Should you be afraid of anti-nutrients?
Anti-nutrients sound like they should automatically be dumped into the “unhealthy” pile. But is that without merit?
What are Anti-Nutrients?
Anti-nutrients are naturally found in animals and many plant-based foods. In plants, they’re compounds designed to protect the plant from bacterial infections and from being eaten by insects. Typically, when we say “anti-nutrients”, we’re talking about a few specific compounds:
Glucosinolates and goitrogens. These are found in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, bok choy, kale, etc) and can prevent the absorption of iodine which may interfere with thyroid functioning. If you have an iodine deficiency or hypothyroidism, you are more susceptible to this.
Lectins. These are found in legumes (beans, peanuts, etc) and whole grains and can interfere with the absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorous and zinc.
Oxalates. Found in leafy greens, tea, beans, nuts and can bind to calcium which prevents it from being absorbed.
Phytates (phytic acid) in whole grains, seeds, nuts can decrease the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium.
Tannins in tea and coffee can decrease iron absorption.
Sounds scary we should probably remove all of these from our diets ASAP! Not so fast.
We don’t know how much nutrient loss occurs in our diets because of anti-nutrients and the effects vary greatly from person to person based on their metabolism and how foods are cooked and prepared. In fact, many anti-nutrients like phytates, lectins and glucosinolates can be removed or “deactivated” by soaking, sprouting or boiling the food before cooking. AKA if you’re rinsing and soaking your beans you’re good to go! Anti-nutrients are only harmful if you’re eating the same ones over and over again – like an entire eggplant daily for a year.
If you’re eating a balanced diet that contains a variety of different foods at each meal, you are further lowering your risk of affecting the absorption of your nutrients from food. In fact, anti-nutrients have health benefits too! Phytates have been found to lower cholesterol, slow digestion and prevent sharp rises in blood sugar. Many also contain antioxidants and anticancer actions so you definitely don’t want to avoid them completely.
What about plant-forward diets?
If you’re following a plant based diet you’re probably a little weary – don’t be! Again, a balanced, vibrant, diverse diet full of plant foods is perfectly healthy when done mindfully. Some studies on vegetarians (who eat high amounts of foods containing anti-nutrients) show that people don’t show deficiencies in iron and zinc which suggests that the body may actually be adapting to the anti-nutrients by increasing absorption (how cool is that?!).
Bottom line: you do not need to worry about anti-nutrients (and I wish someone would have picked a better name for them) or remove them from your diet. Following a balanced, diverse diet and cooking your food properly will remove any potential risk anti-nutrients may have posed. Eating a plant based diverse diet is incredibly healthful for your entire system including immune support and a reduced risk of chronic illness.
Just like there’s no one food that’s good for you, there’s no one food (or group) that’s bad for you. Diversity is key.