Wait, what? Antinutrients? Yes, there is such a thing, and they’re so appropriately named because they oppose the action of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals in our diet by blocking our body’s ability to digest, absorb and use them properly. Not only that, but they are also the underlying cause of many gut issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and leaky gut syndrome.
While they’re naturally abundant in many foods, even very healthy ones, being aware of where they are and how they function may be the step you need to take to make notable improvements to your health.
Plants are inherently healthy, right? Yes, and no. We just expect plants to be good for us, because that’s what we’re told, but the truth is that we have to be careful about what we eat, no matter what the source is. Some natural compounds are poisonous to us, like arsenic, and some (too many) natural foods are contaminated with one of the most detrimental ‘anti-nutrients’; round-up! The bottom-line is that while plants are healthy for us, some do contain natural compounds that are counterintuitive to our health. These compounds have been collectively called anti-nutrients. Just because plants are natural doesn’t mean they’re healthy.
These ‘nutrient-sapping phytochemicals’ are a plant’s natural defense mechanism – it’s their way of fighting back. As with all species on earth, plants just want to survive. In an attempt to prevent them from being eaten to extinction, plants produce natural chemicals that when eaten cause some degree of sickness which discourages us, animals and insects from eating them in the future.
Humans and animals have always and will always eat some plants in their diet, but we need to understand that plants have the ability to fight back. Some antinutrients are extremely toxic, while others have almost unnoticeable effects on our health. In most cases, the nutritional health benefits from eating foods that contain some antinutrients outweigh the negative nutritional effects, as they’re also very rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein.
Antinutrients are highest in grains, seeds, legumes, beans and nuts but are also in plant roots, stems and leaves. There is no way of knowing exactly how many are in each food, but we have a rough idea thanks to research. Not all antinutrients are bad, however, and we don’t need to eliminate every single one from our diets – that can become a very restrictive and depressing way to live. Some can actually be beneficial, acting as antioxidants or having anticancer effects and so avoiding them completely is not recommended.
What we do know is that people vary by how sensitive they are to antinutrients and what types affect them. You guessed it, that means a little bit of self experimentation is required to narrow in on which, if any, antinutrients are having negative impacts on your health.
The best way to identify whether you’re particularly sensitive is to observe how you feel after eating certain foods. You need to be intuitive and perhaps record how you feel regularly. Symptoms vary, but if your body is reacting to a certain antinutrient in a food, you’ll experience things like:
While antinutrients are hard to avoid completely, we can reduce the amount we consume and their impact. Two of the best ways are:
Hopefully, we’re all aware that many health fads come and go. They gain a lot of traction and hype , sweeping across the media, and then naturally they fade away because, in reality, there’s no one diet that will work for everyone. One particular buzzword that has seemed to linger for longer is ‘gluten-free’. Gluten-free diets have worked wonders for many people, improving weight loss and solving many health issues from IBS and leaky gut to joint pain and fatigue.
What many people don’t know is that gluten is an antinutrient. But, it is only one of many that scientists have uncovered and while gluten may be one of the major players in many health problems and weight gain, it is only part of the problem. There are other antinutrients that most people aren’t aware of and these guys may just be the culprits.
The main antinutrients we have to look out for are gluten, lectins, phytates and oxalates. Let’s take a look at each one to better understand what they’re doing in our bodies.
The most well known antinutrient by far is gluten. Gluten is actually a family of proteins found in cereal grains such as wheat, barley and rye. While they offer wonderful functional benefits in the culinary industry giving bread a soft and chewy texture, gluten can wreak havoc on certain people’s health. There are varying degrees of gluten sensitivity. They include:
Symptoms of celiac disease include skin problems (eczema; rashes), gut issues (inflammation; diarrhea; pain) and neurological issues (fatigue; confusion; depression).
Everyone know’s somebody who is either celiac or has a ‘gluten sensitivity’ in the absence of celiac. Any sensitivities in those who are negative when tested for celiac disease may be due to other proteins present in grain-based products, such as lectins. As the interest in gluten-free diets increases in the general population, more and more food options are appearing which make a celiac’s life a lot easier. But, gluten-free diets are becoming trendy and people are opting for gluten-free products simply because they appear to be healthy when, in fact they contain ingredients that are often worse for our health.
There is no human protein or enzyme that can break down gluten. That is a fact. So, when we eat gluten, these partially broken clumps of gluten protein are floating in our bloodstream, called gluteomorphins and our immune systems react with them leading to the many symptoms of gluten intolerance. What’s more is that these gluteomorphins actually bind to opioid receptors in the brain, exactly like morphine does triggering the production of endorphins – the feel-good hormones! Constantly stimulating these endorphins with bread, pasta and that blueberry muffin leads to you needing more and more to get that same feel-good response. So, gluten is addictive.
Gluten doesn’t necessarily bind to minerals or other nutrients to limit their absorption directly, but they cause nutrient deficiencies in other ways. Gluten can cause a lot of inflammation and irritation in the gut, damaging the gut barrier and disrupting normal nutrient absorption. The gut microbiome is also negatively affected resulting in poor gut functioning too.
While gluten-free diets may be the answer to your health problems, some gluten-free products on the market nowadays may be even worse than gluten-containing products. They’re highly processed, and packed with more nonsense than real foods. Many products that wouldn’t normally contain gluten like sauces and spice blends have gluten added to them. So, read your labels! The best gluten-free diet is one that is whole-foods based.
One of the more well-known antinutrients, lectins have received a lot of attention in the media with several ‘lectin-free’ diets appearing. They’re found in all plants, but raw legumes (peanuts, beans, soy, lentils) and whole grains like wheat are particularly high in lectins. The part of the plant that develops into the leaves when the plant sprouts, aka the cotyledon or the seed coat, contains the most lectins. Fruits and vegetables, unfortunately contain lectins but the main culprit vegetables are called ‘nightshades’ which includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants.
Lectins are ‘carbohydrate binding proteins’ which simply means that they’re plant proteins that when ingested, cause clumping of carbohydrates in our bodies. Whether it is in our gut, bloodstream or other tissues, lectins find any sugar molecules and stick to them. Our immune system responds to these ‘sticky’ clumps which results in inflammation. By binding to cell surfaces, lectins interfere with cell-to-cell communication and disrupt normal functioning of our bodies.
Once in the gut, lectins can bind to the cells of the gut lining, damaging them and weakening the gut barrier. The result is a ‘leaky gut’ that allows other proteins, and lectins, to seep into the bloodstream that normally wouldn’t. Our immune system detects these ‘foreign’ proteins in our blood, and an immune response ensues as we produce antibodies to attack them. The degree to which your immune system reacts determines your sensitivity to lectins and can vary greatly from person to person. A leaky gut also prevents normal absorption of essential nutrients.
If you’re very sensitive to lectins, you’ll probably know about it, and you’ll want to take extra measures to limit your intake.
Phytate, or phytic acid, is known to have strong antinutritional properties by ‘chelating calcium, iron and zinc’, which means it binds to these minerals forming complexes that can’t be absorbed by the gut properly, leading to mineral deficiencies. Humans can’t metabolize phytates in foods because we lack the enzyme that breaks it down called phytase, which leaves it free to bind to minerals from our diet.
On top of limiting mineral bioavailability, phytates can also bind to the protein from our diet which prevents protein degrading enzymes, proteases, from being able to metabolize them. This further leads to nutritional deficiencies.
Phytates are present only in plants, with the most found in the seeds, which serve as the main storage form of phosphorus which plants use to grow when the seeds sprout. All edible seeds, nuts, grains and legumes contain phytates with small amounts in roots and tubers too. As with other antinutrients, fermenting, soaking, milling and cooking phytate-rich foods can reduce phytate content.
Iron and zinc are two minerals we get from our diet that are particularly affected by phytates in plants. The absorption of non-heme iron, the form of iron that plants provide, is influenced by phytates and so people with iron deficiency and vegans or vegetarians should take extra steps to limit eating phytate-rich foods with their meals. This is also why it is recommended that vegans and vegetarians eat more iron containing foods than omnivores.
Interestingly though, phytates are also known to have some positive health effects such as antioxidant properties, and being preventative for cardiovascular disease, kidney stones and insulin resistance. So they’re not to be avoided completely, but their timing and amount should be carefully monitored.
This particular antinutrient is an organic compound found in raw cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, cauliflower and radishes, as well as cacao, black pepper, rhubarb, nuts and beans. There are more oxalates in younger plants and fewer in older, more ripe plants. Your gut bacteria and the integrity of your gut barrier determines how much oxalate you actually absorb. People with low levels of oxalate fermenting bacteria and those with leaky gut or IBS have little control over how much oxalate gets absorbed in the gut.
Like the other antinutrients, oxalates also block mineral absorption in the body, but mainly calcium. Oxalates can bind to calcium, and other minerals like iron, in the gut when we eat food, or in our blood stream or kidneys. For example, spinach contains calcium and oxalates, and so very little calcium is absorbed from spinach.
By binding to calcium in the blood, oxalates form tiny, sharp crystals, called calcium salts, that can be deposited anywhere in our bodily tissues. These oxalate crystals can cause joint pain or burning eyes, mouth, ears and throat. They’re often the hidden, underlying cause to many people’s unresolved health issues, and when a concerted effort is made to limit oxalate intake, their health improves.
Kidney stones are actually formed by oxalates depositing in the kidneys. The kidneys clean our blood by removing toxins or waste and putting them into urine. When we absorb too much oxalates, they get excreted in the urine but can crystallize with calcium to form kidney stones.
It has been shamed as the real ‘bad guy’ especially amongst the carnivore community. If you read any material online about the benefits of a carnivore diet – a diet that consists of only animal products like meat, seafood, organs and eggs – one of the main reasons for its positive effects points to the elimination of oxalates. Again, people respond differently, some may not be affected at all by oxalates, while others are extremely sensitive to their effects. The latter are the individuals who likely benefit most from the extremely restrictive nature of a carnivore diet.
Oxalates can be reduced in foods by cooking and draining the water or by soaking them in acid. Having too low dietary calcium can increase the amount you absorb because calcium can bind to oxalate in the gut, stopping it from being absorbed. Choose low oxalate vegetables, and avoid eating large amounts of raw vegetables as they’re typically higher in oxalates.
While we get nourishment from nutrients to grow, antinutrients block our ability to absorb them. Luckily, we can lessen the impact they have by taking extra steps in preparing and processing foods or eliminating certain foods from our diet after identifying those that affect us most. Certain diets are constructed around limiting anti-nutrient intake and while many may be fads that don’t work, there is one diet I believe to be effective for overall health, including reducing anti-nutrients and that is the Paleo diet. I’ll dive deeper into the basis of the Paleo diet in upcoming guides and why it is one of the many that have stuck around for years.
Don’t forget that while antinutrients are known to cause problems, you may not be particularly sensitive to them. But, if you are, you’re now equipped with the knowledge of how to identify them and ways to limit their impact.
Look out for more guides coming out soon where I will go a little deeper into each of these antinutrients and how we can hack our diets to minimize their negative effects! Share this with someone you feel may benefit from knowing more about how what they’re eating might be causing their health issues.