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What are anti-nutrients and do they really prevent us from absorbing nutrients?
The pudding has been over-egged a little and the actual impact on absorption is minimal in most cases. Most anti-nutrients are removed or deactivated by soaking, sprouting, or boiling the food before eating – many are water-soluble, so they just dissolve.
Some so-called anti-nutrients also contain other compounds with positive health effects. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common anti-nutrients:
Found in seeds, grains and legumes, phytates reduce the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium. Phytic acid is an antioxidant (PMID: 2182395), but you can reduce it significantly by soaking and sprouting phytate-rich foods.
Vitamin C-rich foods also help to reduce the negative effects of phytates, so it’s a good idea to include things like strawberries, kiwi fruit, bell peppers, tomatoes, oranges, blackcurrants and broccoli in your daily meals.
Found in all plant foods, but raw legumes and whole grains contain the highest levels. However, eating foods with high amounts of active lectins is very rare. IDK about you, but I don’t make a habit of eating raw, uncooked beans and lentils! Just eat these foods thoroughly cooked and you won’t need to worry about lectins interfering with your absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus, or zinc.
AKA oxalic acid, found in high amounts in spinach and swiss chard, binds to calcium, but don’t block absorption completely. For most people, the benefits of nutrient-dense, high-oxalate foods outweigh any (small) risks, with the exception of those with kidney disease or kidney stones, in which case your doctor may advise a low-oxalate diet. Oxalates can be reduced by cooking food, and their impact reduced further by consuming them away from calcium-rich foods.
The most common sources of tannins are tea, coffee, wine and chocolate. Tannins are polyphenol antioxidants with anti-microbial properties, but they do interfere with the absorption of iron, however, this not likely to cause any harm in people with healthy iron levels. You can reduce their impact by consuming tannin-rich foods and drinks away from between meals.
The bottom line
Anti-nutrients won’t prevent you from absorbing ALL vitamins and minerals and most healthy people shouldn’t avoid eating foods containing them.