6 Antinutrients in Food: Should You Avoid Them?

6 Antinutrients in Food: Should You Avoid Them?

6 Antinutrients in Food: Should You Avoid Them?

Are Antinutrients Real?

Antinutrients certainly sound like trouble. Nutrients are good for us, so why would anyone eat their opposites?

Yet these plant chemicals—yes, they’re real—are widely misunderstood. While they can cause problems under certain conditions, they can also be a normal part of a healthy diet, at least in moderate amounts.

“By and large, antinutrients aren’t a huge problem for most people,” says Abbey Sharp, a Toronto-based nutritionist. “If you eat a balanced and varied diet, the effects of antinutrients are not a big problem.”

Here’s a closer look at what antinutrients are, where they come from, and how they affect us.

What are antinutrients?

As the name suggests, antinutrients can block the body’s absorption of nutrients. They represent a small group of phytochemicals produced by a wide variety of plants, often as a defense against bacterial infection or herbivores.

Although antinutrients are able to block nutrient absorption, experts generally agree that they pose little danger — at least based on how most people eat the plants that produce them.

You may get more antinutrients than you expected when your diet revolves around a select handful of foods. Eating a balanced diet can help you avoid this.

“As long as we keep a balance and variety, for the most part, these antinutrient claims won’t be of concern because we’re not going to get a huge amount at any point,” says Jennifer Hanes, a registered dietitian in Lewisville, Texas.

Anti-antinutrient attitudes

Humans have grappled with antinutrients for millennia by soaking, boiling, sprouting, or otherwise altering certain plants before eating them.

Heating and boiling seem to be the key to neutralizing the negative effects of certain antinutrients. And some antinutrients may even have therapeutic properties in addition to the well-known health benefits offered by vegetables in general.

Recent concerns about antinutrients seem largely to stem from fad diets, Hanes says, casting undue doubts about the health value of some vegetables.

“They rely on you not to read anything other than what they tell you,” she says.

That’s not to say antinutrients are harmless. According to a 2020, when consumed in larger amounts as part of a diet or consumed alone, they can adversely affect bodily functions nutrient to learn.

Some people, like those with certain health conditions, might be more susceptible to these adverse effects for a variety of reasons, the researchers wrote. But these circumstances are not typical, they noted, and they carry important caveats:

“These compounds are rarely ingested in their isolated form as we know how these foods are traditionally consumed,” the researchers wrote. That means the meals you prepare usually contain more than one food.

“Plant-based diets that contain these compounds also contain thousands of other compounds in the food matrix, many of which counteract the potential effects of the ‘anti-nutrients,'” they added.

In other words, compounds in your food can block the antinutrients that block the nutrients. (still confused?)

Market vegetables and bunch of carrots

Enrique Diaz / 7cero / Getty Images

Important antinutrient groups

Here are some of the key antinutrient groups found in beans, grains, and vegetables — and what you should know about them.

glucosinolates

Produced by plants in the Brassicaceae Family, glucosinolates are a large group of phytochemicals found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, collards, kale, mustard, and horseradish.

While the exact function of glucosinolates in plants remains unclear, the pungent taste of isothiocyanates — small molecules formed from glucosinolate precursors — may provide a defense against bacteria or leaf-eating insects like caterpillars.

Glucosinolates are goitrogens, or naturally occurring substances that can disrupt the thyroid gland, making it harder for the gland to make thyroid hormone.

However, goitrogen levels vary widely by plant species, and many popular foods, including broccoli and Brussels sprouts, contain levels of glucosinolate that are too low to have a physiological effect and may even provide benefits.

“In addition to useful glucosinolates, cruciferous vegetables provide a wealth of other health-promoting phytochemicals, dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals,” according to the researchers nutrient to learn.

However, the researchers caution that glucosinolates may pose a risk to people with thyroid disease or those at higher risk of thyroid disease.

But that’s only if they consume plants higher in goitrogens (think Russian kale and collard greens) for long periods of time every day.

Even then, the reduced iodine intake — preventing iodine absorption is one way goitrogens impair thyroid function — can be offset by cooking with iodized salt.

lectins

Lectins are a broad family of proteins found in many different organisms, including animals and plants.

Hundreds of plant lectins exist in different types, but they are more concentrated in certain types, namely raw legumes and whole grains.

Lectins can interfere with the absorption of various nutrients, including calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc.

Lectin-rich foods can also cause food poisoning if not prepared properly, but this risk can be managed relatively easily by consuming them in their whole and cooked form.

While some people have good reasons to limit lectins, for most of us these chemicals pose virtually no threat, Hanes argues.

“There are certain people who don’t tolerate some of the lectins as well as other people, and because of that they can have some GI [gastrointestinal] this causes problems,” she says. “But one person who doesn’t tolerate them doesn’t make them bad for everyone.”

oxalates

Many plants produce oxalic acid or oxalates for purposes that may include defense, calcium regulation, and heavy metal detoxification.

Oxalates, found in both leafy green vegetables and tea, can bind calcium and prevent it from being absorbed by the body.

Calcium oxalate is a major component of kidney stones, and oxalates in certain foods, like spinach, are sometimes thought to be a risk factor.

That may be true, at least for some people. But the relationship between oxalate-rich foods and kidney stones isn’t as simple as scientists once thought.

Per the nutrient Study: “Foods containing oxalate possess a number of protective, beneficial compounds that may outweigh any potential negative effects of oxalate.”

As with other antinutrients, it’s all about moderation.

“I wouldn’t eat four pounds of spinach every day, but I wouldn’t avoid anything that has oxalates in it,” Hanes says.

phytates

Phytates or phytic acid are widespread in the plant kingdom and serve as a storage system for phosphate, a source of energy and an antioxidant for germinating seeds.

They are found in many seeds, legumes, whole grains and some nuts and can impede the absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.

Phytates are also powerful antioxidants, and consuming them as part of a plant-based diet is more beneficial and tends to outweigh the effects they can have on mineral absorption.

phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens are plant compounds structurally similar to estradiol, the primary female sex hormone.

This resemblance allows them to bind to human estrogen receptors, giving them some influence over estrogenic activity, which has led to exaggerated fears of foods containing them.

“I think the biggest slur I see is the phytoestrogens in soy,” says Hanes. “People get scared because it says estrogen. Men tend to get scared because of estrogen. But there are a lot of good things about it.”

So let’s get the facts straight: phytoestrogens don’t increase your estrogen levels like many people think they do.

And when eaten in moderation, they don’t increase your risk of breast cancer – another concern you may have seen on the internet. In fact, some research shows that soy may actually reduce the risk of breast cancer.

tannins

Tannins are found in a range of plant-based foods and beverages, from apples and berries to tea and coffee.

Some studies have found that tannins can interfere with iron absorption when taken in isolation, but other studies looking at whole foods have found otherwise nutrient to learn.

For someone with severe iron absorption issues, limiting tea around meals might be worth a try, Hanes says, but tannins are rarely an issue based on how most people consume tea or coffee.

“If I drank 20 cups of tea a day, I would probably have problems,” she says. “But like most people who drink tea, you’re not going to get to that level.”

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