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Anti-Nutrients in Nuts and Seeds and Veggies: Are They Good or Bad?
Plant foods or vegetables must always be a part of our diet. That includes fruits, nuts, lentils, and seeds. They’re all great sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber our body needs. Though, some of them have anti-nutrients that somehow impede the body’s absorption of the essential macronutrients. Like the anti-nutrients in nuts, seeds, lentils, peas, and other vegetables. That obviously puts anti-nutrients in a very bad light. But then, they are not all that bad. Like there are workarounds to decrease the anti-nutrients. And they can be healthful in some cases.
Getting confused? Well, not all in life are strictly black or white. There are thousands of shades of gray in between them. That simply means that there’s a range of health benefits and drawbacks. Something like the most healthful down to the least healthful, or even dangerous. So, this issue about anti-nutrients can be demystified as we take on the real score about anti-nutrients. Particularly the interesting role they play in our quest for better health.
What are anti-nutrients?
Anti-nutrients may be in some of the plant foods that we consume. And they disrupt the gut system’s absorption of nutrients. That brings about digestion issues and gut problems.
As defined in Reference Module in Food Science, 2016, “Antinutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. (Astley et al., 2016)”
The 3 Enzymes in the Gut System and the 3 Plant Enzyme Inhibitors
01 | AMYLASE
3-D Rendered Image: A molecular model of the structure of the digestive enzyme amylase protein, which turns starch into sugars through hydrolysis.
Amylase, which is present in the saliva and in the pancreas, is responsible for converting starch and glycogen from the ingested food into simple sugars. It is among the human body’s digestive enzymes. As clearly explained in a 1MD Nutrition article, amylase inhibitors in beans hinder the gut enzymes from breaking down carbohydrates resulting in the body’s inability to absorb simple sugars.
3-D rendered image: A molecular model of the structure of the enzyme alpha-amylase inhibitor
02 | LIPASE
3-D Rendered Image: A molecular model of the 3d structure of the digestive enzyme pancreatic lipase.
It’s a digestive enzyme like amylase. The role of lipase is to accelerate the breaking down of fats and lipids into liquid. This process makes the digestive lining absorb them well. Therefore, the lipase inhibitor in some seeds and nuts, which is primarily a statin, adversely slows down or inhibits the process.
03 | PROTEASE
3-D Rendered Image: A water-soluble Protease called Trypsin is in the digestive system of many vertebrates where it is broken down into proteins.
Protease enzymes exist in the intestines, such as pepsin and trypsin. And they assist the digestion and absorption of amino acids and proteins. On the other hand, protease inhibitors in the gut interrupt this process.
What health issues can anti-nutrients in food cause you?
We humans have built-in protection such as immunity and antibodies. Likewise, plants, though they don’t possess consciousness, are also living things that could use some protection. So, they need some defense to ward off predators and protection from pathogens like bacteria. And that “protective armor” comes in the form of compounds in plants. They are labeled as anti-nutrients.
However, anti-nutrients have a good side and some health benefits. And that’s not all. These anti-nutrients can be lessened to a safe degree by a few types of cooking. But that will be covered later.
For now, let’s look at the six major anti-nutrient compounds in plant foods that provide them protection. Then, identify both the health benefits and the dangers that impact certain diseases.
Anti-nutrients can be a boon for individuals with no health problems. On the other hand, it can be contra-indicated for some who have certain illnesses or disorders that an anti-nutrient can make worse.
1 | GLUCOSINOLATE
Glucosinolates are compounds in plants that contain sulfur. And that is what makes these plants pungent and taste strong. They are generally found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and kale. Note that these veggies have a bitter taste.
A major benefit of glucosinolates is the ability to resist the formation of tumor cells. Moreover, these compounds inhibit the growth of cancer cells and destroy them.
When glucosinolates are broken down in the gut system, the enzyme isothiocyanate is produced
Not Good for Thyroid Illness:
Glucosinolates tend to bind with iodine, which destroys them or lessens the amount. And Iodine plus tyrosine, an amino acid, are important minerals that promote thyroid health and function. Thus, thyroid illnesses such as goiter can manifest in vulnerable individuals.
2 | LECTIN:
Lectins in plants are proteins that attach to carbohydrates, such as sugars and act as anti-nutrients. Most plants have lectins in varying amounts. While legumes such as beans and grains have the highest amounts. And they protect the plants from pests while growing. For human consumption, lectins are difficult to digest. To make them digestible and absorbable, cook them properly. However, nutritionists don’t encourage eating plants with lectin raw.
Besides having anti-microbial properties, they seem to have the ability to prevent cancer. Mushrooms contain lectins that are found to have the potential to create drugs to fight cancer. Cuts down risks of heart disease and obesity.
Not Good for Autoimmune and Inflammation Health Issues:
Individuals suffering from inflammation and autoimmune diseases should avoid lectins in their diet. Sticking to a lectin-restricted diet will help ease someone suffering from one of many afflictions. They could be arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and thyroid dysfunction.
3 | OXALATE
Oxalates are another kind of compound that plants have and are present in leafy green vegetables and legumes. Many nutrient-dense plant foods also have rich amounts of oxalates.
Vegetables that contain oxalates also provide a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals. And, include many other fruits and vegetables in your meals to have varied and high nutrient contents.
Not Good for Preventing Kidney Stones:
Go easy on foods loaded with oxalates, and limit your consumption by less than (100 mg) if you’re suffering from kidney problems such as kidney stones.
4 | PHYTATE
Also known as phytic acid, they have anti-oxidant properties and are found in legumes such as alfalfa, nuts, grains, lentils, peas, and seeds.
Gives natural protection against osteoporosis without having to rely on drugs. Spine and hip bones are shown to have low bone loss. Secondly, phytates inhibit cancer cell growth, Cancerous cells are hunted down and disposed of without compromising normal cells in the body. Thirdly, they support the immune system.
Not Good for Helping in Mineral Absorption:
Phytates’ not-so-good points are their tendency to bind to minerals the body needs. They are calcium, iron, manganese, and zinc.
5 | SAPONIN
They’re also known as triterpene glycosides. Saponins are phytochemicals that support plant health and protect them from pests and infections. Plants that have them are legumes. Such as beans, chickpeas, dried peas, lentils, and soybeans. Other plants that contain them are asparagus, garlic, onion, quinoa, spinach, and yam. The term saponin is derived from “sapo” which means soap. That’s due to its foaming and emulsifying properties and has been traditionally used as detergents.
Having antioxidant properties, saponins strengthen the body’s defense against damaging free radicals. They help in lowering cholesterol, fight cancer cells, and contribute to dental health by preventing cavities. Here’s a delicious recipe with lentils and coconut: Smooth Coconut Lentil Curry
Not Good for Getting Some Nutrients:
Saponins are also considered by some people as anti-nutrient. That’s because they can affect the body’s absorption of some important nutrients. Like binding to minerals such as calcium, iron, and zinc.
6 | TANNIN
Beverages such as tea and wine contain different kinds of tannins that have health-promoting properties. Tea leaves can be sourced from rose hips, chamomile, lemon balm, catnip, mint, and many more. In wine-making, the tannins used are gathered from the skin, seeds, and stems of the grape plant.
Other sources of tannins are grain foods such as barley, corn, and sorghum. And for lesser quantities, go for wheat, oats, rice, amaranth, millet, and quinoa.
Tannin’s antioxidant properties provide the body protection from cellular aging. They aid in fighting bacteria, fungi, viruses, and yeast. Also balances the foot’s skin flora to keep it healthy.
Not Good for Thyroid Illness:
As regards food, tannins may decrease the efficiency in converting nutrients absorbed by the body into usable and healthful substances. Consumption of herbal teas and betel nuts, for example, which contain huge amounts of tannins could develop into some type of cancer.
The Health Benefits of Anti-Nutrients
There are people with no health issues with foods, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. These lucky individuals can safely consume lentils and other kinds of vegetables. And those foods may contain anti-nutrients. But then, always stay safe by practicing in moderation. Even good things and healthy food can bring about not-so-good results, especially when taken in excess. Now, here’s another recipe to try out: The Italian Lentil Soup.
Now let’s take up the good things we can get from eating nuts, seeds, sprouts, and other vegetables with significant amounts of anti-nutrients.
Four Ways to Reduce Anti-Nutrients
It is best to cook edible plants such as grains, peas, seeds, and sprouts in boiling water. The high heat breaks down the anti-nutrients in them. These compounds are lectins, protease, and tannins.
A natural way to deal with anti-nutrients is to ferment the food letting micro-organisms like bacteria or yeasts break it down, digest or process it. The result is the reduction or elimination of the anti-nutrients. It’s almost like the same process in fermenting cheese, yogurt, beer, coffee, and soy sauce, to name a few. Decreasing the anti-nutrients will make the other nutrients more bio-available.
The anti-nutrients in legumes can be reduced by soaking them. Beans, grains, lentils, peas, and seeds have the anti-nutrients calcium oxalate, lectins, phytate, protease inhibitors, and tannins. Get rid of them by immersion in water, preferably overnight. These anti-nutrients are on the rind or skin, and they can easily be dissolved in a bowl of water with some baking soda.
Also called germination, it is the stage when the seed of a plant starts to grow shoots. In other words, the young plant begins to emerge from the seed stage. This phenomenon increases the nutrients and anti-nutrients in the grains, legumes, and seeds.
As the sprouting stage takes its course, the anti-nutrients phytate and protease undergo degradation. Moreover, lectins and protease inhibitors also go through a slight decrease.
On a final note…
Not all plant foods that we eat are a hundred percent safe. And not all of us are created the same. So, we have different reactions to different nutrients and anti-nutrients in nuts and seeds, and other kinds of vegetables. Since sprouting the seeds of plants decreases their anti-nutrients to safe levels for humans, we can make it even lower with the four techniques mentioned above.
So, level the playing field with these remedies. Individuals with chronic gut issues can at least have them occasionally and in smaller amounts in their diet. Of course, with guidance and consultation with their doctor and nutritionist.