Diet & Nutrition

Why are people stressing over ‘anti-nutrients’ and should you be worried too?

They’re found in plenty of foods known for being healthy, so should we be cutting them from our diet altogether?

When you pop the prefix 'anti' in front of a word, you're instantly inclined to connotate the word with something negative, so when you see the word 'anti-nutrient', it's easy to assume they'd do the opposite of what the healthy nutrients we are told day in and day out that we should be filling our diets with, but that's not the case.
Lately, a compound found in foods that most people would consider healthy and nutritious like spinach, apples and nuts, has caused wide spread confusion, with people cutting out foods that are found to contain 'anti-nutrients' in an attempt to cut out the 'bad' nutrients.
However, talking to Well & Good, registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman says anti-nutrients are not the enemy it's been assumed to be.
Despite the name, anti-nutrients aren't as bad as they sound. (Image: Getty)
"Anti-nutrients are found in foods that block absorption of nutrients like proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins.
"This label assumes that these foods are harmful to the human body, when in fact many of our most nutritious foods – vegetables, fruits – are full of anti-nutrients.
"These foods are what you should be eating!"
So while yes, anti-nutrients do technically block the absorption of some nutrients; there's lectins which interfere with your body's absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc; phytates, which block iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium absorption; and protease inhibitors which help break down protein; food is much nuanced than just 'good' and bad'.
"The beneficial nutrients of plant-based foods far outweigh the negative effects," dietician Brittany Michels tells Well & Good.
While a vegetable like Brussel sprouts contains an 'anti-nutrient' which prevents the absorption of iodine, it also is super rich in fibre, folate and vitamin K – meaning when it comes to plant-based foods, there are pros and cons, but the pros almost always outweigh the cons.
Some of the foods that have anti-nutrients are also the best for you. (Image: Getty)
In fact, writing for US News, registered dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman says some studies have shown that some of these so called 'anti-nutrients' could in fact have health benefits.
For example tannins in tea and red wine can supposedly have cancer-prevention benefits, while lectins found in mushrooms are also being studied for their potential therapeutic anti-tumor and anti-cancer benefits.
While in general anti-nutrients aren't bad for you, for people who are at risk of a mineral deficiency or kidney stones, Beckerman advises they cut out food which contains oxalates and for people who are anaemic or at risk of osteoporosis, they should also look at cutting down foods with anti-nutrients or pay a close attention to how they prepare their food.
For example, soaking, fermenting or boiling vegetables before you eat them can help decrease the possible effects this might have on you.
So the take away from this? Despite the name, anti-nutrients shouldn't be considered something to avoid – so by all means keep that healthy dose of spinach in your green smoothie.