On the blog, I’ve talked about macronutrients and micronutrients, but did you know there is also something called anti-nutrients? Yeah. me either. The first time I saw someone reference this, I thought for sure they were just trying to make up a term to sound intelligent – and failing miserably. Then I did a little research and found out that I was the not-so intelligent one. Or at least the ignorant one! So today, let’s dig into this topic and find out just what these little monsters(?) are!
So to start with, anti-nutrients SOUND a lot more sinister than they really are. By definition, a nutrient is something that nourishes you to grow and thrive, and an anti-nutrient is the opposite of that. Anti-nutrients actually block or reduce the absorption of nutrients by your body – which sounds pretty bad. I’m sure you’re expecting me to tell you that these guys live in junk food – burgers and fries and the things that we already know we should be avoiding – but that’s not the case.
Anti-nutrients are found in many otherwise healthy foods – things like broccoli, cabbage, seeds, peanuts, leafy green vegetables and grains all contain differing types of anti-nutrients.
So what’s a boy (or girl) to do?
Well, here’s the good – bad news. First of all, why are anti-nutrients even a thing? Well, nature has developed these chemicals to help protect fruits, vegetables and even some animals from bacterial infections and insects, so anti-nutrients aren’t that uncommon. That’s the bad news.
The good news is despite their intimidating name, anti-nutrients aren’t that bad for you. While yes, they do inhibit the absorption of certain nutrients, they don’t stop the absorption altogether. The unfortunate truth of that statement is no-one knows just how much loss of nutrients is caused by the effects of anti-nutrients.
So let’s take look at some common anti-nutrients, where they’re found, and what they do. According to our friends at the Harvard school of public health:
There are several compounds in the foods we eat classified as anti-nutrients. Examples include:
Glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage)—can prevent the absorption of iodine, which may then interfere with thyroid function and cause goiter. Those already with an iodine deficiency or a condition called hypothyroidism are most susceptible.
Lectins in legumes (beans, peanuts, soybeans), whole grains—can interfere with the absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc.
Oxalates in green leafy vegetables, tea—can bind to calcium and prevent it from being absorbed.
Phytates (phytic acid) in whole grains, seeds, legumes, some nuts—can decrease the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium. [2,3]
Saponins in legumes, whole grains—can interfere with normal nutrient absorption.
Tannins in tea, coffee, legumes—can decrease iron absorption.
As mentioned at the beginning of the post, these things are everywhere – even in healthy foods. The good news is anti-nutrients can be affected negatively just like nutrients can and mostly through normal cooking processes. That means that by taking proper steps, you can reduce the impact that anti-nutrients have on your body’s nutrient absorption. Let’s take a look at some ways to do this.
How to properly prepare your foods to minimize the effects of anti-nutrients
Healthline has a great article detailing how to reduce anti-nutrients, so if you want the full scoop, I highly suggest checking out their article (they even detail a few more anti-nutrients). But let’s take a quick look at the “cliff’s notes”:
Soaking. Beans and other legumes can be soaked overnight to reduce their phytate, lectins, tannins and protease inhibitors by percentages as low as 9% and as much as 50% – depending on the legume. Soaking leafy green vegetables can reduce their oxylates as well.
Sprouting. This is a bit more complex of a procedure that Healthline touches on (you can learn more about it at Sprout People) which can reduce phytates by up to 81% in certain grains and legumes. There is also evidence that sprouting can reduce lectins and protease inhibitors as well.
Fermentation. The use of yeast or bacteria to ferment certain grains and legumes can reduce phytate and lectins. Sourdough bread is a good example of a fermented food.
Boiling. Back to basics good old fashioned high heat, especially boiling can degrade lectins, tannins, calcium oxalate and protease inhibitors by significant amounts. Unfortunately, boiling also reduces the desired nutrient value of foods as well.
Combining methods. You may have wondered if combining these methods might increase the effectiveness of reducing anti-nutrients, and you’d be correct.
The downside, as mentioned is many of these methods may make the foods you’re eating less nutrient dense as well.
So how can I win?
Here’s the ultimate silver lining to the whole story. Yes, it would be great if mother nature would just get rid of anti-nutrients, but barring that, as long as you’re eating a varied, balanced diet, you probably don’t need to worry. Anti-nutrients are typically only a concern for people who’s diet consists of almost nothing other than grains or legumes, or are suffering from malnourishment for extended periods of time. So how do you win? The chances are that you already are.
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