Antinutrients: are they really that terrifying?

We know that a plant-based nutrition rich in fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and beans is evidently anti-inflammatory, supports the immune-system, good for gut microbiome and when carefully planned from a skilled dietitian it can help with autoimmune diseases and their symptoms. After all, fiber, good fat and vitamins are what we all should seek, through our nutrition.

There’s some concern, though, about a category of substances found in these foods, called antinutrients with many people being confused and scared. So maybe it’s time to get things straight.

Antinutrients in the microscope
First of all, we need to understand what antinutrients are, in order to see if and how they can harm us. Antinutrients are substances found naturally in plants and animal foods that act as a defense against insects, parasites, bacteria etc, protecting the plant from being eaten, while in some cases these antinutrients protect the seeds so that when they are eaten, they can be excreted as a whole and continue to create new plants. So far, so good.

What happens when a human consumes foods with antinutrients is that they might interfere or block the way our system absorbs other nutrients, which means that in theory we might not get all the nutrients our food has to offer, when it comes to calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc and other nutrients.

What really happens
This may sound scary, but research till now has shown that antinutrients are something to worry about only when we consume insanely great quantities. When consumed in moderation, they can have benefits, as they come from foods that are really essential in our health and well-being.

Lectins, for example, which are types of protein in grains, pulses, seeds and some vegetables, can only be toxic in rare cases, for example if you consume… uncooked beans. When beans, lentils etc are cooked well, fermented or sprouted, lectins’ toxic activity become de-activated. Furthermore, foods rich in lectins like the foods above are linked to anti-cancer activity, lower risk for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Tannins found in tea, coffee and wine are also antinutrients as they lower absorption of minerals and vitamins from gastrointestinal tract and precipitate proteins. At the same time, though, they’re also powerful antioxidants that can inhibit the growth of bacteria and play a role in cholesterol and blood pressure reduction.

Phytate in rice, wheat, corn, barley etc has been shown than when consumed in a balanced nutrition with plenty of minerals from plant foods, it can’t affect their bioavailability or have a negative affect. On the contrary, it seems to help in calcium absorption, support the immune system, destroy cancer cells and potentially lower inflammation.

Saponins (pulses) and glucosinolates (broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts etc) are also antinutrients that have anti-carcinogenic activity, among others. Saponins are also immune-friendly, they can lower the levels of cholesterol and blood sugar and fight blood clots.

Oxalates from pulses, berries, tofu, tea, beer, coffee, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, on the other hand, have a more negative effect due to the fact that they bind to dietary calcium to form calcium oxalate crystals, preventing the absorption and utilization of this crucial mineral and creating kidney stones in some people. This, of course, doesn’t mean you should eliminate all these healthy foods from your diet, but try to increase the amount of dietary calcium, drink plenty of fluids and reduce sodium so that you can avoid kidney stones.

Remember that most antinutrients can be deactivated or removed simply by soaking, sprouting or boiling the foods that contain them. Removing plant foods from your diet in the fear of antinutrients can only harm you, since plant-based diet is one of the most nutritious and healthy according to research, protecting from cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and obesity.  

So keep eating those pulses and greens, make sure you soak your pulses and cook them well, get plenty of calcium and iron from foods and talk to a dietitian in case you need supplementation.


If you want to achieve optimum nutrient bioavailability, take a look at the nutrition plans influenced by the Mediterranean philosophy and the Hippocratic principle in and find the one that suits you.