By Nirupama Deshpande, PhD
Phytic acid – the storage form of phosphorous – is a pesky little thief that drains the body of its nutrients. It is considered to be an anti-nutrient as it binds to vitamins, minerals and metals, among others, making them less available to our bodies. Once bound, these phytates are excreted in waste. Phytic acid can bind minerals in the gut before they are absorbed and thus influence the function of digestive enzymes. They reduce the digestibility of starches, proteins, and fats in the gut. So in other words, consuming a healthy nutrient-dense diet in the presence of too much phytic acid means your actual net intake of key nutrients is significantly less.
It may surprise you to discover that some of the foods you consider healthiest are major sources of phytic acid, such as in coatings of nuts and edible seeds, beans/legumes and grains. These foods store phosphorus as phytic acid. When phytic acid is bound to a mineral in the seed, it is known as ‘phytate’. The most concentrated sources of phytates tend to be whole grains and beans. So you can imagine, intakes of phytates tend to be much higher in a typical Indian vegetarian who consumes a combination of rotis and beans/lentils in the absence of adequate protein sources, and minimal vegetables in the form of one or two overcooked curries. The abundance of carbohydrates in this type of eating plan not only leads to excessive body fat storage and increased cholesterol, particularly triglycerides, but the phytic acid also leads to vitamin and mineral deficiencies that perpetuate chronic health conditions such as insulin resistance. This is particularly pronounced in vegetarian adults and children. Growing children who get bulk of their calories from wheat rotis, lentils and rice are most susceptible to the potentially growth stunting effects of a diet high in phytic acid, as proper calcium and vitamin D absorption is impaired. Further, many people of Indian origin tend to be deficient in vitamin D, thus increasing the risk of developing osteoporosis.
Luckily, it’s possible to overcome the anti-nutrient effects of phytic acid in our foods while still getting the benefits of a plant-rich diet. Here are a few
strategies that may be more or less helpful depending on the specific situation:
* Soak, sprout, ferment and cook plant foods as these processes either break down phytic acid or weaken it. Vitamin C appears strong enough to overcome phytic acid, so consume foods rich with this vitamin. In one study, adding 50 mg of vitamin C counteracted the phytic acid load of a meal. In another study, 80 mg of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) counteracted 25 mg of phytic acid. Dense sources of vitamin C include guava, bell pepper, kiwi, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, papaya, broccoli, sweet potato, pineapple, cauliflower, kale, lemon juice, and parsley.
* Use vinegar in salad dressings and cooking to enhance mineral absorption and offset phytic acid.
* Supplement with phytase enzymes, if necessary.
* Eat mineral fortified foods if necessary
* Supplement minerals, if there is still a shortfall in your diet
* A low pH in the gut enhances iron absorption. Balancing the level of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in the GI tract might help with this
* If you’re eating a plant-based diet and have confirmed nutrient deficiencies, and you’ve tried all the above strategies with no success, adding small amounts of animal foods or eggs on occasion might boost stores of necessary minerals in your body.
Lastly, a special effort must be made towards maximizing nutrient dense foods and minimizing nutrient depleting foods. So, shift the balance of your meals and snacks so they are not so phytic acid dominant and pay special attention to the nutrient growth depleting effects of staple Indian meals on your child’s diet. This can be achieved by increasing your consumption of protein, healthy fats, high quality dairy and at least 6-8 servings of fresh vegetables and fruit. Adding eggs to a vegetarian diet is very beneficial as eggs are one of the most perfect foods on earth. Always keep in mind that the traditional practice of soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains, legumes, nuts and seeds may reduce some of the anti-nutrient contents of these foods.
Info: Growing children who get bulk of their calories from wheat rotis, lentils and rice are most susceptible to the potentially growth stunting effects of a diet high in phytic acid, as proper calcium and vitamin D absorption is impaired