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Phytates & Phytic Acid: Friend Or Foe?
All health-conscious people try to eat right and be aware of the nutritional content of their daily diets. But the fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as a biological “free lunch.” This means that different nutrients have a tendency to cancel each other out. In some contexts, you might need a ton of nutrient A, but in other cases you’ll want to reduce your intake of nutrient A because it inhibits the absorption of nutrient B.
This dynamic plays out in many different combinations, and as a result even people who eat healthy diets can find themselves deficient in a certain vitamin or mineral without knowing about it. This article will cover a nutrient called phytic acid and related compounds called phytates, and how they can be beneficial or harmful, depending on the diet and health conditions of those eating them.
What are Phytates and Phytic Acid?
Phytic acid is a natural compound found in plants, nuts, and grains. In some health communities (particularly the Paleolithic Diet community) it is considered an “anti-nutrient” because of how it can interfere with the absorption of certain minerals.
So if there is a harmful compound in certain foods, it’s just a simple matter of avoiding those foods, right? The problem is that many foods containing phytic acid are actually good for you, and in some regions of the world, make up the bulk of the local diet.
Phytic acid is typically found in the following foods:
- Legumes (beans, lentils and peas)
- Brazil nuts
- Sesame seeds
- Wheat bran and wheat germ
When phytic acid is eaten, it can bond with minerals like zinc and iron and become a phytate. Phytates inhibit the absorption of these minerals by the body (to lesser extent, this can happen with calcium as well). In regions of the world where phtyic acid-rich staple crops like corn and wheat make up the base of the diet, there are higher levels of iron and zinc deficiency.
To make matters more complicated, there is also evidence that phytic acid can actually be beneficial for your health in some ways. Phytic acic can help reduce the risk of developing certain forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney stones, hemochromatosis (overdosing on iron), and even diabetes. There is also evidence that it can improve insulin resistance by reducing the glycemic response after eating. This means that you will feel full for a longer period of time after eating a meal, thus reducing the propensity for overrating.
What can you do about phytic acids and phytates?
If this is all making your head spin, don’t worry — there is some good news about how to avoid this problem, and it’s not as complicated as you might think.
The best defense against phytate-induced mineral deficiency is to simply eat a healthy, balanced diet. If you consume meat on a regular basis, there is probably no need to worry about deficiency in iron or zinc, since meat (particularly red meat) is rich enough in these minerals that is cancels out the risks posed by phytic acid.
The other key factor to avoiding nutrient deficiency linked to phytates is timing. When you eat foods rich in phytic acids plays a big role in how much mineral bonding will take place. The negative effects of phytic acid only occur if you eat foods containing it during the same meal as foods with iron and zinc. So if you want to eat a handful of almonds, wait a little while after eating some iron-rich food in order to prevent any interference with the absorption of the minerals.
Your vitamin D levels also play a role. Research has shown that if your vitamin D levels are healthy, they will prevent phytic acid from interfering with mineral absorption as much as it ordinarily might. Finally, with certain foods like beans, soaking them, cooking them, or allowing them to sprout before consuming them will reduce the phytic acid content.
Educate yourself about the specific nutrients in foods, and be aware of the potential interactions between them. With a little research and proper timing of when you consume specific nutrients, you can reap the benefits while avoiding the downsides.