Eating healthy, yeah? Getting a rich variety of veggies, nuts, and seeds in your diet?
But have you considered that these foods may not be the easiest way to meet your daily nutritional quotas?
Let’s talk: Antinutrients.
We often get asked why we recommend using supplements to give your diet a nutritional boost. This article will dive into those questions and explain why we don’t always opt for plant foods as a source of nutrition.
What even is an Antinutrient?
To understand antinutrients, we need to understand nutrients first.
You’ve heard about them since childhood. Macro and micro, proteins and carbs and vitamins – all that jazz in your food that makes your body healthy and strong.
The primary source of nutrition is, naturally, your diet. You’ve been told to eat a balanced meal to get all the right nutrients and maintain peak form – except it's not really that simple.
You see, antinutrients are exactly what they sound like. They’re the opposite of healthful nutrients; they’re unhealthy substances that interfere with nutrient absorption in your body.
The primary source of antinutrients is, counterintuitively, also your diet.
What foods contain Antinutrients?
These pesky substances are abundant in plant-based foods, especially in legumes, nuts, and seeds. If you’ve been trying to top up your daily nutrition quotas with these foods or using them as mid-day snacks without preparing them right, you may feel let down to find that the antinutrients in these foods are making it harder for your body to get those nutrients.
It should be noted that it’s not that plant foods don’t contain nutrients; they do. It’s just that your body has difficulty absorbing them because of the antinutrients within.
Different antinutrients interfere with the absorption of different nutrients, and this malabsorption can open the gates for a host of health disorders and even chronic diseases in the long term.
Types of Antinutrients
These are found in nuts, seeds, cereals, pulses, and grains. The phytic acid interferes with the absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc. They are used as the main storage molecules for phosphorus in plant seeds, which acts as a defense mechanism for the plant.
Often found in vegetables like spinach, okra, figs, beet, rhubarb, tea, and chard, these organic compounds interfere with the absorption of calcium and other minerals. It may also be an independent risk factor for developing chronic kidney diseases, studies find.
These are substances that make plant tissue inedible for insects. They’re commonly found in coffee, wine, tea, some legumes, and certain fruits. They interfere with proper digestion and absorption of various nutrients like proteins and vitamins; “Tannins are considered nutritionally undesirable because they precipitate proteins, inhibit digestive enzymes, and affect the utilization of vitamins and minerals. Tannin components have also been implicated in the high levels of cheek and oesophageal cancers in certain regions of the world.” reports this study.
These are often found in legumes like beans, soy, lentils, peas, etc., and have the potential to trigger immune responses. They could lead to the development of Leaky Gut Syndrome and autoimmune disorders.
These are found in foods like cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, spinach, cauliflower, lima seeds, sorghum, sweet potatoes, etc. They interfere with proper thyroid hormone production and stimulate other activities in the body that could lead to goiter. They also limit iodine uptake, further causing problems for the thyroid gland. Those with thyroid issues are advised to avoid goitrogen-containing foods, especially cruciferous vegetables.
Foods like soy and soy-derived products such as tofu or soy milk, flax seeds, grains, etc., are a rich source of phytoestrogens. These could wreak havoc on your hormonal balance and could increase your risk of cancer. High levels of soy phytoestrogen may affect ovary function in women and promote the risk of breast cancer. In men, high estrogen could lead to gynecomastia, erectile dysfunction, infertility, loss of bone density, and delayed puberty in boys.
In plants, lectins can be found mainly in the seeds of leguminous plants, cereals, beans, and nuts. They can modify intestinal permeability which is a risk factor for leaky gut syndrome, reduced nutrient absorption, and autoimmune responses. They can also lead to increased inflammation within the body.
Why do Antinutrients exist?
The answer is simple. Antinutrients are a plant’s way of saying “Don’t eat me”.
They’re the result of an evolutionary defense mechanism that presumably evolved to protect plants from parasites, insects, bacteria, and fungi as a “chemical bioweapon” of sorts.
Antinutrients like oxalates and phytates make the plant inedible or toxic to insects and other parasites that wish to feed upon the plant. Retrospectively looking at the effects of antinutrients, the writer posits that they are harmful to humans, too.
They’re abundant in many foods and permeate our diet at various points, especially in whole-food plant-based diets.
But is the answer to just give up on eating so many different foods? Surely, such a limited and restricted diet can’t be good for us either. What about the health benefits offered by certain plant foods despite the antinutrients?
You’re right; in the case of some antinutrients, there is a workaround.
The Good Part: Avoiding Antinutrients
Antinutrients are most abundant when whole plant foods are consumed raw or as-is, without any preparation.
Some workarounds to reduce the antinutrients in food can be as simple as soaking or cooking them!
Here are a few handy ways in which you can go about reducing the amount of antinutrients in food:
- Antinutrients can be removed from foods like some nuts, leafy vegetables, beans, and legumes by soaking them in water for extended durations.
- The type of legume matters since soaking may increase some antinutrients in certain legumes, like soybeans or kidney beans.
- Historically, fermenting foods has proven useful in reducing the total antinutrient content of foods.
- Fermentation can reduce phytates and lectins in many grains and legumes.
- Exposure to high heat such as through boiling can help to reduce tannins, lectins, oxalates, and protease-inhibitors, which are antinutrients that interfere with proper protein absorption by dysregulating digestive enzymes.
- However, boiling can also reduce the amount of minerals, amino acids, and water-soluble vitamins present in food, like B-vitamins or Vitamin C.
- Phytates are heat-resistant and may not be reduced by boiling.
Combining some methods may help to reduce the total antinutrient count in plant foods. It’s important to note that antinutrients can be useful in some cases, like when there is an iron overload.
That’s why we recommend a combination of foods and supplements to meet your nutritional requirements and work around the antinutrients in raw plant-based foods. This article addresses various reasons why supplements can make it easier to meet your nutritional needs and addresses some other FAQs about supplementation, too.
Antinutrients are widely present in foods, but despite the potential harm they could cause, it is a relatively easy matter to reduce the antinutrient content of plant-based foods.
Methods as simple as soaking, boiling, fermenting, and sprouting can help to bring down the antinutrient contents to safe levels, allowing one to eat foods that fit dietary preferences without the risk of long-term health damage from plant-based whole foods.
Whole-food plant-based diets are not a feasible option for long-term health, making a case for supplementation to get the nutrients that are not available through this type of diet.
Not only are animal foods a richer source of nutrients like protein, iron, selenium, as well as fat and water-soluble vitamins, but they also don’t interfere with the absorption of other nutrients.
At the end of the day, your diet is the first line of support against disease, for energy, and even for mental support. So eat smart, eat right, and supplement what you know your diet lacks. Fortify your health using the right kinds of food and clean supplements so you can flourish and thrive in peak form!
How to Reduce Antinutrients in Foods - Healthline
Are Phytoestrogens Good for You? - Healthline
Tannin - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics - Science Direct
Goitrogen - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics - Science Direct
Is There Such a Thing as “Anti-Nutrients”? A Narrative Review of Perceived Problematic Plant Compounds - National Library of Medicine
Table 5, Dietary Goitrogens - Endotext - NCBI Bookshelf - National Library of Medicine
Goitrogenic Foods and Thyroid Health - Kresser Institute
9 Steps to Perfect Health - #1: Don't Eat Toxins - Chris Kresser - Chris Kresser