• Trishna Patnaik

Antinutrients in Vegetarian Diet

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

It must have happened to you often or at least you must have heard on various occasions that even after taking proper foods or supplements, particular deficiency or ailment in your body still exists.

More often than not it happens in a vegan diet plan, after a prolonged period of following a restrictive diet plan with only plant-based options. Antinutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Nutrition studies focus on these antinutrients commonly found in food sources and beverages that are of plant origin. Such molecules attach themselves to the nutrient molecule and render them unavailable to the human body. This is because your body can assimilate important nutrients only in certain specific biochemical form. Therefore, is someone wishes to follow a vegan diet plan, proper measures need to be taken so that the diet is balanced. This is crucial as otherwise various deficiencies will occur eventually.

How can you balance a vegan diet against anti-nutrients?

  • If you drink a lot of tea, make sure to get your daily intake of vitamin C straight. They have antagonistic effects on iron absorption.

  • Increase your antioxidant intake. They fight the free radical damage caused by malabsorption of nutrients.

  • Try to fortify your meals with alternative options like mineral and vitamin-fortified juices, soymilk, almond milk etc

  • Lower your caffeine intake. You're already on a high anti-nutrient diet. Do not increase interference.

  • Try to balance the intake of vegetables with fruits. Fruits contain more variety of nutrients that can compensate for the malabsorption.

  • Certain compounds like inhibitors present in soy can be gotten rid of with boiling.

Vegan Options that are high in anti-nutrients:

  • Cruciferous vegetables – high in goitrogens like thiocyanates, potassium perchlorates etc

  • Spinach, beet greens and radish greens- rich in oxalates that deposits calcium in the body instead of letting it free for absorption.

  • Compounds in soybeans called trypsin inhibitors, which can technically interfere with protein digestion

  • Phytates in most vegetables bind to iron and zinc both while inhibiting absorption

  • Fruits contain tannins that again iron absorption

  • Leafy vegetables contain lectins that in general reduces the absorption of various nutrients

I myself on several occasions while counselling clients on diet plans at Elate Wellbeing, have heard people saying that they are taking supplements or nutritious foods, but still their blood levels of certain components are not improving. The main reason behind this is anti-nutrient. It is an extremely important concept in a weight loss program, gut health improvement, management of metabolic disorders, etc.

A study by Aneta Popova and Dasha Mihaylova (Department of Catering and Tourism, University of Food Technologies, Plovdiv, Bulgaria) states that Antinutritional factors are primarily associated with compounds or substances of natural or synthetic origin, which interfere with the absorption of nutrients and act to reduce nutrient intake, digestion, and utilization and may produce other adverse effects. Antinutrients are frequently related to plant-based, raw, or vegan diets and are naturally synthesized in plants. Some of the common symptoms exhibited by a large number of antinutrients in the body can be nausea, bloating, headaches, rashes, nutritional deficiencies, etc. On the other hand, such chemical compounds can be evidently advantageous to humankind when consumed wisely. In fact, plants, for their own defence, primarily use antinutrients.

Some common anti-nutrients present in food are:

  • Glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage)—can prevent the absorption of iodine, which may then interfere with thyroid function and cause goitre. Those already with an iodine deficiency or a condition called hypothyroidism are most susceptible.

  • Lectins in legumes (beans, peanuts, soybeans), whole grains—can interfere with the absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc.

  • Oxalates in green leafy vegetables, tea—can bind to calcium and prevent it from being absorbed.

  • Phytates (phytic acid) in whole grains, seeds, legumes, some nuts—can decrease the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium.

  • Saponins in legumes, whole grains—can interfere with normal nutrient absorption.

  • Tannins in tea, coffee, legumes—can decrease iron absorption.

A recent study at Harvard states that there is no specific count or volume as to how many nutrients per food is lost due to anti-nutritional factors in foods. the effects vary among individuals based on their metabolism and how the food is cooked and prepared. Many anti-nutrients like phytates, lectins, and Glucosinolates can be removed or deactivated by soaking, sprouting, or boiling the food before eating.

Daily balance in overall nutrition

Moreover, the effect of antinutrients can be seen more when too many kinds of foods are eaten together. No matter how healthy food we are eating, moderation needs to be practised. When eating a lot of variety in one single meal sometimes unknowingly you may consume one or more kinds of foods containing antinutrients together. For example, instead of consuming two cups of bran cereal with milk, add a cup of fruit to it and minus a cereal cup. This way body will have to fight less. It is recommended to avoid eating large quantities of foods containing anti-nutrients at one meal and to eat a balanced diet throughout the day with a variety of foods.

Another factor is that people whose diet has been based on plant-based foods all their life have essentially been consuming much more antinutrients than a person on a mixed diet. However, the body has its own coping mechanism, slowly it increases the absorption rate in the intestines in such bodies, and ultimately caters to body needs.

Researchers at Harvard have identified that people who are at high risk for diseases related to mineral deficiencies, such as osteoporosis with calcium deficiency or anaemia with iron deficiency, may wish to monitor their food choices for anti-nutrient content. Another strategy could be to alter the timing of eating foods with anti-nutrients. Examples are to drink tea between meals instead of with a meal to reduce the chances of iron being poorly absorbed, or taking a calcium supplement a few hours after eating a high-fibre wheat bran cereal that contains phytates.

Basically, your diet throughout the day should be balanced and moderated. At Elate Wellbeing, therefore, all plans are curated keeping in mind the nutrition science that goes behind it. After all, if you are taking a proper diet that is nutritious, it's better to go mindfully about it. The body will cope up no matter what, these kinds of antinutrient activity in the body can have long term detrimental effects. It is also impossible to isolate these components from your food before eating. Hence, we only need to keep in mind, which component in a particular combination is acting as an anti-nutrient. Hence a well-balanced eating right pattern is your key!

Learn more about how to balance your diet for a happy and healthy life, contact Elate Wellbeing

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