You can eat, and eat, and eat, but until the nutrients in the food are processed and used, it’s all just exercise. Food is only useful when it can be used by the body to maintain vital functions, and perform routine maintenance. Fortunately for our survival, it’s not that hard to process most foods, and humans have the widest range of possible food sources of any other creature on the planet that has ever existed. Our digestive systems can digest most any organic, non-toxic matter, except for things like cellulose. And the things we can’t digest raw, we can cook to make them edible. But this wide range of food is a two-edged sword. Our increased food supply has allowed another item to enter our diets….anti-nutrients.
Anti-nutrients are compounds that interfere with our ability to use certain nutrients from the foods we eat and things we drink. They can be natural, or even artificial. They usually do their sinister work by interfering with enzymes and proteases that break up our food into usable compounds. Before the advent of agriculture, it wasn’t much of a problem, because we mostly ate meat and fruits, which contain minimal anti-nutrients. But grains, cereals, beans, and other vegetables contain much larger amounts of these compounds…enough to be problematic in some cases. The good news is that modern crop varieties contain less anti-nutrients than their Neolithic forebears, and with genetic engineering, it may be possible to eliminate them entirely, but that may have it’s own problems, which we will discuss later.
There are several types of anti-nutrients we need to be concerned about:
- Lipase Inhibitors – these interfere with the enzymes we use to process fats. This may not sound like such a bad thing, since most of carry around a good bit of fat to spare, but in reality, there are many kinds of fats that are essential for goods health, like Omega 3s. Lipase Inhibitors do not discriminate between fats. They are equal-opportunity vandals, and can keep you from absorbing the fats you need. A common commercial variety is used as a weight-loss option, that allows fats to pass through your system unprocessed.
- Amylase Inhibitors – these interfere with the enzymes that allow us to process complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are vital for your body to function properly. Like Lipase Inhibitors, these are commercially produced to be used as weight-loss aids, and to treat obesity. Amylase Inhibitors are found naturally in beans and other legumes.
- Glucosinolates are found in broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts and cauliflower. These interfere with your ability to absorb iodine, a vital mineral needed by the thyroid gland. Insufficient iodine can lead to all sorts of health issues such as goiters, and worse.
- Protease Inhibitors interfere with the ability to process proteins, vital to many biological functions. They also interfere with digestion, and can cause gastric troubles. Protease Inhibitors are found in soybeans.
- Oxalic Acid is present in many leafy green vegetables such as spinach. It interferes with the ability to absorb calcium, vital to many body structures, like bones.
- Phytic Acid interferes with the absorption of several minerals, such as calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper. These are needed to support various chemical reactions within the body. Phytic Acids are found in the hulls of grains like rice, wheat, corn, and also seeds and nuts.
- Trypsin Inhibitors and Lectins, found mostly in legumes, interfere with digestion.
- Flavinoids not only interfere with the absorbtion of zinc, copper, and iron, but can actually remove them from the body in a process known as chelation. They can also interfere with proteins and digestion.
- Saponins, found in tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and some potatoes, can cause digestion problems, and are linked to some autoimmune disorders.
- Salicylates, present in berries, citrus fruits, squash and other vegetables and fruits, have been linked to behavioral/emotional disorders such as autism, ADD, etc…, and chronic inflammatory disorders such as arthritis, asthma, and digestive problems.
Excessive amounts of normal nutrients can also have the same effect as anti-nutrients. Too much fiber can slow down and block the flow of food through the intestines, so much that other nutrients cannot be absorbed. Minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc are all vital to body functions, but they all share the same transporter mechanisms. Too much of any one, or more of these can cause the others not to be absorbed1.
In a balanced diet, anti-nutrients are not usually a problem, because most of the things we eat have a lot more nutrients than we need. But in the modern world, especially in the US, most of us do not really have a well-balanced diet. Remember when we said earlier that it may be possible to completely eliminate anti-nutrients from most food sources? This may not be a good thing, because some anti-nutrients may have beneficial effects, at least some of the time. The best course is just to be aware of what we eat, and make adjustments as needed 2..
You can reduce the amounts of anti-nutrients in your diet by making good food choices, but also by using certain food preparation techniques. Fermentation, pickling, malting, soaking, and cooking all reduce the amount of anti-nutrients in food3. You can avoid foods that contain certain additives that have anti-nutrients, such as soy lecithin, soybean oil, trans-fats, and hydrogenated oils.
It is not the author’s intent to scare you, or cause you to obsess over your food. For most people in average health, antinutrients pose little risk. But should you ever become sensitive to certain foods, or develop an autoimmune disease, this knowledge could be invaluable. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what you are putting into your body.
This article is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical or nutritional advice in any way. If you feel you have a medical issue, always consult a licensed physician.