There has been a lot of negative talk about antinutrients in plant foods. So, what are antinutrients? They are compounds—found naturally in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and leafy greens—that may decrease nutritional value of foods by making the nutrients less available to your body. Antinutrients may sound scary, but there’s no need to ditch these healthy plant foods from your diet. The simple act of preparing and cooking foods, such as grains and beans, helps to reduce antinutrient content and improve the availability of nutrients. Also, since a varied, balanced diet provides more than enough nutrients, the small loss due to antinutrients isn’t a problem.
The scoop on antinutrients. There are many different kinds of antinutrients in foods. Oxalates, found in leafy greens (spinach, beet greens and chard), interferes with your body’s absorption of calcium in these foods. Phytates, found in legumes, nuts, seeds and grains, hold on to important minerals like iron, zinc and calcium. Other examples are lectins and trypsin inhibitors, which are found in legumes like lentils and soybeans and can get in the way of normal digestion.
Not so bad. Sure, antinutrients do slightly decrease the nutritional value of plant foods, but their presence may do us some good as well. Many of these compounds have anti-inflammatory effects, and research shows that they may play a role in the prevention of conditions like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Science is just beginning to understand their complicated role in our bodies, but there are certainly positives to balance the negatives. So enjoy plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts, and don’t be an-ti-antinutrients!
—Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN
Maximize Nutrients in Plant Foods
To get the most nutritional value from foods, try these tips:
- Pair high iron foods like meats, beans and dark leafy greens with foods rich in vitamin C, such as straw-berries and oranges to improve iron absorption.
- Boil or steam greens to reduce antinutrients, but keep cooking times short to preserve vitamins.
- Get plenty of calcium from low-fat dairy products or calcium-fortified dairy alternatives.
- Avoid consuming very large amounts of phytate-rich wheat bran, especially if you are a vegetarian, be-cause it can interfere with iron absorption.
- Look for recipes that call for soaking whole grain flours before baking to remove phytates. The recipe should recommend an acidic liquid, like yogurt, buttermilk, or water with lemon juice.
- Sample fermented, germinated (sprouted),
or malted foods. These processes reduce anti-nutrient content.
- Enjoy whole grain yeast breads. Yeast breaks down phytates.
- Soak dried beans for 12 hours, and boil for at least 14 minutes to reduce lectins to safe levels.
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