What are antinutrients on a plant-based diet? Are antinutrients harmful for kids? If you’re curious about phytates, oxalates and lectins, this post is for you.
Antinutrients have had their share of the spotlight in recent years.
And depending on what conversation you’ve caught wind of around them, you might be wondering whether your family should be avoiding foods that are high in compounds like oxalates, phytates, and lectins.
Let’s clear this up!
What are antinutrients?
The term “antinutrients” was created to describe a group of naturally-occurring compounds found in a number of plant foods.
They get this name because they’re accused of preventing the absorption of important micronutrients.
The major types of antinutrient compounds, and the primary places they’re found on a plant-based diet, are listed below.
- Lectins: beans, peanuts, soybeans, lentils, whole grains
- Oxalates: tea, green leafy vegetables
- Phytates: whole grains, seeds, legumes, nuts
- Saponins: whole grains, legumes
- Tannins: tea, coffee, legumes
- Glucosinolates: cruciferous vegetables
As a side note, you may have heard phytates and oxalates also referred to as oxalic acid and phytic acid. While these terms are often used interchangeably, the difference has to do with their binding activity.
For example, phytic acid is the existing compound in a food. When phytic acid binds to a mineral like zinc, this is when it becomes a type of phytate. The same story applies to oxalates.
But now back to the biggest question around antinutrients.
Seeing as many of these foods make up the foundation of a plant-based diet, you’re probably wondering whether it’s okay to be eating them given the widespread antinutrient presence.
Are antinutrients harmful?
Research shows that antinutrients do inhibit the bioavailability of certain minerals – particularly calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, and iodine, depending on the type of food you’re eating.
For example, the human body lacks the phytase enzyme needed to break down phytates. As a result, one study found that 23% of zinc and 13% of magnesium were absorbed in the presence of phytic acid, compared to 30% without it.
Some people are concerned – and have even written best-selling books about – the idea that eating antinutrients can lead to nutrient deficiencies over time and should be avoided.
However, the effect depends on factors like your metabolism and the preparation method you use.
While eating a diet extremely high in oxalates can increase risk for what’s called hyperoxaluria (too much oxalate in the urine), this is rare. Primary hyperoxaluria (PH) is a genetic condition that can cause hyperoxaluria. In PH, the enzyme needed to regulate oxalate levels in the body is missing. This can lead to kidney stones, which is often an initial symptom of PH in kids.
Plus, despite their negative name, antinutrients may actually have some benefits of their own. For instance, phytic acid may have antioxidant properties. Lectins also slow digestion of carbohydrates and help maintain steady blood sugar levels.
Overall, we don’t recommend buying into the negative hype around antinutrients.
Things like leafy greens, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds are among the healthiest foods on the planet. They’re packed with fiber, antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein that are all important parts of a well-rounded plant-based diet.
As long as you offer your family a wide variety of whole plant foods – and aren’t trying to survive solely on mounds of spinach 😉 – there’s no need for most people to be concerned about eating too many antinutrients. The benefits of these foods far outweigh the risks of eating antinutrients for most people.
Supplement smartly (grab our FREE supplement guide here) to help cover any mineral bases you’re concerned about.
How to reduce antinutrients
If you’re concerned at all about the antinutrient content in your family’s diet, there are things you can do to help reduce them.
One study found that pressure cooking legumes for three minutes, followed by 15 minutes of boiling, reduced antinutrient content and improved mineral absorption by over 90%.
This is all helpful to know, but also keep in mind that many antinutrient-containing foods (like legumes and grains) generally aren’t being eaten without cooking them first.
It’s easy to find antinutrients on a plant-based diet, but if you’ve been wondering whether antinutrients are harmful, we hope this eases any worries. Phytates, oxalates and lectins do reduce the absorption of certain minerals. But eating a well-rounded diet with a variety of plant foods, supplementing where needed, and cooking legumes and grains before eating them can help minimize antinutrient effects.
Chime In: What else have you heard about antinutrients on a plant-based diet?
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