The Benefits of Antinutrients + Naturally Occurring Food Toxins in Your Diet

Emerging science shows removing these gut irritants may severely compromise our immune systems. While nightshades and lectins, like gluten, phytic acids, and other antinutrients are irritants and hard to digest, they have also been found to be extremely therapeutic.

In This Article

The Hygiene Hypothesis

The hygiene hypothesis, or hormesis, is the idea that our immune system developed over millions of years from eating hard-to-digest foods, antinutrients, and naturally occurring food toxins that may irritate the intestinal lining. The irritation from antinutrients protecting the seed, nut, grain, bean, or fruit provide the gut stimulation. Gut stimulation leads to gut immunity, which makes up 70% of the body’s total immune response.  

Emerging science shows removing these gut irritants may severely compromise our immune systems. While nightshades and lectins, like gluten, phytic acids, and other antinutrients are irritants and hard to digest, they have also been found to be extremely therapeutic.10  

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Just taking wheat, dairy, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, or fruits out of the diet without addressing the underlying imbalance in digestion that has created the food intolerance is like sweeping the real problem under the rug. The symptoms could return aggressively in the months or years to come.  

Naturally Occurring Food Toxins + Their Benefits 

In the last 10,000 years, our food has changed dramatically. Just about every food has been domesticated, naturally selected, or hybridized to be tastier, sweeter, easier to eat, or less poisonous. At one time, tomatoes were small like berries! The sweetest fruit was only as sweet as a carrot! 

lifespa image, gmos tomato injection

Poisonous nightshades, for example, including potatoes and tomatoes, were farmed to be bigger and sweeter, with less of the lethal chemicals solanine and tomatine. Many common foods we eat today carry small amounts of toxins and poisons that we have adapted to eat, and in some cases, thrive on. 

In this article, I will discuss the overwhelming number of food toxins and poisons that are simply impossible to avoid. Many of today’s superfoods are loaded with toxins that, interestingly, have beneficial properties. 

The Benefits of Phytates 

Phytates or phytic acids are implicated in many food intolerances to wheat, nuts, and grains. Phytates are anti-nutrients that help to block bacterial enzymes from gobbling up the grain while the seed lies dormant, awaiting germination in the spring. The concerns around phytates are that they block the absorption of minerals like iron, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. 

lifespa image, gluten, wheat, crusty loaf whole grain bread with seeds

One study compared a high-phytate diet (including grains) with a low-phytate diet. After eight weeks, the high-phytate group saw a 41% increase in bioavailability of iron in their blood. This suggests the body may have adapted to foods containing more phytates.3 While some say a high-phytic acid diet is linked to osteoporosis, there are studies that show that a high-phytate diet will increase bone density. 

While public opinion mounts against foods that contain phytic acids, numerous studies list profound benefits of a well-rounded diet that includes phytic acid-rich foods. 

Benefits of Phytic Acid-Rich Foods 

  • Lower cholesterol and triglycerides4 
  • Reduce risk of calcium kidney stones4 
  • Support a healthy colon4 
  • Double the production of butyric acid in the gut—a short chain fatty acid linked to overall gut health, the microbiome, and immunity5 

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts 

rodent eating carrot

When we look at a plant as a palate of individual chemicals, instead of looking at the plant as a whole, we will almost always misinterpret the value of the plant. Plant chemistry is complex, and there is usually a reason for every chemical in that plant. As we will see, there are toxins and poisons in just about every food we eat. If we only analyze one chemical or toxin in a vegetable that may cause a concern in one part of the body, we may easily miss the beneficial effects of that same toxin in another part of the body. Often, the benefits outweigh the concerns, as we see with the phytic acids. 

Instead of taking more and more foods out of our diet—like wheat, grains, nuts, and seeds—because of one or two chemical constituents, we should consider the possibility that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

We recommend "The Dangers of a Gluten Free Diet": https://lifespa.com/dangers-gluten-free-diet/

Common Foods Toxins  

To avoid eating these foods and food toxins in excess, traditional people would naturally moderate their intake as all foods were seasonal and therefore not available year round. Seasonal eating provided a safe inoculation from the harmful effects of these food toxins while allowing only the benefits in most cases. 

Selenium  

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While selenium, at the right dose, is a powerful antioxidant, at too high of a dose, it is a nerve toxin that can cause loss of hair and nails, fatigue, diarrhea, and neuropathies.1 Brazil nuts carry the highest concentration of selenium, so be careful with gobbling these: as little as four dozen of these could cause toxicity. 

Mercury  

lifespa image, healthiest fish, blue ocean school of fish

Mercury is a toxicant that has laced our water supplies—mostly from the coal-fired industrial plant plumes that spread across the country. Eating fish, once one of the healthiest foods on the planet, has to be approached with caution these days. Bonito, halibut, mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish, and bluefin tuna are the fish commonly found to exceed the FDA mercury limit of 1 ppm.1 

Goitrogens 

lifespa image, home eye and vision care, broccoli, brussel sprouts and green beans

Certain foods have been found to contain substances that suppress thyroid function by interfering with the uptake of iodine, an essential nutrient that supports growth, cognition, and hormonal balance. Eating these foods raw and in excess can suppress thyroid function: spinach, cassava, peanuts, soybeans, strawberries, sweet potatoes, peaches, pears, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, canola, cauliflower, mustard greens, and radishes.  

Furocoumarins 

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Furocoumarins are a family of natural food constituents with phototoxic and photomutagenic properties. They can cause DNA damage and dermatitis when excessive ingestion is combined with sunlight.  Furocoumarins are found in citrus fruits, such as lime, grapefruit, orange, lemon, and bergamot, as well as celery, carrots, and parsnips. More than 10 mg of furocoumarins can cause dermatitis. These foods are safe, but not in high quantities.1 

Amylase Inhibitors 

Amylase inhibitors are naturally occurring inhibitors of Alpha-amylase (or α-amylase) found in wheat, rye, and white and red kidney beans. These have been found to slow absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, as well as protect seeds from insect infestation. Foods with amylase inhibitors can cause allergic reactions such as: sneezing, rhinorrhea, oropharyngeal itching, hoarseness, cough, and dyspnea. Baking wheat into bread reduces amylase inhibitors by 80-100%, depending on the grain type1 

lifespa image, frankenwheat, ancient vs modern wheat, wheat stalk

Interestingly, the amylase enzyme is produced in higher quantities in fall and winter, when wheat and beans are harvested.8 The enzyme breaks down undigested gluten so it can support beneficial gut microbes.6, 7 

Lectins 

Lectins are a group of glycoproteins present in high levels in legumes, beans, soybeans, lima beans, kidney beans lentils, nuts, seeds, and all grains1 Lectins can bind to mucosal cells and interfere with nutrient absorption. It has been hypothesized that lectins facilitate bacterial growth in the GI tract. 

There are numerous claims labeling wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) and other lectins as toxic, inflammatory, neurotoxic, cancer-causing, and a reason to avoid all grains. However, some studies are beginning to change our understanding. 

For example, one study demonstrates WGA has beneficial effects on immune cells of the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, researchers even suggest WGA should be studied for anti-tumor properties.9 

lifespa image, beans, mixed pulses on wooden table

Boiling beans for at least ten minutes has been shown to reduce lectins by 200-fold. As cooking temperatures under 176°F do not destroy lectin, slow cooking and/or crockpot cooking is not advised when cooking beans.1 

Anti-Thiamine Compounds 

Thiaminases destroy vitamin B1 in the body. They are naturally occurring enzymes found in fish, crab, clams, and some fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, black currants, red beets, Brussels sprouts, and red cabbage. In humans, thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency may lead to weakness and weight loss. Severe thiamine deficiency produces beriberi, a disease characterized by anorexia, cardiac enlargement, and muscular weakness leading to ataxia. Cooking destroys thiaminases in fish and other sources.1 

Oxalic Acids 

Oxalates are found in rhubarb, tea, spinach, parsley, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, lettuce, celery, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, beets, peas, coffee, cocoa, beans, potatoes, berries, turmeric, and carrots. 

Oxalates can bind to calcium and other minerals, making them insoluble and decreasing their bioavailability. Ingestion of foods containing high concentrations of oxalates may cause decreased bone growth, kidney stones, renal toxicity, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma, and impaired blood clotting. The significant role oxalate plays in kidney stone development is exemplified by the fact that approximately 65% of kidney stones consist of calcium oxalate.1 

We recommend "The Benefits of Wheat with Dr. Mercola": https://lifespa.com/058-the-benefits-of-wheat-dr-mercola/

My Conclusion 

Clearly, there are an overwhelming number of naturally occurring toxins in the foods we eat and that over the years we have employed them to elicit benefits that are just now beginning to be understood. Just avoiding them will only compromise gut immunity, digestive strength and set us up for more serious health concerns down the road.  

Wheat for example, is a major player in the Mediterranean diet which still considered one of the world’s healthiest diets, with volumes of studies supporting its benefits. Whole wheat is just as well-backed by volumes of studies touting its benefits. So, the whole is often larger than the sum of its parts. Don’t simply cut something out of your diet before truly investigating its effect on your body.  

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>>> Check out my latest book, Eat Wheat, for more on this topic. 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153292/ 
  2. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26041677
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25351648 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3507301/ 
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20948997 
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21671042 
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24599494 
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19332085
  10. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170309120626.htm 

14 thoughts on “The Benefits of Antinutrients + Naturally Occurring Food Toxins in Your Diet”

  1. Love listening to you videos and getting an Ayurvedic perspective on diet and wellness, it really helps me not get sucked into diet trends, super food crazes and all the other madness! Keep it simple, keep it seasonal and add a few digestive herbs – it has made such a difference for me! Thanks!

    Reply
  2. We all know that moderation with all foods, is the formula to be healthy as much as possible.
    Lets make WHEAT a new-old superfood, which once it used to be!
    But there is a concern regarding GMO.
    What John thinks about GMO ? It would be interesting to learn your fresh approach on this one too.

    Reply
    • Hi Zal. Wheat is not a food that has been genetically modified, so GMO wheat does not exist and has never existed. We’ll be releasing a new article soon that outlines this confusion more! Be well.

      Reply
      • Can you speak to glyphosate use in the wheat industry? I was recently listening to a speaker who said that even organically grown wheat is sometime sprayed with glyphosate as a drying agent post harvest.

        Reply
        • Hi Kathy,

          Unfortunately, pesticides like glyphosate have been so widely and carelessly used, they now permeate our environment. So, regardless of if it is sprayed on post harvest, it is still present from the rainwater that would have fallen on the plant during its growth cycle.

          This is why it is so vitally important for us to have good digest and detox systems and to eat as organic and local as possible.

          If you have the link to that talk, I’m sure Dr. John would love to see it.

          Best,
          LifeSpa Staff

          Reply
      • Hi John. What is your article now for GM wheat? It would be appreciated.
        Sorry, I didn’t read your book. I know how important is fiber and sulphur in wheat.
        Because, when i asked Wiki, I got horror what they did/ doing to wheat.
        Röntgen hybride, transgenic, BT….
        “ As of 2013, 34 field trials of GM wheat have taken place in Europe and 419 have taken place in the US.”
        I don’t trust wiki, as usual, as we got to know only tip of iceberg.

        Reply
  3. Thanks, John. I still believe that if you think a food is bad for you and that you shouldn’t eat it, then don’t eat it. If you think a food is good for you, it probably is, and then eat it.
    I feel we all need to change our thoughts about what foods are good and which ones are bad for us. Of course, unprocessed, organic, grass-fed animal protein, raw dairy, lots of fruits and veggies is a given. But, as you say, separating the parts from the whole is ludicrous. We have no idea at all what the total effect is. Removing a food from the diet may help in the short term only because the individual was eating a processed, chemically laden food. One of the most healing foods that I’ve found is raw goat milk kefir. All those that have given up dairy are missing one of the greatest healers.

    Reply
  4. Hi John,
    You comment on some of the other groups of anti-nutrients, how to get rid of or reduce them. But what about oxylates, they are in so many things. How do you suggest reducing consumption of these to a healthy amount?
    Thank You

    Reply
  5. OH MAN….I either misread this article or I missed something. I love brussel sprouts, we eat them steamed and sometimes baked…and Im a super big fan of Pinto beans..as in I eat them 2 or 3 times a week and if not pinto, 15 beans soup..but it says dont slow cook…how or what. I am confused. Insight please.

    Reply
    • Hi Jaso,
      In no way are we suggesting to avoid Brussels sprouts or the other amazing foods listed in this article. This article is stating the point that sometimes, we focus (and often freak out), about the parts rather than focusing on the benefits of the whole. Wheat for example, has been written off by many because of the naturally occurring phytic acids – see the paragraph about the benefits of phytates. If we only analyze one chemical or toxin in a vegetable that may cause a concern in one part of the body, we may easily miss the beneficial effects of that same toxin in another part of the body. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  6. Hello, Dr. Douillard! I agree on all of it , But what to do when the vicious circle happens? What I mean by that, when you want to fix your digestive system, but whatever will help to fix digestive system, it’s extremely high in oxalates and lectins and other anti-nutrients, creating more issues. And actually, most of the Ayurvedic herbs extremely high in oxalate as well , we talkin about extremely‼️ and every time person wants to take it , having a bad reaction , even microscopic dose to start…so which way to get out of that vicious Circle?
    You’re actually never speaking about it, how gently to get into that stage and start fixing the Gut without any reaction of the body. You always saying all food is good for u , YES ? %. Let’s talk about person never consummated processed food, eat organically and By Ayurvedic measurements, but GI happens to be got destroyed by antibiotics or deep stress of life. And every time person would try to introduce food , was off the plate, back in to the diet, it would create crazy inflammation of the gut, so much mucus in GI , as a protective mechanism from those toxins . Probiotics can’t be taken ether , because any kind , it would just make it worse: bloating and gassy and indigestible Gut .
    SO WHAT IS THE ANSWER TO CASE LIKE THAT , which is about 80% of us .
    Thank you ??

    Reply
    • Hi Zhermena,

      Thanks for your note. I do get your frustration. Most of the patients I treat have severely broken down digestive systems which is why I write so much about it and Eat Wheat.

      I thought I was addressing the need to be kind and gentle while treating the gut in my articles. The hallmark difference between an Ayurvedic approach to digestive health and say a functional medicine or naturopathic approach is that Ayurveda understood how delicate the intestinal lining and microbiology actually is.

      I think you are helping me make my point, oxalates and other food toxins are pervasive in our foods and very hard to avoid. Even though there are oxalates in some of the Ayurvedic herbs – I have great success with the most sensitive digestors using the protocols I write about and use in my practice.

      I also feel that the sequence of what aspect of digestion is treated first in order to avoid reactions is important; which is also a big part of what I write about.

      Yes it is tricky to reboot a broken down digestive system but I feel it is the only lasting approach as taking foods out is showing to have some unforeseen negative side effects. But, clearly there are always the cases that would benefit by a different approach.

      Be Well,
      Dr. John

      Reply
  7. Great article to suggest a mindset shift from negative details to all the positives but I was confused by the listing of great foods followed by consequences in a few of the paragraphs. I wasn’t clear on this article’s intention until reading some other comments. Anyway, I love the emphasis on building strong digestion and not ruminating on “bad” parts of wonderful foods.

    Reply

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