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.
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.
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.
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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