What’s the impact of antinutrients to digestion and nutrient absorption?

In the intricate dance of nutrition, where the body orchestrates the symphony of digestion and absorption, there exists a group of compounds that play a less harmonious role – antinutrients. 

These enigmatic substances, found abundantly in various plant-based foods, have garnered attention for their potential to hinder the intricate processes of digestion and nutrient absorption. 

As we delve into the depths of this topic, we uncover the subtle yet significant impact that antinutrients wield on our health and well-being.

What are the top 5 antinutrients?

Antinutrients come in different forms, each with unique effects on digestion and nutrient absorption. Let’s reveal the group of antinutrients that frequently play a prominent role in our diet:

1. Phytates

Phytates, or phytic acid, are commonly found in grains, legumes, and nuts. 

While these compounds can be regarded as nutritional storage forms within plants, they can also bind to essential minerals such as iron, calcium, and zinc, hindering their absorption in the digestive tract.

2. Oxalates

Oxalates, prevalent in foods like spinach, rhubarb, and beet greens, have a tendency to form crystals that may interfere with mineral absorption and contribute to the formation of kidney stones in susceptible individuals.

Protease inhibitors
Photograph: jirkaejc/Envato

3. Tannins

Tannins, often associated with the astringent taste in foods like tea, coffee, and certain fruits, can inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron and other minerals, potentially leading to iron deficiency, particularly in individuals with marginal iron status.

4. Lectins

Lectins are proteins found in legumes, grains, and some vegetables. They have the ability to bind to carbohydrates in the gut lining and interfere with nutrient absorption. 

Some lectins are known to cause gastrointestinal distress and may impact gut health.

5. Protease inhibitors

Predominantly found in legumes, protease inhibitors interfere with the activity of digestive enzymes that break down proteins [1]. This interference might hinder the breakdown and utilization of dietary proteins, impacting overall protein absorption.

What are the effects of antinutrients in the body?

Digestion can be impacted by antinutrients present in food.These compounds, often lurking in our meals, can disrupt the harmony of digestion in several ways:

Impaired macronutrient breakdown

Antinutrients can hinder the activity of digestive enzymes responsible for breaking down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. 

For instance, protease inhibitors interfere with protein digestion, leading to larger protein fragments that might be less efficiently absorbed.

Reduced availability of essential nutrients

The binding capacity of antinutrients can create complexes with essential minerals, rendering them less available for absorption. 

This can contribute to deficiencies in minerals such as iron, calcium, and zinc, even when dietary sources are plentiful.

Gastrointestinal discomfort

Some antinutrients, particularly lectins, can cause digestive distress such as bloating, gas, and discomfort. These discomforting effects might be more pronounced in individuals with sensitivities or compromised gut health.

Impact on nutrient absorption sites

Antinutrients can disrupt the integrity of the gut lining, potentially compromising nutrient absorption sites. This disruption might lead to malabsorption of nutrients, contributing to deficiencies and overall suboptimal nutrient uptake.

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How do antinutrients impact the nutritional value of foods?

The absorption of nutrients into our bodies is a delicate process that can be disrupted by antinutrients present in food.

Let’s explore how these compounds can alter the intricate dance of nutrient absorption:

Decreased absorption of minerals

Antinutrients, such as phytates and tannins, have a penchant for forming complexes with minerals like iron, calcium, and zinc [2]. These complexes are often insoluble and resistant to digestion, resulting in reduced absorption of these vital minerals. Such interference can contribute to micronutrient deficiencies.

Vitamins affected by antinutrients

Certain vitamins, including vitamin D and B vitamins, can also be influenced by antinutrients. For example, phytates can inhibit enzymes necessary for activating vitamin D, which plays a pivotal role in calcium absorption. 

Additionally, antinutrient-induced malabsorption might compromise the uptake of essential B vitamins.

Impact on protein absorption

Proteins are a cornerstone of nutrition, providing the building blocks for various bodily functions. 

However, antinutrients like protease inhibitors can impede protein digestion, leading to larger protein fragments that might not be efficiently absorbed. This can affect our overall protein status.

Gut microbiota and nutrient utilization

The gut microbiota, our symbiotic bacterial companions, can influence nutrient absorption. Interestingly, these microbes can ferment some antinutrients, producing beneficial metabolites that might contribute to overall nutrient utilization.

What is the role of gut microbiota in health and nutrition?

Within the intricate ecosystem of our digestive system resides a diverse and dynamic community of microorganisms – the gut microbiota. These tiny inhabitants play a pivotal role in processing nutrients, shaping our health, and even interacting with antinutrients in unexpected ways:

Influence on gut microbial composition

Antinutrients can influence the composition of the gut microbiota. Certain microbes possess the ability to break down and metabolize antinutrients, potentially altering their impact on nutrient absorption. 

The composition of the gut microbiota might determine an individual’s response to antinutrients.

Fermentation of antinutrient-rich foods

Some antinutrient-rich foods, particularly legumes, can undergo fermentation in the gut. 

During fermentation, microbes break down antinutrients, releasing nutrients and bioactive compounds [3]. This process might contribute to enhanced nutrient absorption and the production of beneficial metabolites.

Production of beneficial compounds

As the gut microbiota interacts with antinutrients, they can produce bioactive compounds that exert positive effects on health. 

For instance, the fermentation of certain fibers by gut microbes can lead to the production of short-chain fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory and metabolic benefits.

Does cooking reduce antinutrients?

The culinary journey from raw ingredients to delectable dishes involves a range of cooking and processing methods that can significantly influence the impact of antinutrients on digestion and nutrient absorption. 

Let’s explore how these techniques can transform the antinutrient landscape:

Effect of heat on antinutrient levels

Cooking methods such as boiling, steaming, and roasting can reduce the levels of certain antinutrients. 

Heat can break down the molecular structures of these compounds, making them less potent inhibitors of nutrient absorption. However, some antinutrients might be heat-stable and remain unaffected.

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Soaking, sprouting, and fermentation

Ancient food preparation techniques like soaking, sprouting, and fermentation have been employed to mitigate the impact of antinutrients. 

Soaking grains, legumes, and nuts can help reduce phytate content, while sprouting triggers enzymatic changes that decrease antinutrient levels. 

Fermentation not only breaks down antinutrients but also fosters the growth of beneficial microbes.

Importance of food preparation

How we prepare our meals can significantly impact the bioavailability of nutrients. 

The choice of cooking method, the duration of soaking and sprouting, and the inclusion of fermented foods can all influence the levels of antinutrients and the resulting nutritional value of our meals.

How do antinutrients affect human nutrition and health?

The intricate dance between antinutrients and our digestive system carries far-reaching health implications, impacting our overall well-being in ways that extend beyond mere nutrient absorption. 

Let’s delve into how antinutrients can shape our health trajectory:

Nutrient deficiencies

Perhaps the most evident consequence of antinutrient interference is the potential for nutrient deficiencies. 

Reduced absorption of essential minerals like iron, calcium, and zinc can lead to deficiencies that manifest as anemia, weakened bones, and compromised immune function.

Impact on vulnerable populations
Photograph: BLACKDAY/Envato

Impact on vulnerable populations

Certain populations, such as children and pregnant women, are particularly susceptible to the effects of antinutrients due to their higher nutrient requirements. 

Inadequate nutrient uptake during critical growth and development stages can have lasting effects on physical and cognitive health.

Relationship to chronic diseases

Emerging research suggests that chronic diseases such as osteoporosis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders might have a connection to antinutrient consumption. 

While the link is complex and multifaceted, it highlights the potential impact of antinutrients on long-term health.

Interaction with gut health

The gut plays a central role in health, and the interaction between antinutrients and gut health is intricate. 

Some antinutrients might exacerbate gut inflammation, potentially contributing to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gastrointestinal disorders.

Benefits of plant foods

It’s important to note that while antinutrients present challenges, the health benefits of consuming various plant-based foods are well-established. 

The bioactive compounds, fiber, and antioxidants in these foods contribute to overall health and disease prevention.

What are the dietary factors with antinutritional effects?

Dietary choices are as diverse as the individuals who make them, and antinutrients find themselves entwined in the fabric of various eating patterns. 

Here’s a closer look at how these compounds feature in some popular diets:

Paleo diet

The paleo diet, focused on emulating the eating habits of our ancient ancestors, advocates for whole foods and avoids grains, legumes, and dairy – sources of antinutrients. 

While this diet eliminates certain antinutrient-rich foods, it also eliminates potential sources of essential nutrients.

Vegan and vegetarian diet

Plant-based diets emphasize fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains – all of which can contain antinutrients [4]. 

However, vegans and vegetarians often consume a diverse array of foods, mitigating the potential effects of antinutrients through nutrient variety.

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet champions whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and olive oil – all of which can contain antinutrients. 

However, the diet’s emphasis on balance and variety often means that the potential impact of antinutrients is balanced by a wealth of nutrients and bioactive compounds.


In the intricate world of nutrition, antinutrients stand as a reminder that even the healthiest of foods can harbor hidden complexities. These compounds, found in various plant-based foods, have the potential to impact digestion, nutrient absorption, and overall health. 

As we journey through the intricacies of antinutrients, we uncover a delicate balance between reaping the rewards of a plant-rich diet and navigating the challenges they present.


What are antinutrients, and why are they called that?

Antinutrients are natural compounds found in various plant-based foods that can interfere with nutrient absorption or digestion. They are named “antinutrients” because of their potential to hinder the utilization of essential nutrients by the body.

Do all plants contain antinutrients?

Yes, many plants naturally contain antinutrients. These compounds are part of the plants’ defense mechanisms against predators and are found in varying concentrations across different types of plant foods.

Are antinutrients harmful to everyone?

Antinutrients can affect individuals differently based on factors like genetics, gut health, and overall nutritional status. While some people might be more sensitive to their effects, others might tolerate antinutrient-rich foods well.

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[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8394810/
[2] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/anti-nutrients/
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6261201/
[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/plant-based-food

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