I have written before about phytic acid and its work as an anti-nutrient. Phytic acid is present mostly in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and binds with important minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium as well vitamins like niacin and prevents their absorption. Phytic acid will also decrease the digestibility of the protein and carbohydrate content of the food.
Now some question whether this is anything to worry about, however history has shown us that phytates can have serious consequences. A perfect example would be the classical dwarf syndrome in Egypt. People there have often consumed large amounts of unleavened, which has led to zinc deficiencies and growth impairment in children. This clearly is not something to just brush aside.
This is why the vast majority of early cultures who consumed these foods sprouted, fermented and/or cooked these foods, drastically decreasing anti-nutrient content, increasing mineral, protein and carbohydrate digestion and absorption.
However, many people have taken this too far, and believe that since a diet too high in phytic acid and other anti-nutrients is harmful, that any intake of anti-nutrients is harmful and this does not appear to be the case. Its like believing that since you can die from too large of a water intake that you shouldn’t consume any water.
These ideas are similar to the change in the thought process on fiber many years ago. It used to be believed that fiber was a rather inert food component, and was only known to limit the absorption of some nutrients, and was once considered an anti-nutrient as well. Today we certainly know that fiber plays a positive role in helping to prevent many ills of human health.
Research continues to show that intake of whole grains, legumes and nuts are linked with a plethora of health benefits. Since these foods all contain anti-nutrients it would make sense that there might be some benefit to their consumption. New research is showing this to be the case. A perfect example would be phytic acid preventing the absorption of iron, as excess iron can lead oxidative damage.
Phytic acid and other anti-nutrients (saponins, trypsin inhibitors, and lectins for example) may play a role in preventing chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and more. It seems that these anti-nutrients have a U-shaped curve of benefits (like most nutrients). Little to no consumption might be inconsequential, a moderate amount may be beneficial, and an excessive amount is harmful. The problem with this is knowing where our consumption lies on that curve.
I still believe it would be in the best interest of human health to keep intake of these nutrients in check. Consuming foods like sprouted grains (which reduce but do not totally remove phytic acid), rubbed or washed quinoa (reduces but does not totally remove phytic acid and saponins), and soaking legumes (reducing but not eliminating lectins) will still provide you with an intake of these anti-nutrients that will still provide health benefits, but it will also increase their digestibility and decrease the potential negative consequences of these foods.
Fortunately this also means that we do not have to strictly avoid all foods that contain anti-nutrients (like many in the Paleo community would have you believe). If small amounts of phytic acid, lectins and enzyme inhibitors are beneficial, then that means we can actually eat moderate amounts of grains, legumes and other Paleo-unapproved foods without worry, especially if they are properly prepared. Enjoy!
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