The most important antinutrients to take note of are lectins, phytates, glucosinolates, and oxalates. These compounds interfere with the way our bodies absorb other nutrients. If you consume too much of a certain antinutrient, it could lead to deficiencies in certain vitamins or minerals.
What are antinutrients?
Lectin is a protein found in legumes such as beans, peanuts, and soybeans. They interfere with the absorption of minerals such as calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. When certain foods are consumed raw or undercooked (like kidney beans), it can cause serious side effects. This is because a specific lectin, called phytohemagglutinin, can cause nausea, vomiting, and an upset stomach.
Phytates are quite abundant and are found in whole grains, seeds, legumes, and even certain nuts. They interfere with the absorption of several minerals, namely iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium. Moreover, they inhibit the action of certain digestive enzymes. This means the food you consume won’t get processed properly, and you won’t get all the nutrients your body needs.
Glucosinolates are found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage. They inhibit the absorption of iodine, a mineral essential for proper thyroid function. If your body does not absorb enough iodine, it could lead to hypothyroidism.
Oxalates are found in green leafy vegetables (like spinach and kale) and tea. They bind to calcium, forming small oxalic acid crystals. These crystals can then be deposited in various places in the body, causing extreme pain.
Which foods contain antinutrients?
Fortunately, you don’t need to avoid foods that contain these antinutrients. Most of the time, antinutrients can simply be deactivated by soaking, sprouting, or cooking the foods before you consume it.
For most healthy individuals, eating foods with antinutrients shouldn’t be a problem. If you are at risk of certain deficiencies, like calcium deficiency (which can lead to osteoporosis) or iron deficiency (which can lead to anemia), you should be a bit more careful in monitoring the food you eat. For instance, studies found that women who drink a lot of tea, can actually be at risk for developing an iron deficiency, due to the tannins in the tea.
Interestingly, vegetarians (who consume a lot of plant foods) don’t seem to be deficient in minerals such as zinc and iron. Researchers suggest that it could be because the body is able to adapt to the high intake of antinutrients, and therefore increases the absorption of essential nutrients.
Despite their negative name, antinutrients are not all bad. Some can actually be beneficial. Phytates, for example, not only lowers cholesterol, but slows digestion, and also prevents spikes in your blood sugar.
Remember to avoid eating certain foods in their natural, raw state. Especially if you’re at risk for mineral deficiencies.