Trending – Anti-nutrients

We all know a balanced diet filled with many different fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins helps us maintain good health. But, some sources believe the anti-nutrients found in many of these whole foods could potentially cause us harm.

What are anti-nutrients?

Anti-nutrients are the compounds found in food that can inhibit our bodies from completely absorbing some beneficial vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.

Why are anti-nutrients present?

Many grains, legumes, vegetables, and more have evolved to product anti-nutrient compounds as a defense mechanism against threats such as pests and animals from their surrounding environment (1,2).

What are anti-nutrient compounds? What foods contain them?

There are many types of anti-nutrient compounds. Common compounds include (1,2):

  • Glucosinolates found in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and more can alter thyroid function by reducing or inhibiting the thyroid’s ability to release iodine
  • Lectins found in cereals, grains, legumes, and nuts can impact the absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc
  • Oxalates found in spinach, chard, beet, rhubarb, and more can bind to minerals such as sodium or potassium, calcium, iron, and zinc and increase the risk for conditions like kidney stones
  • Phytates found in cereals, pulses, nuts, and seeds can reduce the absorption of zinc, iron, and calcium
  • Saponins found in grains and legumes can impact typical nutrient absorption.
  • Tannin found in tea, coffee, legumes, wine, and more can impact iron absorption. 

Does this mean the foods containing anti-nutrients are not nutritious?

No, not at all. In fact, many of the listed foods contain additional properties that are protective of our overall health.
Regularly consuming many of the listed foods is associated with better glycemic control and cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the body and reduced inflammatory response, cardiovascular disease, body weight, and even the risk of health-issue-related mortality (1).
There’s additional research showing that anti-nutrient compounds may be able to treat specific diseases (1).

What’s the risk? Should I avoid foods that contain anti-nutrients?

We know that the benefits of regularly consuming a diet rich in whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are the best way to ensure our bodies remain healthy.
We know some of the compounds isolated in these foods can cause adverse health outcomes, however, when eaten in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet, we see improved health and longevity.
So, we should actively work to ensure our meals include whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruit for optimal health regardless of the food’s anti-nutrient compounds.
That said, if you have a specific health condition that already impacts your ability to absorb or process specific nutrients, you should talk with your doctor about the best diet for your specific health situation.

The good news.

While anti-nutrients are part of the grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits that make up a healthy diet, we do not need to worry about them adversely impacting our health.
Additionally, advancements in technology may show that these anti-nutrient compounds have the capacity to help us conquer diseases.
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