Should you be worried about anti-nutrients in legumes?

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If you eat a plant-based diet, it is likely that you eat a lot of legumes (or pulses) like beans, lentils, peas etc. to help you meet your protein needs. These foods are not only high in protein, but also fiber, iron, potassium, and folate all while being low in fat making them especially beneficial to your cardiovascular system. Legumes have been consumed by many different cultures for thousands of years but have recently been under some scrutiny for containing “anti-nutrients.” If you are concerned, read on as we discuss what they are and what you can do about them.

So what IS an anti-nutrient? Defined as a substance that “interferes with absorption of nutrients” anti-nutrients are made by plants to protect themselves from being eaten.  Every living thing resists becoming lunch by growing spikes, shells, or poisonous skin. That’s right, all plants, even healthy foods like broccoli, spinach, green tea, nuts and seeds contain anti-nutrients; they aren’t only found in legumes!  Lectins, phytic acid, oxalates, are considered anti-nutrients, even fiber since technically it cannot be absorbed by our bodies! Let’s talk about the three big anti-nutrients found in legumes and what you can do about them.

First up are lectins. These are proteins that have the ability to bind to the membranes of cells. This binding can be damaging your intestinal lining, but can be beneficial as well. This unique quality is necessary for positive functions like cell to cell communication, inflammation and cell proliferation control, and for cleaning out old, unwanted cells. The key to making sure you don’t damage the intestines is to make sure you fully cook your legumes. Heat destroys the abundance of lectins so you don’t have to worry about overloading your system. Lectins are reason why you suffer from terrible gastro intestinal (GI) distress if you eat raw or undercooked kidney beans!

Second up is the storage form of phosphorus, also known as phytic acid. Phytic acid gets a bad rap for binding to minerals in your GI tract making them harder for your body to absorb. You would have to be eating very large amounts of phytic acid to actually suffer from any nutrient deficiencies. The good news is that soaking legumes overnight helps to decrease the amount of phytic acid available (just remember to throw out the water you soak your beans in!) Sprouting your legumes is another great way to reduce phytic acid. If you missed the post about sprouting lentils, check out the sprouted stuffed peppers recipe for a great how-to! Fermentation further reduces the amount of phytic acid in your food, that’s why leavened bread, especially sourdough is more healthful for digestion.

Protease Inhibitors, the last major anti-nutrient found in legumes, can block protein-digesting enzymes which, you guessed it, interfere with protein absorption. Once appropriately soaked and cooked however, these protease inhibitors are again greatly reduced. There is evidence that the few protease inhibitors that remain after cooking might actually have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties!

So the bottom line is if you are preparing your legumes properly, you have nothing to worry about! Since many anti-nutrients reside in the skin simply soaking your beans will greatly improve their digestibility. Make sure you are always allowing enough time to fully cook your legumes, or buy pre-cooked varieties. Lastly, sprouting your legumes is a delicious way to reduce all three of these anti-nutrients but also improve the digestibility if you suffer from gas and other unwanted GI effects from eating legumes. Don’t be afraid of these nutrient powerhouses and try this recipe for lentil sloppy joes below!

Lentil Sloppy Joes

This dish is a great way to enjoy some comfort food using only clean ingredients! The sauce is packed with veggies and spices and the texture of the lentils is chewy and satisfying! I served mine on homemade pretzel rolls with a slice of avocado and red onion but this filling is also delicious on rye toast or a sesame seed bun!

Serves 4-6

Active Prep time: 10 minutes Cook time: 30 min

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 cups lentils
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 15 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • ½ sweet onion, diced
  • ½ yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp Maple Syrup
  • 1 Tbsp honey mustard
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp chili powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Rinse and drain lentils. Lentils do not need to be soaked as cooking destroys most anti-nutrients, however if you desire they can be soaked overnight. Add to a stock pot with the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 20-30 minutes or until lentils are tender.

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