Antinutrients are compounds found in plants that are part of their chemical defense mechanism, in addition to more physical characteristics like the spines of a cactus or the hard outer shell of many nuts. These defenses help the plant avoid being attacked by animals, but can also pose problems for some humans when consumed. Read on for the real deal on antinutrients and find out if you should be worried about them or not.
Most antinutrients work in two ways: by either binding to important micronutrients to keep your body from absorbing them, or by inhibiting digestive enzymes from working to properly break food down. In some people, antinutrients can also cause inflammation in the digestive tract, which can even lead to systemic inflammation over time .
One type of antinutrient, oxalates, for example, bind to calcium and prevent it from being absorbed in the body. By contrast, excessive consumption of tannins can inactivate the enzymes in our body responsible for breaking down and absorbing proteins.
Antinutrients themselves aren’t all bad though—polyphenols have widespread beneficial effects including reducing inflammation and free radicals . Studies have found they can have antidepressant-like activities in the brain and prevent allergies . Phytates have also been linked with improving blood glucose and lipids and may have anti-cancer properties.
The most common types of antinutrients are gluten , phytates, tannins, lectins, and oxalates. Gluten is found in wheat and rye products, and can be found in everything from baked goods to beer and soy sauce. Phytates are commonly found is nuts, seeds, and whole grains. You may be familiar with tannins, which are often associated with red wine , but are also found in tea, unripened fruits, legumes, and chocolate. Lectins are often found in legumes, as well as a class of plants called nightshades, which include peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and white potatoes. Oxalates are often found in raw, cruciferous vegetables like kale and broccoli, as well as spinach, soybeans, black pepper, and chocolate.
Some people are more sensitive to antinutrients than others. Sensitivities to gluten , for instance, are more prevalent in the population, with some sources estimating they affect nearly 20 percent of Americans. (But not all gluten sensitivities are related to gluten’s role as an antinutrient, making it different than other antinutrients like lectins and oxalates.)
Other people may be more susceptible to the effects of antinutrients as a result of their diet. Following a raw or vegan diet , which relies more heavily on types of foods and preparations that introduce excessive antinutrients into the body, could put you at a greater risk for adverse reactions to antinutrients over time.
If you have symptoms after every meal, start by looking at your diet. An elimination diet, in which you remove certain foods from your diet and reintroduce them at a later date can help you to identify which foods you are sensitive to and if there is a correlation between your symptoms and food high in antinutrients.
If you’re chronically eating high amounts of foods containing antinutrients, you may experience one or more of these symptoms.
They key to safely enjoying antinutrient-containing foods is preparation. Soaking, sprouting, steaming, sautéing, and even fermenting certain foods can significantly reduce their antinutrient content while enhancing the absorption of some beneficial nutrients in the body.
Antinutrients in beans, often an important staple of vegan or vegetarian diets, can be reduced through soaking and boiling , which also significantly improves their nutritional value. If you’re particularly sensitive to antinutrients, adding one extra step to preparation may allow you to more comfortably enjoy certain food; soak fully cooked foods in a final fresh water bath with a splash of lemon or vinegar to further reduce their antinutrient content.
Soaking and sprouting grains, nuts, seeds, and beans is an excellent way to deactivate enzyme inhibitors and boost nutrients. The nutritional profile of sprouted foods is sometimes even greater than their fully cooked counterparts, making sprouting an excellent choice for groups more susceptible to antinutrients, like adherents of raw food diets.
It is important to be mindful of the fact that some antinutrients simply cannot be destroyed through preparation; the lectins in peanuts, for example, are not destroyed through soaking or heating. Many foods, however, can be safely enjoyed and greatly enhanced through careful and proper preparation.
Dr. Jaclyn Tolentino is a Board-Certified Family Physician with a collaborative, holistic approach to practicing medicine. She holds a subspecialty certification in Hormone Optimization, has received extensive training in Functional Medicine through the Institute of Functional Medicine, and additional training in oncology nutrition.