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Is Your Food Robbing You Of Essential Nutrients? | What Are Anti-Nutrients

By Tyler Woodward

Anti-nutrients are plant defense mechanisms that evolved to prevent humans and other animals from accessing the nutrients within the plants, making certain plants  a poor source of nutrients. 

Contents:

Nutrients & Anti-Nutrients:

Nutrients Vs Antinutrients

As humans we require six major nutrients to survive:

  1. Protein
  2. Carbohydrates
  3. Fats (or Lipids)
  4. Vitamins 
  5. Minerals
  6. Water

Humans are heterotrophs, so we cannot produce any of these nutrients on our own and must get them in our diet through food and water.

Anti-nutrients in a sense function in a similar way to parasites. We think of parasites as animals, insects or bacteria that latch onto a host and rob the host of nutrients. Whether that is energy as protein, carbs, or fats or vitamins, minerals or water.

Anti-nutrients on the other hand sort of function in the opposite fashion of parasites, but with the same intention. Anti-nutrients are compounds found mostly in plants that prevent you from accessing the nutrients within the plants. It’s like the equivalent of successfully breaking into a bank, but not being able to unlock the vault to access all the money.

In the tale of evolution, plants weren’t able to evolve defense mechanisms in the same sense as us animals. While animals evolved physical attributes like sharp teeth and claws, speed, or camouflage, plants were forced to evolve in other ways to protect themselves from us animals. In this regard you could think of plants as either having evolved to work with animals or to work against us…

Read More: The Importance Of Micronutrients

“Friendly” Plants:

Friendly plants

There are very few on this planet that believe that fruit is unhealthy for us and for good reason. Fruits can be a great source of energy from carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Fruit and the fruit trees they come from are the perfect example of trees that evolved symbiotically with us animals. While it’s nice to think that we evolved with trees, I’d say it’s more likely that trees used us to further their evolution.

Fruits are a means that fruit trees use to spread and fertilize their seeds. Animals were attracted to the sweet fruit provided by these trees and consumed them. 

The seeds inside these fruits are indigestible, meaning as long as the seeds themselves aren’t chewed they come out the same way they came in. Except when we excrete the seeds in our poop, they leave with the added bonus of fertilizer from our feces and also are likely spread out from their “mother tree”. 

Interestingly, many seeds of fruits are in fact poisonous if chewed. Apple seeds for example contain a compound known as amygdalin which is made up of a sugar and arsenic molecule. If these seeds are chewed the sugar and cyanide will be broken apart and the toxic gas hydrogen cyanide will be released into our digestive system. While it’s not a big deal to chew a few apple seeds by accident, it's definitely not something you want to consume intentionally.

This goes to show that while fruits are a viable source of vitamins, minerals and energy, the plant only wants certain portions of itself to be consumed. Plants generally do not want their stems, leaves or bark itself to be consumed which are often filled with deterrents to protect these areas.

Read More: The Thermo Diet Cheat Sheet

Unfriendly Plants:

Unfriendly Plants

When you think of “unfriendly plants”, your first thoughts likely bring you to poisonous plants like poisonous berries, poison ivy, or even “dangerous plants” like cactus. While these plants have defense mechanisms that are more obvious to the eye, other plants evolved more “sneaky” defense mechanisms.

These other plants evolved “anti-nutrients”s, basically a means of making themselves less nutritious to predators. While the plants or certain parts of a plant can be packed with certain vitamins and minerals, if we can’t access them in digestion, they’re virtually useless to us. 

There are a number of type of anti-nutrients found in a variety of plants including:

Phytates or Phytic Acid:

Function - 

Phytates the absorption of iron, calcium, zinc and potentially magnesium. Phytates also inhibits the digestive enzymes trypsin and amylase which prevent our body from properly digesting our food and thereby absorbing the nutrients within them.

Sources -

Phytic Acid is found predominantly in nuts, seeds, grains and legumes.

Glucosinolates or Goitrogens:

Function -

These are compounds that inhibit our thyroid’s ability to uptake Iodine. Iodine is necessary to produce the thyroid hormone’s T3 & T4 which regulate our metabolism. Without adequate amounts of these thyroid hormones our thyroid will not be able to properly regulate our metabolism. High amounts of goitrogens can also cause goiter, the enlargement of the thyroid gland.

Sources -

Cruciferous Vegetables, (broccoli, kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts) cassava

Oxalates or Oxalic Acid:

Functions -

Oxalates may inhibit the absorption of sodium, potassium, iron and magnesium  but predominantly calcium. Oxalates are also believed by many to contribute to the formation of kidney stones, as calcium oxalates make up about 75% of kidney stones.

Sources -

In a lot of foods, but the plants with the most oxalates are spinach, rhubarb, nuts, legumes, beet roots, wheat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cacao.

Lectins

Function -

There are a number of different types of lectins found in foods, but the most well known is gluten. The consumption of lectins result in altered gut function and can increase gut permeability (the tendency for toxins to pass through the gut lining that aren’t supposed to). Lectins like gluten also cause an inflammatory response if absorbed into the bloodstream.

Sources -

Grains, wheat, seeds, nuts, legumes, 

Phytoestrogens:

Function -

These are estrogen-mimicking molecules that are found in many plants, but in extremely high concentrations in soy and flax. These compounds act like estrogen in the body and increase the body’s concentrations of estrogen. Contrary to popular belief, estrogen is not the “female hormone” and more closely resembles the “growth & proliferation hormone”. While estrogen is necessary for growth and renewal of cells, excess estrogen is associated with a number of negative effects like weight/fat gain, hormonal imbalances

Sources -

Soy, Flax seeds, legumes

It’s worth noting that these “antinutrients” aren’t all bad and in fact certain antinutrients can have beneficial effects elsewhere in the body. For instance tannins found in wine, tea, coffee, among other compounds can inhibit the absorption of iron (which many of us tend to consume too much of) and can also act as antioxidants.

But when you consider the amount of antinutrients in certain foods compared to their potential nutritional value, for some foods the cons outweigh the pros. For example, nuts, seeds, stems, leaves, & legumes I am generally not a proponent for and do not believe the pros outweigh the cons.

Other times though there are means in which we can prepare the food to decrease the amount of antinutrients and make the nutrients more bioavailable.

Read More: The War On Micronutrients | The Battle You Never Knew You Were Fighting

Foods Worth Saving:

Detoxifying Foods

While this is inherently a relatively biased perspective here are the foods that I believe are very viable foods if prepared the right way

Wheat

While normal wheat is filled with gluten and phytic acid, the fermentation process in making sourdough breaks down large portions of both the phytic acid and gluten. This not only makes bread arguably more delicious, but makes it much more nutritious and much less hard on the digestive system. For thousands of years before commercial yeast the only way to bake bread was through the natural fermentation process.

Corn

Before the Europeans got their hands on corn, the Aztec people soaked the corn in lime to alkalize the corn and make the nutrients more absorbable. This process is now known as nixtamalization and nixtamalized corn is commonly referred to as Masa Harina. Nixtamalized corn contains less phytic acid, less mycotoxins ( a mold-based toxin that very commonly grows on corn) and contains Vitamin B3 that is easily absorbed. 

Potatoes

Potatoes are an extremely viable source of nutrients despite their relatively high oxalate content, so generally I believe that the “pros” outweigh the cons. But if you want to reduce the oxalate content in potatoes they are best prepared by either steaming, boiling or soaking them in water and consuming them with high calcium foods like milk.

It’s worth noting that many of the processes used to make these plants more nutrient rich aren’t new and were used by our ancestors for centuries. The goal of our ancestors whether they knew it or not, was to make their food as nutritious as possible, so often they found a way to do it. Over time as the world became colonized and industrialized we have loss sight of many of these ancient techniques.

How To Detoxify The Other Antinutrients:

Depending on the food there are a number of approaches that can be used in order to lessen the amount of antinutrients in a food. A lot of times soaking, sprouting/germinating, fermenting, or steaming foods can be useful ways of minimizing the amount of antinutrients in the food, but again it will depend on the plant and the antinutrients within it. 

Thermo Diet

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Conclusion:

My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.

Thanks for reading!

Until next time… be good

~Tyler Woodward
B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology

Citations:

Petroski, Weston, and Deanna M Minich. “Is There Such a Thing as "Anti-Nutrients"? A Narrative Review of Perceived Problematic Plant Compounds.” Nutrients vol. 12,10 2929. 24 Sep. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12102929