When Eating Healthy Isn’t …
In my most recent post on the importance of animal protein, I briefly discussed one of the things that animal products do NOT contain – that is, anti-nutrients. Because there were some questions about this, I wanted to explain a bit more.
Anti-nutrients are compounds found in plants (vegetables, beans/legumes, nuts, seeds, etc) that protect the plants from bacterial infections and from being eaten by bugs. Since plants can’t run from or fight back against predators, anti-nutrients are essentially plants’ self-defense mechanism. The problem with anti-nutrients in plants we eat as food is that they affect the absorption of nutrients from the food itself. Another issue is that these anti-nutrients affect the absorption of nutrients eaten at the same meal, so a spinach salad with salmon not only binds up minerals in the spinach but also blocks the full benefits of the salmon.
There are several anti-nutrient compounds in the plant foods we eat. Examples include:
- Glucosinolates – prevent the absorption of iodine, which may then interfere with thyroid function; found mainly in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.).
- Lectins – interfere with the absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc; found in legumes (beans, peanuts, soybeans), and whole grains.
- Oxalates – bind to calcium and not only prevent it from being absorbed but also enable oxalic acid crystals to build-up in both the gut as well as systemically in joints, connective tissues, muscles, organs and vascular lining; found in many foods but are especially high in spinach and other green leafy vegetables, as well as beets, nuts (especially almonds), soy and sweet potatoes.
- Phytates (phytic acid) – decrease the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium; contained in whole grains, seeds, legumes, and some nuts.
- Saponins – interfere with normal nutrient absorption; found in legumes and whole grains.
- Tannins – decrease iron absorption; found in tea, coffee, and legumes.
Some anti-nutrients like phytates, lectins, and glucosinolates can be removed or deactivated by soaking, sprouting, or boiling the food before eating. The problem is that almost no one actually takes the time to properly prepare their quinoa and beans before eating them!
As with all things nutrition, the effects of anti-nutrients vary amongst individuals. For some people, anti-nutrients may pose NO problem as their gut health is on point, their metabolism is robust, and their “load” – i.e., daily dose of anti-nutrient intake – is not high. However, for those who are dealing with an impaired gut, have a slow metabolism, and/or are working hard to “eat more plants” in their diet, their body may lack sufficient enzymes to break down these anti-nutrients and/or their intake (or load) is too high for their body to process.
The clients of mine for whom anti-nutrients are a problem are surprisingly those who have actually over-prioritized plants without even realizing it, thereby setting up what I refer to as a “health paradox.” Let me give you an example:
- A “protein packed low sugar” breakfast might be an almond-milk smoothie with avocado, spinach, banana, cacao, chia seeds and almond butter;
- a nutrient-dense lunch could be a warm spinach and quinoa salad with pomegranate seeds and a side of salmon;
- a smart afternoon snack would be almond flour crackers with almond milk herbed cheese and a handful of nuts;
- A nourishing dinner may be baked chicken thighs with steamed broccoli and a roasted mixture of cinnamon dusted sweet potato, squash and pecans.
Based on everything we see on social media, this would be an ideal, perfectly healthy meal template that we should all aspire to, right?? No, not really. In fact, over time, all these “healthy foods” may actually threaten one’s health because they add up to a massive dose of anti-nutrients, in this case oxalates – more than 4-5 times what your body can process. Over time, this causes serious trouble.
Oxalates are tiny organic salts that form when oxalic acid is bound to mineral elements, such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium. In foods, oxalic acid most often occurs as sodium oxalate, potassium oxalate, or calcium oxalate. Oxalates ingested from plant foods are especially good at “locking up” minerals in food. They grab and hold these nutritionally valuable minerals in the GI tract, making it difficult for the body to absorb them in a useful form. Some oxalates even make it into the bloodstream where they will bind up these minerals in our blood serum. This two-pronged mineral depletion can impair growth, bone development and tissue repair.
Unfortunately, oxalates can also affect cell physiology as they are highly reactive and damage cell structures and cell function. They deplete glutathione (a key antioxidant you need for good health) and trigger oxidative stress. If not kept in check, this leads to DNA damage, cell injury and death, leading to accelerated aging and disease.
Sadly, the body has no way to detoxify and disarm these molecules and must excrete them through the kidneys where they frequently cause damage to kidney cells upon exiting the body. There are even non-dietary sources of oxalates and oxalic acid that can cause damage to our health. Even in those with decent gut flora (NO ONE in modern society has perfect gut flora!), a diet high in oxalates can cause tissue deposits of oxalates to develop over time.
What all this means is that for some people “health” foods are just the opposite. With respect to oxalates, conventional doctors often just focus on their ability to cause kidney stones. In reality, with a high load in the body they (and all the other anti-nutrients) present a high risk of fragile bones, fatigue, hormone imbalances, joint problems, restless legs, sleep problems, headaches, nerve damage, and other complaints we often associate with aging. For this reason, when you are told that something is universally healthy (green smoothies, anyone?) know that it might actually not be right for you. This can be applied to a variety of things, not just oxalates, such as fermented foods (sauerkraut? kombucha?) which are simply not good for those with histamine issues.
Hopefully now you can see why it is extremely important that you work with a holistic practitioner who is trained to assess your body’s bio-individual unique needs. There is no place for diet or health dogma when it comes to personal wellness. Lucky for you, this is my passion and how I will work with all my clients!