Demonizing specific foods because they could theoretically cause problems — even if it's highly unlikely — is a troubling trend. Such claims around anti-nutrients in beans and grains are exaggerated.
If nutrients are good, anti-nutrients must be bad, right? Not so fast. As with many things, the answer is “yes and no,” and the reasons might surprise you.
Anti-nutrients are naturally occurring compounds found in many plant-based foods — think pulses (beans and lentils), whole grains, nuts, seeds and many vegetables. A number of bloggers, authors and other “experts” claim we should avoid foods that contain anti-nutrients. They cite a few reasons, including that anti-nutrients can theoretically bind to certain nutrients, reducing the body’s ability to digest and absorb them.
The most common anti-nutrients are phytates (also known as phytic acid) and lectins. Phytates can bind to iron and zinc, and — to a lesser degree — calcium, magnesium and potassium. Lectins, a protein found in most plants and especially in beans and whole grains, can bind to carbohydrates. Much has been made of the idea that lectins are a threat to gut health, but the only evidence supporting that claim comes from studies that fed either isolated lectins or raw beans to animals. This definitely falls in the “don’t try this at home” category.
Another reason anti-nutrients aren’t a problem? They’re typically found in foods we don’t eat raw, and are largely rendered inactive by cooking, soaking, sprouting, fermenting or otherwise processing the food.
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They also offer some potentially important health benefits. Phytates have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and research suggests that they may help prevent cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer, including colon, breast and prostate cancers. Since phytates are found primarily in high-fiber foods, this may be one reason high-fiber diets are associated with lowered cancer risk. Both phytates and lectins can lower a food’s glycemic load, which helps maintain stable blood-sugar levels.
Phytates’ health benefits are more significant for people living in the U.S. and other developed countries, where rates of cancer, especially colon cancer, are higher — possibly because of higher-fat and lower-fiber intakes. These populations generally do not suffer from mineral deficiencies because they are eating a varied and balanced diet. As for lectins, canned beans are already cooked, but to play it safe when cooking dried beans, soak them in water for at least five hours, drain, add fresh water, then boil for at least 10 minutes before reducing to a simmer to finish cooking.
Also keep in mind that beans and whole grains — along with other foods containing phytates and lectins — are traditional foods and dietary staples for some of the healthiest populations around the world. There’s also a lot of nutrition information out there, from various sources and of widely varying quality. A troubling trend is the demonization of specific foods or food components because they could theoretically cause problems — even if that’s highly unlikely based on how we eat them — or because they actually do cause problems for a small percentage of people.
The fact remains that many food components have healthful and not-so-healthful aspects. Take water — every cell in our body needs it, yet drinking too much in a very short period of time can over-dilute your body’s electrolytes and kill you. Sodium is one of those electrolytes — while we need enough of it for good health, too much contributes to high blood pressure. Or consider vitamin A (retinol) — deficiency is a major cause of blindness around the world, yet overconsumption is highly toxic. Fear your food less — and enjoy it more!