Many people wonder are legumes paleo. The Paleo dogma on legumes is that they are not paleo and are forbidden. However, many people today use the word Paleo to describe any diet that focuses on the foods our grandparents ate while avoiding any mass produced foods that are highly processed and devoid of healthy nutritional content.

There isn’t any one paleo diet and that appropriately reflects the nature of the human diet as it was shaped by locality, seasonality and heritage.  Part of what we do as humans, is to learn and evolve. We make choices one day based on the best evidence we have. When confronted with new evidence we make appropriate changes and move on.

Some people however, are married to dogma. Dogma is defined as a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted. When confronted with new evidence, people who are married to dogma dig deeper to find reasons to resist change, rather than making changes that incorporate the new information.


Are Legumes Paleo – Paleo Dogma

The Paleo dogma on legumes is that they are not paleo and are forbidden mainly for the following two reasons:

  1. They were not part of our ancestral diet
  2. They contain toxic antinutrients like lectins and phytic acid

No one can say with certainty exactly what our ancestors ate. What we do know is that there wasn’t any one diet that was being consumed by everyone in those days, just as there is no one diet for mankind today.


Are Legumes Paleo

Dr. Stephan Guyenet disagreed with the notion that legumes are not paleo in November 2013 in an article he wrote titled Beans, Lentils and the Paleo Diet. 1

Dr. Guyenet said in part:

“there is good evidence of widespread legume consumption by hunter-gatherers and archaic humans, and that beans and lentils are therefore an “ancestral” food that falls within the Paleo diet rubric”

“Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were a hominin species closely related to modern humans.. evidence is accumulating that their diets also featured a variety of plant foods, including wild legumes and grains.”

Dr. Guyenet also points to several contemporary hunter-gatherer groups that consumed significant amounts of legumes, including the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert and the Australian Aborigines. Based on this information, the claim that legumes are not paleo does not hold up. While it’s true that this information was not available to the authors of the early paleo diet, it is available today.

But even if it’s true that the majority of Paleolithic people did not eat legumes, does that mean we shouldn’t be eating them?


Recipes On Paleo Websites

Most Paleo websites today feature recipes for all sorts of modern items like muffins, breads and desserts. Even die-hard Paleo purists eat and write about such recipes all the while maintaining a ban on legumes.

Those in the modern paleo camp think it makes more sense to ask whether or not a food is good for your health rather than debate are legumes paleo.

The modern paleo camp thinks it makes more sense to ask whether or not a food is good for your health rather than debate are legumes paleo.

We’ve already established that some of our ancestors were eating legumes in the distant past. Let’s take a look at lectins and phytates.


Are The Antinutrients In Legumes Toxic?

Paleo dogma holds that we should avoid legumes because they contain toxic anti-nutrients called lectins and phytate or phytic acid. Let’s take a look at the information that’s available and come to a conclusion.


Lectins In Legumes

Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins that can bind to cell membranes. They are found in all foods, but legumes do contain a high concentration of antinutrients. Those who say we should avoid legumes point to studies showing that lectins can cause problems like damaging the lining of the small intestine, destroying skeletal muscle and interfering with the function of the pancreas. Studies like this obviously give us a reason to take a closer look to see exactly how much of a problem legumes pose for us.

The first thing to point out is that we have to be careful when looking at studies to make sure they were designed in a way to provide credible data and not structured to prove a point. We need to ask whether or not the studies really show that legumes are not fit for human consumption.

It’s important to know whether the animals fed very large amounts of lectins. If it turns out that the animals were fed larger quantities than humans could possibly consume in a regular diet, does that mean legumes are not fit for human consumption?

Next, we need to see if the animals were fed raw legumes. Why? Because we predominantly eat cooked legumes and cooking just happens to neutralize the lectins found in most legumes.

By cooking legumes for as little as 15 minutes or pressure-cooking them for 8 minutes inactivates the lectins for all intents and purposes. There is no lectin activity that remains in properly cooked legumes. (2) (3) (4 ) Even if there was a small amount of lectins left after cooking, the simple carbohydrates in legumes will bind to the proteins. (5)

One final point. Lectins are present in many other foods including fruits, vegetables, spices and other foods we consume regularly, including garlic, mushrooms, carrots and zucchini to name a few. (6)
It’s a fact that almost every plant we eat contains small amounts of toxins. This is simply how plants defend themselves. In most cases these low levels of toxins don’t harm us and may in fact provide some health benefits.


Are Legumes Toxic

There is a study that is used by some in the paleo community use to prove that we shouldn’t eat legumes. But anyone who would take a case of food poisoning and use it to say we shouldn’t be eating that food is engaging in hyperbole or possibly trying to misinform people.

This study describes a case of food poisoning in hospital patients who ate legumes that hadn’t been cooked properly. (7) It is a fact that undercooked legumes/pulses with naturally high lectin concentrations can cause acute poisoning if not prepared properly.

Using the risk caused by eating raw legumes as a way to scare people from eating legumes seems a bit far-fetched. People don’t eat raw legumes; we always cook them first. There have been incidences of people getting ill because they were served undercooked legumes, but a more appropriate response would be to educated people on the importance of preparing food properly.


Symptoms Of Lectin Poisining

Each and every one of us has a different response to lectins. Typical lectin food poisoning symptoms that might occur from undercooking kidney beans are nausea, diarrhea, extreme flatulence and abdominal discomfort.

While these are not life-threatening symptoms, overconsuming lectins by individuals with sensitivities can have long-term effects. However, there is no reason why people without sensitivities should not eat foods with lectins in moderation.

Are Peanuts Paleo

Peanuts can be a major concern for some people. Both raw peanuts and peanut oil have a high lectin content. As is often the case, we have studies that show potential problems and other studies that show potential benefits from eating peanuts.

Some animal studies suggest that peanut lectin may contribute to atherosclerosis. (8) However, there exists other research which includes clinical trials in both animals and humans that have found peanuts and even peanut oil reduce cardiovascular risk factors and thus may protect against heart disease. (9) (10)

Some suggest we should avoid peanuts because of aflatoxin but don’t mention that corn exposes you to the same risk. (11)

Bottom Line On Lectins

Cooking at high temperatures effectively eliminates lectin activity from foods like legumes, making them perfectly safe to eat.

Phytic Acid In Legumes (aka phytates)

Herbivores like cows and sheep can digest phytic acid, but humans can’t. Phytic acid binds to minerals like iron and zinc and in doing so, it prevents us from absorbing them. Phytic acid does not leach minerals that are already stored in the body – it only hinders the absorption of minerals from the food in which phytic acid is present.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that when you eat kale, you’re not going to absorb all the iron that is in the kale because some of it is bound to phytic acid. It’s been common knowledge for some time that we don’t absorb 100 percent of the nutrients in the food we eat and this explains why that is in these particular foods.

Phytic acid impedes mineral absorption by interfering with the enzymes we need to digest our food. If you happen to in an area where people have a very nutrient poor diet, this might be a concern for you. For most of us it’s a non-issue.

There is evidence that phytic acid may have beneficial effects. It prevents the formation of free radicals and also prevents the accumulation of heavy metals. Sounds like a wash to me. I get to eat a larger serving of kale and I get some antioxidants in the process.

Chris Kresser posted the following when he covered the subject: “The problem with telling people to avoid legumes because they contain phytic acid is that many other foods in the diet -including Paleo-friendly foods – contain substantially higher amounts of phytic acid than legumes. For example, a serving of trail mix, that beloved Paleo favorite, is likely to be much higher in phytic acid than a serving of lentils. Cacao beans (chocolate) have about the same amount of phytic acid as most beans. And spinach and swiss chard are higher in phytic acid than almost any legume, nut or seed!” (13)

Phytic acid in common foods:


Lentils 270-1,500
Legumes (average) 500-2,900
Almonds 350-9,420
Walnuts 200-6,700
Pecans 180-4,520
Sesame seeds 140-5,360
Dark Chocolate 1,680-1,790
Swiss chard 3,530
Spinach 3,670

Bottom Line On Phytic Acid

Phytic acid is usually not a concern in industrialized nations, where food diversity and availability is adequate. However, vegetarians/vegans and those who eat a lot of high-phytate foods may be at risk.


Final Thoughts About Are Legumes Paleo

Like many other foods we eat regularly, legumes are not required in the human diet and they do not contain any nutrients that cannot be obtained elsewhere. They also require more time to prepare and need to be cooked properly.

Many people tolerate them well and because they enjoy eating them, they don’t mind taking the time to prepare and cook them properly.
Personally, I would eat beans and lentils occasionally even if they weren’t part of the ancestral hunter-gatherer diet, but it appears they were.

If it is important to you that you follow the dogma of early paleo diets, then by all means don’t eat legumes. Frankly though, I don’t understand the reasoning.

Beans and lentils for example, have a lot going for them. They’re rich in protein and fiber, which makes them satiating. They’re a nutritious and low cost source of vitamins and minerals that is available year round.

Why not eat food that is both nutritious and inexpensive if you like the taste and can tolerate it well.