Just when you think you have it all figured out when it comes to eating a clean, healthy diet, you discover that several foods – yes, even healthy ones – contain anti-nutrients. And if you’re thinking ‘anti-what?’, you aren’t alone. These small compounds found in everything from broccoli and Brussels sprouts to cabbage and kale make it difficult for the body to absorb the essential nutrients. Now, that doesn’t mean that these nutritious foods should be avoided but there are some things you’ll want to do to reduce the amount of anti-nutrients in your diet. In this article, we slice deeper into the topic to uncover what you should really know about anti-nutrients and how they may be affecting your health.
What Are Anti-Nutrients?
Just as the name suggests, anti-nutrients are compounds found in foods that interfere with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. There are both natural and synthetic compounds that serve as anti-nutrients and they can be found in everything from your favourite veggies, nuts, seeds and much more.
Now, not all anti-nutrients are bad. In fact, some may even offer beneficial health advantages, such as phytate and tannins. Even the ones to be weary of don’t typically present a major concern for most people. However, it’s important to mention that they can become a problem, specifically for people who eat a diet that is largely based on grains and legumes, or people experiencing periods of malnutrition.
With that said, a little mindfulness can go a long way when dealing with these sneaky little compounds.
Types of Antinutrients, Their Effects and Food Sources
There are several compounds in the food you eat that are classified as an antinutrient, which means that they make it more difficult for your body to soak in all of the essential nutrients. From your beloved chocolate or morning tea to the healthy mixture of peppers, spinach, kale, and tomatoes in your salad, antinutrients can be found in a variety of food groups. Yes, even healthy foods. The good news is that not all antinutrients are bad, as mentioned previously, and you can easily lower the content of the types that are.
Below are some of the most common antinutrients, the different ways they can affect your health and the types of food items that contain them:
Phytate or phytic acid
Commonly found in seeds, legumes and grains, these antinutrients decrease the body’s absorption of iron, copper, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium and calcium by taking up high amounts (sometimes up to 80%) of them. Since these compounds interfere with the body’s absorption of calcium and iron, they can increase the risk of problems such as iron deficiency and bone loss. The good news? Eating foods that are rich in vitamin C can help counteract this antinutrient.
Found in all plant foods, especially in legumes, grains and seeds, lectins can make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients as they are highly resistant to your body’s digestive enzymes. When consumed in large quantities, these antinutrients can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, gas and an upset stomach. Shockingly, they can survive in the GI tract by penetrating into the lining, which can eventually lead to autoimmune reactions, shifts in your gut flora and many other problems.
These anti-nutrients are similar to lectins in the sense that they can have a major impact on your gastrointestinal tract, and even lead to autoimmune disorders and leaky gut syndrome. They can also enter the bloodstream to further trigger immune disorders. Saponins are found in legumes, as well as some other plants such as asparagus, onion, garlic, spinach, etc.
This one probably doesn’t surprise you. Gluten is known to be one of the most difficult plant proteins to digest. It is an enzyme inhibitor that has been directly linked to causing all kinds of gastrointestinal problems. It can also contribute to the development and progression of autoimmune disease, leaky gut syndrome, cognitive problems and allergic reactions. So, steer clear of wheat, rye and barley products to decrease your consumption of this antinutrient.
Tannins contain antioxidant properties which have been found to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, stimulate the immune system and fight tooth decay. However, they’re also an enzyme inhibitor that can impair the way the body digests a variety of nutrients. They’re typically found in coffee, tea, beer and red wine and have been known to cause protein deficiency and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
Oxalates are found in many vegetables, such as spinach, potatoes and leeks, but are highest in soybeans, sesame seeds and varieties of millet. This compound causes nutrients to bond to it, resulting in poor quality nutrients and poor absorption.
Found in plants, such as seeds, legumes and grains, these antinutrients can interfere with the digestion of protein by preventing digestive enzymes. They have also been linked to causing insulin resistance, insomnia, increased cholesterol, nausea, diarrhea, gallstones, kidney stones and skin problems.
Both chymotrypsin and trypsin inhibitors are found in most grain products, such as breads, cereals, porridge and yes, even baby foods. They have been known to cause mineral deficiencies in children and people dealing with pancreatic health issues.
These antinutrients are found in nightshade vegetables, such as eggplant, tomatoes and peppers, and are typically quite beneficial. However, when consumed in large quantities, solanine can cause poisoning and lead to some pretty uncomfortable symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
If you’ve ever been advised to avoid soybeans, it’s likely due to isoflavaones. While this polyphenolic antinutrient can be beneficial when consumed in moderation and from foods, such as beans, that have been properly prepared, they can also cause some problems. For example, they’re considered endocrine disruptors and can disrupt your hormone levels.
Found in foods, such as corn and potatoes, these antinutrients are also believed to be beneficial when enjoyed in small doses due to their antifungal properties. However, they have also been known to cause digestive concerns, especially when eaten in high amounts or uncooked.
This list can seem a little confusing as many of the foods listed as examples are believed to be healthy – and that, they are. Remember, the antinutrients in foods aren’t usually a cause of concern but as you can also see from the potential effects, they can present a problem if consumed in large quantities. There are also many antinutrients that can be degraded simply by processing or cooking the food item.
Tips for Reducing The Harmful Effects of Antinutrients
Do not fear the antinutrients. While there are, undeniably, some risks that are associated with them, there are several strategies that can reduce the antinutrients in your foods and/or degrade their negative impact. This allows you to still enjoy all of the foods you love, without having to sacrifice your health or their nutritional value.
Here are some simple tips for reducing the number of antinutrients in your diet:
- Boiling: Many antinutrients do not respond well to high levels of heat as it causes them to degrade. As such, boiling your ingredients can help reduce the number of tannins, protease inhibitors and lectins. However, this technique does not work to remove phytates as they are resistant to heat.
- Cooking on high heat: Similar to the prior, cooking on high heat or using a cooking technique that uses high heat can help degrade those antinutrients.
- Fermenting foods: Fermenting foods, such as beer, kombucha, sauerkraut and yogurt, can degrade antinutrients.
- Eating in small quantities: One way to lower the risk of antinutrients is to consume them in smaller quantities. This also means avoiding a combination of foods that contain antinutrients in your meals.
- Sprouting: Sprouting seeds, when a plant starts to come out of the seed, can reduce the phytates content. To use this strategy, all you have to do is rinse the seeds to remove debris and let them soak in cool water for 2 to 12 hours.
- Soaking; Similar to the prior, soaking your legumes in cool water can help reduce the number of antinutrients – calcium, lectins, tannins, phytates, protease inhibitors and oxalate, in them. Aim to soak them for a day or two for the best results.
- Altering the timing of anti-nutrient content: If you typically have a glass of red wine with dinner or a cup of tea, try to alter the time in which you enjoy these beverages, so you aren’t combining them with antinutrients in your meal.
- Combining methods: Using a combination of methods, such as soaking, sprouting and boiling, can also reduce antinutrients substantially.
- Cooking instead of eating them raw: While some vegetables can be delicious when consumed in their most authentic form, such as broccoli and tomatoes, cooking them can help degrade the antinutrients.
The most important thing you can take away from this article is that not all antinutrients are harmful. There are also many ways you can neutralize the negative effects of the ones that aren’t ideal.