What’s the hype (or not) about eating seamlessly harmless foods like grains, legumes, nuts and seeds? More specifically, what’s so wrong with the energy-yielding nutrients or proteins found in them in particular… gluten, lectins, wheat-germ agglutinin, phytates, tannins, etc.?
The bottom line is… can you continue to eat some of your favorite foods or is it time to say “adios”? Are these foods truly the bad guys they are reported to be?
Let’s step back for just a second and look at food from an historical point of view. Many foods in our diets have been around for thousands of years and consumed by our ancestors. For instance, research found starch granules from plants on fossil teeth and stone tools, which suggests humans may have been eating grains, as well as tubers, for at least 100,000 years.1 In addition, numerous legume seeds were available to our African ancestors and were main sources of energy in their nomadic diet.
So given that we have an extended span of generations (fast forward from our ancestors to modern peoples), let’s just say that there has been plenty of time for our digestive systems to adapt to eating these foods. So why are we now seeing reports promoting the hazards of these foods?
What Are Anti-Nutrients?
If nutrients provide, “nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life”, then anti-nutrients must do the opposite, right? That means they are inherently bad for us and we should stay away from them all together… got it! But are we being hasty in our assumptions and what does the research say?
Some of our most popular natural super foods that have been cited as cancer-fighting or preventing things like heart-disease or diabetes, are also judged a bit too harshly and thought to be detrimental to good health. These would include vegetables like broccoli, kale, cabbage, spinach, fruits like grapes, blueberries, strawberries and cranberries, nuts like almonds and walnuts, and seeds like chia, pumpkin and flax seeds, to name a few.
So what are these so-called anti-nutrients?
Well they are things like gluten, lectins, phytates, oxalates, tannins, glucosinolates, agglutennins, saponins, phytoestrogens, to name a few, which occur naturally in many plants, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Don’t worry if you can’t remember all these names, because what is most important is to find out if any of these are problematic for YOU.
Opinions and Debates Abound… But Is There a Middle-Ground?
On one side of the debate, there are those that say anti-nutrients can interfere with the absorption of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, while on the opposing side, there is agreement that while these compounds may slow down absorption or the utilization of certain minerals in “some” individuals, they don’t block it entirely. The rational behind the latter being that you’d have to eat a heck of a lot of these foods each and every day for them to have a detrimental and long-term effect on overall wellness.
I’m in the camp that believes that not all anti-nutrients are bad (in the right quantity) and in fact many of them have benefits that far out way any downside. However, some anti-nutrients are certainly problematic for those who have underlying health issues like a leaky gut or an autoimmune condition or are genetically predisposed as is the case for those with Celiac disease who can’t eat gluten.
I’m a big proponent of eating for your body… that means experimenting with foods and finding the right ones that empower and nourish you.
Nature’s Nutritional Anomaly: Anti-Nutrients Can Offer Benefits
Nature isn’t wasteful or flippant… it always has a purpose for everything. So these so called anti-nutrients in many cases actually help ensure the survival and propagation of various plant species. For instance they play a huge role in helping protect plants from opportunistic invaders like insects, bacteria, and fungi. Does this sound familiar? Well it should because this is the same job description of our own human immune system.
Many so-called anti-nutrient containing foods have exceptional nutritional value including protein, fibers, fats, vitamins and minerals. Diets that eliminate some or all of these healthy food options could do more harm than good across selected populations.
- Wheat and grains are a terrific source of protein ranging from about 8-15% for wheat and rice and therefore are regarded as a good energy source.
- Legumes such as peanuts, lentils and beans are also rich in protein, somewhere around 20%-25%.
- Grains and legumes are a very good source of magnesium, calcium, potassium and chromium while seeds in general contain B-complex vitamins and vitamin E.
- Legumes supply two critical nutrients folic acid and thiamine (vitamin B1), responsible for maintaining cellular and immune health and aiding in carbohydrate metabolism.
- Both grains and legumes are great sources of soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels.
- Studies point to hormonal benefits stemming from the phytoestrogen content in plants that may help regulate estrogen levels in the body2
- Some grains contain powerful antioxidants to regulate LDL levels and support cardiac health.3
Who Should Be Concerned About Anti-Nutrients
Food can be a medicine for one person and toxin for another. This is the same with some anti-nutrients. Bio-individuality in most cases dictates vulnerability to anti-nutrients. Also in this day and age you’ll find it almost impossible to cut out everything from your diet, nor should you have to.
But for those who have food allergies and sensitivities, leaky gut, or chronic inflammation, you may be at more risk for further health issues. For this population, eating certain foods is like pouring gasoline on an already raging fire, so it may be a good idea to reduce or even eliminate these potentially problematic foods, along with other common allergens for some time until symptoms abate. Removing suspect foods can help you gauge the body’s reaction (good or bad) and assist with identifying root cause of health issues.
Obviously individuals with known reactivity to specific foods in particular gluten, must absolutely avoid eating gluten-containing foods directly or through cross-contamination.
Top Anti-Nutrients To Consider In Your Diet
So not all parts of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are deemed potential health risks. Here, my top anti-nutrients and how they may affect your body,,,
Probably the most problematic allergen we have today is gluten. Gluten has 23,000 distinct peptides identified in the wheat proteum, so it’s a fairly complex nutrient. This pesky family of proteins is linked to the root cause of many gut health issues like intestinal permeability (leaky gut), bloating, gas, and a variety of immune-related conditions.4,5
Celiac Disease and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) are on the rise in the U.S. It’s now thought that gluten-related disorders affect nearly 10% of the population.6 So this anti-nutrient is not one to just brush under the carpet and forget about.
On average, people with sensitivity to gluten or Celiac Disease don’t realize they have a problem until much later in life—frequently ages 40-60 years. On top of that, delayed diagnosis is quite common because gluten-related disorders can be complex and usually present with a wide variety of symptoms that are challenging for the typical primary care doctor or specialist. So given this, there is often systemic inflammatory issues, literally a fire of inflammation, that has been going on for years in the gut and possibly other body systems/tissues.
The long-term affects of gluten on the body for those with Celiac Disease or NCGS can lead to a wide-variety of health challenges including: gastrointestinal damage, autoimmune disease, brain/neuroendocrine dysfunction, liver damage, hormone disruption, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and more.
Lectins are a type of protein found in high quantities most commonly in beans and wheat and as mentioned earlier, may reduce nutrient absorption and cause indigestion, bloating, gas, and a host of other symptoms for some people. Lectins have also been linked to inflammatory conditions of the joints like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.7
Plant lectins are able to survive powerful digestive acid and activities in the human gastrointestinal tract. This can be bad news for some people with preexisting digestive tract issues like leaky gut, because they can further damage the gut lining, disrupt absorption, cause bacterial overgrowth and trigger an immune response.
Some common lectin foods:
Lectins however do play an important role in the body. They are involved with immune system regulation, cell-binding, creating glycoproteins, and some recent research indicates that they may have antimicrobial properties as well. In fact, they have been shown to be effective against several types of bacteria and may also help fight off fungi and viral infections.8,9
While it’s true that eating a diet high in lectin foods can have some negative consequences, it’s widely thought that these same foods are also rich in important nutrients and should be of little concern when cooked properly and paired with a healthy diet.
Wheat Germ Agglutinin
An agglutinin is a “sticky protein” substance that causes thickening. They are commonly sugar-binding protein lectins or antibodies, which when ingested in excess can bind to tissue and cell receptor sites and diminish functionality. In other words, a small amount may be acceptable but when eaten in excess, they could have long-term ill effects for some individuals.
In particular wheat-germ agglutinin has been shown in research studies to increase shedding of the intestinal brush border membrane (your protective gut lining) and, at higher concentrations, reducing the surface area of the gut lining, accelerating epithelial cell loss, and shortening the intestinal villi (the important “shag carpet” that aids in absorption).10 If you have a diet high in wheat, you’re getting a high dose of wheat-germ agglutinin, and may be at a higher risk for leaky gut and autoimmune disease.11
Saponins are naturally occurring compounds found mostly in beans. Soybeans, chickpeas, kidney beans, navy beans and some green beans are among the richest sources of saponins. Red wines can have up to 10 times the saponins of white wines (saponins come from the coatings on the skins of the grapes used to make the wine).
Similar to lectins, saponins may be problematic for those with preexisting digestive issues like leaky gut or autoimmune conditions. These may not be easily digested and have the ability to enter the bloodstream and trigger an immune response.
There are clinical studies suggesting that saponins are health-promoting components and can affect the immune system in ways that help to protect the human body against cancer, reduce “bad” cholesterol levels, and lower blood glucose response.12
While cooking saponin-containing foods won’t reduce the content, fermenting them seems to have the opposite effect.
Also known as phytic acid, it is found in most nuts, seeds, legumes and cereal grains. Some health proponents say phytates impair the absorption of important minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc, which can make them hard to digest and block optimal absorption.13 Correlations have been made between phytic acid and dietary lectins in relation to sugar absorption and inflammation, proposing that the latter poses more of a health risk than phytates.
Phytic acid also has a number of health benefits. It’s thought to be a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, it reduces blood glucose levels, increases bone density, and more. Phytic acid’s ability to chelate minerals shows some protective effects, such as decreasing iron-mediated colon cancer risk and lowering serum cholesterol and triglycerides.14
Most people who follow a Paleo diet tend to steer clear of foods high in phytates, but they might be missing some key nutritional benefits. Keep in mind that like most anti-nutrients, most people can tolerate a small to moderate amount of phytic acid per day without ill effect.
Tannins (commonly referred to as tannic acid) are water-soluble micronutrients that we get through certain plant-based foods, many of which also provide excellent nutritional value.
For example, grapes, berries, and pomegranates are high antioxidant foods and play a probable role in the prevention of various diseases associated with oxidative stress, such as cancer and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.15 Other foods containing tannins are tea, coffee, sorghum, nuts, legumes, and yes, even everyone’s favorite… chocolate.
The research is divided about the pros and cons of tannins in the diet. While some laud their antioxidant and disease-fighting benefits, others say that they are responsible for decreases in growth rate, energy metabolism, and the digestion of protein and therefore are considered to be of low nutritional value.16
The antimicrobial activities of tannins are well documented including preventing the growth of many fungi, yeasts, bacteria, and viruses, and of course most notably are the physiological effects of tannins, such as lowering blood pressure, improving immune response, and balancing blood sugar levels in the body, which are seen as health-promoting benefits.
Try Soaking, Sprouting, Cooking & Fermenting Foods as a Remedy
You can reduce the anti-nutrients in some of the foods you are eating by cooking, sprouting, soaking and fermenting your foods. This doesn’t remove all the anti-nutrients but if you do eat these foods, it does reduce the concentration to promote better health.
Just remember that for some anti-nutrients like gluten, the same rules don’t apply. Out of all the plant proteins, gluten is suspected to be one of the most difficult to breakdown, so this fact along with the high amount of cross-contamination that abounds in processed food, make it one of the toughest anti-nutrients to eradicate.
Soaking and sprouting seeds reduces phytates and converts some of the starches to simple sugars, which are more readily digested. While sprouted grains and other seeds won’t be completely free from all anti-nutrients after soaking and sprouting, it’s a much better option than eating them unsoaked.17
Most, but not all, anti-nutrients are destroyed or reduced by cooking (I recommend a hot pot or pressure cooker). This means that for most of you that soak and cook your legumes before eating them, your diet is likely low in lectins and tolerable. Cooking makes foods (and anti-nutrients) easier to digest, increases absorption of important vitamins and minerals, and lowers the risk of food reactivity.
Resistant starches (the small percentage of some foods that can’t be digested) are perfect for feeding the over 10trillion microbiota in the gut. Without these important undigested starches, some of your good gut flora would starve causing opportunistic strains to flourish.
Fermenting fruits and vegetables enhances the nutrient content of the food. The action of the bacteria makes the minerals in cultured foods more readily available to the body. The bacteria also produce vitamins and enzymes that are beneficial for digestion and promoting healthy gut flora. Like the other methods mentioned above, fermenting doesn’t kill all lectins (or other anti-nutrients), but it can significantly reduce them.
The Food Elimination Diet
Elimination diets are the gold standard for identifying allergies, sensitivities or intolerances that are related to the foods you are eating. They remove for a time certain foods (or allergens) known to cause uncomfortable symptoms and reintroduce them for a short period all while you are taking note of how you feel.
Healthcare professionals have used these kinds of diets for decades to help people rule out foods that are not tolerated well.
I think everyone should do some kind of elimination diet or cleanse a few times a year. This helps free up the body from possible harder to digest and process foods or foods that could be causing symptoms that you don’t even correlate with eating.
If you suspect certain anti-nutrients are an issue or you suffer from food allergies or sensitivities but are not sure how you can tell which foods are problematic and which are okay, the answer might just be to try an elimination diet for 30-days.
Test Instead of Guess About Whether Foods Are An Issue
If you want to take some of the guess work out of what foods are good for your body, there are some excellent tests that can help you get to the root cause of health issues. Advanced testing is an integral part of working with your bio-individuality in order to identify triggers and conditions unique to you.
There are functional gut and autoimmune health tests that can detect reactivity to anti-nutrients in foods like gluten, wheat-germ agglutinin, lectins, tannins, phytates, and so forth. They can help you understand if the foods you are eating are causing distress to the digestive system, damaging the gut lining as in leaky gut, destroying the microbial flora, or causing an overactive immune response.
In my mind, lab testing is a fantastic tool that looks “inside” a person to get a different perspective on the body’s imbalances. For instance, it’s really hard to tell if your immune system is reacting to an allergen like gluten and causing a breakdown of the gut lining without testing for antibodies (the immune systems response to substance).
Functional immune and food reactivity tests are a must if you want to reverse or abate all together years of chronic digestive or autoimmune symptoms. It’s important you get to the root cause of degenerative health issues before vital function is lost for good.
To Recap Anti-Nutrients
- Those with a compromised gut or autoimmune condition may be more susceptible to the potential negative effects of anti-nutrients than those without any pre-existing health condition
- Hands down gluten is one of the most problematic anti-nutrients in our food today… it’s found in practically everything
- You can reduce the anti-nutrients in some of the food you are eating by cooking, sprouting, soaking and fermenting your foods
- Doing an elimination diet can be one way to detect if you have an issue with certain foods and anti-nutrients
- You can easily test for your body’s reactivity (or not) to anti-nutrients… it’s easy, cost-effective and a great way to better understand your bio-individuality and health risks.
Have you been suffering with food allergies or sensitivities, gut issues like leaky gut, or autoimmune symptoms and looking for ways to get to the root cause of why you don’t feel well? Check out my functional and integrative wellness programs that are perfect for individuals and groups.
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