Why No Grains & Legumes (and Nuts?): Phytates

grainslegumesseeds-300x190.jpgIn my recent post, “Why No Grains and Legumes? Part 1: Lectins,” I gave you one good reason to stop your greedy little hands from dipping into the proverbial cookie jar: lectins.  Those sticky little proteins that help cause leaky gut, and therefore an immune response to foods, are one of the main culprits driving the Paleo movement.  There’s more to the story, though, and today we’re going to cover phytic acid, which is also found in grains and legumes.

What’s phytic acid?
Phytic acid, also called phytate in its salt form, is another anti-nutrient.  Phytic acid is the main phosphorus store of many plants, as well as an energy store, and it’s a source of cations and myoinositol (a cell wall precursor).  Unfortunately, phytates aren’t digestible by non-ruminants (read: non-cud-chewers) because we lack the enzyme phytase to break them down.

The Big Deal
Phytates actually bind to the magnesium, calcium, zinc and iron in your intestines and take them OUT of our bodies.  We do not want that to happen.  Loren Cordain and others believe that this alone is greatly contributing to the worldwide epidemic of iron-deficiency anemia.  It could be part of the reason many people are deficient in magnesium as well, which can contribute to everything from muscle cramping to PMS.  And zinc?  Well, it’s just SUPER important to our immune systems and for our reproductive abilities, so we wouldn’t want to lose any of that.  And the fact that phytates are chelating calcium out of our bodies means that we have less access to that bone-building and nerve-transmitting mineral we’re all so fond of.

It’s not just grains and legumes, though.

So, grains and legumes, here’s yet another check mark on the list of reasons to not eat you. But here’s the kicker: many nuts and seeds have MORE phytates in them than grains and legumes. For instance, Durum wheat contains an average of 720 mg of phytic acid per 100 gm, while almonds (all of you eating almond butter as you read this, close your eyes now) contain a whopping 1,280 mg per 100 gm. What??!! That’s what I said. In all of my reading, I’ve always understood that soybeans (1,433 mg) have the highest phytic acid content, but black walnuts (1,977 mg) and cashews (1,866 mg) are higher. Soooo, now what?

Basically what we have here is some evidence that nuts and seeds are as bad or worse than grains in terms of lectins and phytates. Not exactly what I set out to accomplish, but good information, nonetheless.

The good news is that you can sprout, ferment, and soak the phytates out of just about anything. Here’s a post on soaking nuts properly.  I suggest we all do this to our nuts and seeds.  The practices of soaking, sprouting and fermenting have been all but laid to rest in the modern world, and it’s a shame.

Even 100 years ago, people were sprouting, fermenting, and soaking the foods they knew would give them a stomach ache if they didn’t.  Anyone out there get cramps from eating nuts? Phytic acid is one of the reasons for that.  I don’t know why we stopped processing our foods properly — it’s all part of the fast food revolution I suppose.

The bad news is that I don’t think the Paleo world has sufficiently discussed this in books, blogs, and podcasts.  Everyone’s touting nuts and seeds as totally Paleo foods, but I think the anti-nutrients they contain deserve more attention than they’re getting.

Are there anti-nutrients in grains and legumes that AREN’T also in nuts?
Yes.  Saponins are in even sprouted legumes and grains.  And nuts and seeds don’t contain gluten.  Those are a couple of the other anti-nutrients I’ll cover in coming posts.

Screen-shot-2011-04-26-at-12.00.56-PM-300x240.pngFor now, though, you need some justification for continuing to eat those spoonfuls of nut butter, right?

Why should we eat them?
I think the reason we should keep (soaked) nuts and seeds in our diets is that they’re a convenient, calorie and nutrient rich snack food that we can soak most of the anti-nutrients out of.

We have to remember that nuts and seeds grow in hulls and husks — not jars and bins — and they’re difficult to get to.  Ancient hunter gatherer people weren’t sitting around eating tablespoons of Justin’s almond butter all day because it wasn’t energy efficient (or often even possible) to gather that many almonds.  And seeds?  Have you ever seen a flax seed?  It would take you days to find enough of those things to make it worth your effort, and even then…  So go easy on your phytate intake, just like you would have been forced to if you were a hunter gatherer.

My conclusion to this tortuous (and maybe torturous) post is that 1. Phytates are one more reason we should not be consuming grains and legumes.  However, 2. they’re also a good reason to look at our unsoaked nut and seed consumption.

Eat those nuts and seeds in moderation unless you’re in dire need of extra calories.  And if that’s the case, make sure you soak them.  There’s no reason to eat a whole lot of them every day, besides the fact that they’re really yummy.