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What are ‘anti-nutrients’, what foods are they in & how do they affect my health? Should these foods be avoided? Can they still be part of a healthy diet?
By definition, anti-nutrients are ‘natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with nutrient absorption’ – ie they stop us from absorbing beneficial nutrients from food…so can be a problem if there’s lots of them in our diet.
There are loads of synthetic anti-nutrients (ie many drugs, medications, preservatives etc) but let’s just discuss the sneaky ones that may be lurking inside our beautiful, natural, healthy foods – they’ve been getting a lot of press lately with the popularity of the Paleo diet (which excludes most grains, dairy, & legumes as well as sugar & processed / junk food & maximises nutrient intake).
You may have heard of some of these anti nutrients: phytates, lignans, saponins, oxalates, glucosinolates…there are many & it’s difficult to remember which foods they’re found in, what they do & what preparation methods to use that can minimise their effects.
These natural anti-nutrients are just plant chemicals (found in high concentration naturally in nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, & to a lesser extent in some fruits & veggies). Their function is to ensure the continuation of the plant species (either through making the plant product indigestible or unpalletable to animals or ensuring that they can survive in a dormant state through harsh conditions & for long periods of time without ‘going off’ or germinating at an inappropriate time. THIS IS WHY IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO ACTIVATE Blend 11 (& other nuts, seeds, grains & legumes you’re eating regularly!) If it’s dormant, it’s protected – you want to give it a trigger & some time to ‘wake up’ before you eat it!
What happens when we don’t activate? When we eat these dormant ‘plant embryos’ unprocessed, some will be highly resistant to our digestive processes, and we’ll get little benefit from eating them, and possibly even feel unwell (in the case of legumes & beans) or maybe just a bit heavy and bloated after consuming them in their natural dormant state. The compounds in these foods can also bind with minerals & inhibit their absorption from our digestive tract. And we need our minerals so badly – they’re crucial to good health & already pretty scarce in much of the food we eat, grown in the deficient soils of today.
Our ancestors figured this out long ago, probably through a combination of trial and error, watching animals & just observing their own ‘gut reactions’ to the things they were eating over time. There are many cultures (even still today) who have special traditional ways to prepare nuts, seeds, grains & legumes before eating. These methods may seem strange to us with our modern ‘microwave’ culture, but when we take a look at the science it becomes clear that keeping in touch with this ancient food preparation wisdom is key to staying healthy and feeling good whilst eating a large variety of natural foods.
Traditional methods that you can use to ensure proper digestion include food combining, soaking, fermenting, sprouting, cooking, grinding etc. (Not all food ‘processing’ is detrimental to it’s nutritional value, the right kind of processing can actually improve the availability of vitamins, minerals, essential fats & amino acids).
There are also a few factors which can influence our individual sensitivity to these anti nutrient compounds, for example:
-Gut bacterial balance (our bacteria help us breakdown what we consume)
-Combinations of food we eat
So should we just avoid foods with anti-nutrients, and eat safe, easily digested foods? There are some people who will definitely feel much better after cutting some of these foods from their diet, due to immune system dysfunction, poor gut bacterial balance & leaky gut syndrome etc. Most natural health practitioners will recommend an ‘elimination diet’ to help patients discover which foods are causing undesirable effects for them (everyone is different). This involves eliminating all of the foods people react to commonly for a month or so and eating a very basic diet, similar to one you might feed to a baby who’s being introduced to solids. Then the other foods are reintroduced one at a time & any reactions are noted & recorded. After finding out exactly what’s not working for you, it becomes much easier to eat freely, knowing what you can & can’t tolerate.
Above all though, it’s important to remember that a healthy human diet can vary immensely from place to place, person to person & that different ‘lifestages’ will have different requirements. There are many different variations of “a healthy diet”, and what works for one person may be completely wrong for another. The ideal diet for a baby, toddler, child, teenager, adult, elderly person, pregnant or lactating woman, sick / injured/ recovering person, elite athlete, sedentary person, cold climate, hot climate, etc, will vary and the whole person should always be taken into account.
Don’t stress too much about it though – stress (which causes over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system) acts as one of the biggest anti-nutrients & has a profound effect on our ability to get the goodness from our plate into our cells! Just eat as clean as you can, look after your gut bacteria & look to the way our ancestors prepared their food, rather than the guide on the microwave oven!