Many of you might not be getting the most out of your diet. Here’s why:
Are You Getting The Most Out of Your Diet? Anti-Nutrients and Incomplete Amino Acid Profiles
Incomplete Amino Acid Profiles
In a recent article we discussed a very interesting study which showed that increased male height was associated with the superior nutrition of animal proteins. The study uses data from 105 different cultures across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania to show that diet is a direct determinant of height.
As well as total protein consumption being strongly correlated with height, the researchers also discovered that ‘protein quality’ also mattered significantly. In this regard, it was the reliance on protein derived from meat, eggs and milk that puts Europeans – quite literally – head and shoulders above the rest of the countries in the study. Meat, eggs and milk contain the highest quality protein – far in advance of the plant-based foodstuffs that make up the bulk of the protein intake outside Europe.
With regard to plant-based diets, the authors conclude, unequivocally, that they “are not able to provide the optimal stimuli for physical growth, even if the intake of total protein and total energy poses no problem. In fact, we observed a difference of 10 cm (174 cm vs. 184 cm) between nations relying on the surplus of plant and animal proteins, respectively.”
Okay, I hear you say, I get that protein quality is important. But what does it actually mean?
In truth, protein quality is a very easy concept to understand. Basically, it can be divided into two aspects: amino acid profiles and digestibility. There are very official methods of ranking protein quality and there is also, as you might expect, a certain amount of disagreement over which should be used, largely due to vested interests in particular kinds of protein being given a higher or a lower score overall.
If you want to read up on the various ranking methods and their advantages and disadvantages, click here.
Let’s start with amino acid profiles. The building blocks of protein are amino acids, of which there are considered to be nine ‘essential amino acids’. These are amino acids that cannot be synthesised readily enough by the human body to meet its demand; therefore, they must be derived from the diet.
The nine essential amino acids are:
There are also six ‘conditionally essential’ amino acids, whose synthesis can be limited in the body under special conditions, usually of stress, and six ‘non-essential’ amino acids, which can be synthesised in sufficient quantities in the body. When we talk about amino acid profiles, we usually are referring to the essential amino acids.
In simple terms, the more essential amino acids a protein source contains, the better its amino-acid profile. Whereas eggs or milk protein contain all the amino acids, a protein like hemp, for instance, does not; it has an incomplete amino acid profile.
But this isn’t the whole picture. Another factor is digestibility. A protein source might have a decent enough amino acid profile, but actually prove to be a poor choice because the human body has a hard time digesting the protein it provides.
A variety of factors can intervene to make a protein source less digestible, including anti-nutrient factors most notably. These are substances found especially in plant-based foods that prevent the body from absorbing nutrition, perhaps by binding to enzymes that are involved in digestion and stopping them from working or by turning micro-nutrients into a form that the body cannot process.
Some common anti-nutrient sources and their effects
So, when arriving at an assessment of protein quality, we have to balance amino acid profiles against digestibility. A protein source with a complete amino acid profile but 0% digestibility would obviously be the lowest quality protein source available; and similarly a protein source with none of the essential amino acids and 100% digestibility.
As we’ve already seen with regard to the height study, animal proteins generally have a much higher protein quality than plant-based proteins – something vegans and vegetarians are of course loath to admit.
Why Protein Quality Matters
Some of you will probably have figured this out already – well done, you! – but I’ll give you a brief explanation just in case you haven’t.
Quite simply, if you don’t get enough of the essential amino acids, either because your protein sources don’t contain them or because of digestibility issues, or both, all the vital bodily processes that rely on them to take place, including muscle repair and growth, will be limited. That’s it.
Take the example of a bodybuilder. We all know that bodybuilders have to eat a lot of protein, not only to repair the damage they do to their muscles lifting weights all the time, but also to build more muscle too – lots of it, preferably. However, the protein that they eat must also be of a high quality, or else they risk slowing or even stalling in their gains, because the necessary building blocks are lacking.
This is why, back in the good old days of the Golden Era, Vince Gironda advocated milk-and-egg protein powder, when others were using soy powder instead. The protein from milk and eggs has the highest protein quality, higher than soy and higher than whey, and this remains true to this day.
If you’re trying to be a bodybuilder on a vegetarian or vegan diet, things are going to be a lot harder for you than for a bodybuilder eating the Golden Era staples of lots of red meat, lots of milk and lots of egg.
Here’s what we say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Anti-nutrients are the evil alter-ego of those all-important macro- and micro-nutrients we’re constantly urging you to paying attention to. Anti-nutrients come in various different kinds and can prevent you from absorbing certain kinds of nutrient, leading in turn to deficiencies.
Nutrients and Anti-Nutrients
You may think you know about nutrients – which are usually classified further into micro- and macro-nutrients – but what about anti-nutrients? Huh? Anti-nutrients!? That’s right. In a universe of opposites, where even matter is balanced by anti-matter, there is indeed a class of compounds called anti-nutrients and, what’s more, they could be doing you harm if you’re consuming them in significant quantities.
In basic terms, anti-nutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere in one way or another with the body’s absorption of nutrients. So while nutrients nourish you, providing you with energy, the building blocks for muscle and other tissues, and various compounds and elements required for the whole range of bodily processes, anti-nutrients do the opposite, preventing you from being nourished in these ways.
You may be surprised to know that, far from being uncommon, anti-nutrients are actually the opposite: you’ll find them in all sorts of common foods, such as brown rice, oats and beans. The overwhelming majority of anti-nutrients are found in plant-based foods.
Catherine Shanahan, in her excellent book Deep Nutrition, explains the why of anti-nutrients clearly and concisely:
‘Plants didn’t evolve with the idea that they should be good to eat. In fact, plants spend a great deal of energy thwarting overzealous grazers and other creatures that would gladly eat them into oblivion. Not as helpless as they seem, plants protect their foliage, stems, seeds, roots, and to a lesser degree even their fruits, with natural insecticides and bitter toxins that make some plants unsafe for human consumption. Unless your species has evolved the physiologic means to neutralize them, a plant’s various hemaglutinins, enzyme inhibitors, cyanogens, anti-vitamins, carcinogens, neurotoxins, and allergens say, “Eat at your own risk.”
How Anti-Nutrients Work
Anti-nutrients work in a variety of different ways to prevent your body from absorbing certain kinds of micro- or macro-nutrients. There are, for instance:
- Protease inhibitors which inhibit trypsin, pepsin, and other proteases (protein-digesting enzymes) in the gut, preventing digestion and absorption of proteins and amino acids
- Lipase inhibitors, which interfere with lipases (fat-digesting enzymes)
- Amylase inhibitors, especially in in beans, which prevent the action of enzymes that break the glycosidic bonds of starches and other complex carbohydrates, preventing the release of simple sugars and absorption by the body
- Phytic acid, which is present in the hulls of nuts, seeds, and grains and has a strong binding affinity for calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc, preventing their absorption
- Oxalic acid and oxalates, which are found in many plants, particularly members of the spinach family, binding with calcium to prevent its absorption
It’s worthwhile noting that many traditional preparation methods for eating grains like brown rice and oats, such as fermentation, reduce the levels of anti-nutrients significantly. One of the main problems with modern consumption of these foods is that we have forgotten or foregone these traditional methods, and so we suffer from symptoms that our ancestors did not.
In the Highlands of Scotland, it was commonplace, for instance, to ferment oats before they were consumed, thereby reducing the concentration of phytic acid and lessening its effects on calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc absorption. Today, we just eat oats straight from the packet, with their phytic acid concentration – not to mention, in all likelihood, their freight of glyphosate too – totally unchanged.https://www.youtube.com/embed/dI5G5uw__18?feature=oembed
As you might expect, it is quite possible to develop nutritional deficiencies through eating what, at first sight, appears to be a ‘healthy’ diet, if you happen to be consuming quantities of plant products that contain anti-nutrients. A gymbro consuming a sh**ton of chicken and brown rice (poor soul), could very easily end up deficient in calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, or zinc – or all of them – thereby compromising his gains significantly. Remember, for example, that magnesium is essential for testosterone production, among many other things.https://www.youtube.com/embed/wIv5W2rhtS0?feature=oembed
Although anti-nutrients have obvious negative effects, it’s not necessarily the case that you should just avoid eating foods that contain them altogether. It’s disputable just how negative the effects of some anti-nutrients are, and in some cases the negative effects may be greatly outweighed by other positive effects. For instance, spinach also contains a variety of other powerful compounds, including ecdysteroids, which make it a food you absolutely should be eating. There is also some suggestion that our bodies could be adapting to the growing presence of anti-nutrients in our diets since the dawn of agriculture, by increasing the uptake of minerals.
It’s also possible in many cases, for instance with rice and oats, to treat them in the traditional manner and thus reduce their anti-nutrient content. With brown rice, for instance, you can either choose to soak it beforehand – usually for at least 24 hours – or you can simply switch to white rice instead, which has had the hull removed.https://www.youtube.com/embed/yMxjfsGt7gw?feature=oembed
Avoid eating large quantities of anti-nutrient-containing foods in one meal, and consider replacing part of a serving with another kind of food; for instance, instead of two cups’ worth of rice, try one cup of rice and another of berries.
If you are at high risk for diseases related to mineral deficiencies, such as osteoporosis with calcium deficiency or iron deficiencies, you may nevertheless wish to monitor your food choices closely for anti-nutrient content. Another strategy: alter the timing of eating foods with anti-nutrients. For instance, drink tea between meals instead of with a meal to reduce the chances of iron being poorly absorbed, or take a calcium supplement a few hours after eating oats, which contain phytic acid.
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