or hormesis, is the idea that our immune system developed over millions of years from eating hard-to-digest foods that may irritate the intestinal lining. That irritation is the stimulation we need to create an immune system.
Emerging science shows removing these gut irritants may severely compromise our immune systems. While nightshades and lectins, like gluten, phytic acids, and other antinutrients, are irritants and hard to digest, they have also been found to be extremely therapeutic.12
Two major Harvard studies, both evaluating 100k+ people over 30+ years, found that folks who ate the most gluten had lower levels of heart disease and a lower risk of diabetes compared to those who ate the least amount of gluten.9,10
Other studies have found that folks who go gluten-free have:
- Four times more mercury in their blood than wheat eaters.
- Significantly less good gut bacteria and more bad gut bacteria than wheat eaters.
- Have less killer T cells (a measure of immune strength) than wheat eaters.
- Higher cholesterol levels than gluten eaters.11
We RecommendThe Dangers of a Gluten-Free Diet
Just avoiding a hard-to-digest food may offer some symptomatic relief, but if you do not address the cause, you may be unknowingly destroying your immune system, making you much more vulnerable to immune threats in years to come.
Lectins may irritate the gut, but they also stimulate a gut response. That is called gut immunity, which is 70% of our immune system that has developed over millions of years.
Dr John’s Take on The Plant Paradox
Dr. Gundry uses an easy-to-digest diet to help repair the gut from the so-called lectin damage. I agree that taking these foods out of the diet is part of the gut repair process. But I would not call the damage “lectin damage.”
I would call it a broken-down digestive system from too many processed, out-of-season, refined foods and oils laced with pesticides that kill microbes in our mouths that make digestive enzymes needed to digest and break down these foods.
Dr. Gundry does talk about the seasonal nature of fruits and that they should only be eaten once a year, in late summer, during their ripe season. But this concept is true for all foods. Nature has been rotating foods seasonally for billions of years and we seem to have evolved to need a break from one seasonal nutrient to another. The nutritional cycle, which I write about in The 3-Season Diet, is an annual cycle. It takes a full year (not a day) to get all our nutritional needs met.
Plant-based antinutrients change from winter to spring to summer. The primary fuel we burn changes from fats in the winter/spring to carbs in the summer/fall. Gut bugs also change seasonally, suggesting once again that we should change our diets with the seasons.13,14
Eating pesticide- and glyphosate-sprayed, highly processed, and refined wheat and bread three times a day, 365 days a year, will break down anyone’s digestive system and make you sick. It is not the wheat or lectins or type of dairy—it is overeating the same foods, out of season, sprayed with pesticides and preserved with ultra-processed vegetables oils that are 100% indigestible.
No doubt taking starch out of your diet will help you lose weight, as starch is a fall-harvested macronutrient we evolved to need in order to store energy and insulate for winter. The problem with these low-starch diets is that, like most diets, most folks fall off the wagon.
What if we just ate whole foods (no processing) with most of them eaten in the season in which they grow? This is the basis of Ayurvedic, Centenarian, Mediterranean, Ancestral, and most traditional diets around the world. Eating seasonally, while initially avoiding some hard-to-digest foods, while rebooting digestive strength, is how to get started.
Learn more on how to digest like an 18-year-old again without having to continually take foods out of your diet with my Digestive Health articles.
Think not what foods you should avoid, but what foods you should eat more!