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Plant-based diets and anti-nutrients

Plant-based diets have been getting a lot of attention recently in our society as a way to improve health and assist with detoxing and optimizing human health. Indeed, plants do have the properties to facilitate these functions and may be a very useful dietary intervention, depending on what you want to achieve and what your goals are.

What is often not discussed are the anti-nutrients that almost all plants contain. These are things like oxalates, isothiocyanates, phytoestrogens, phytic acid, tannins, gluten, and lectins to name only a few.

"Why do plants contain these anti-nutrients? I thought they are supposed to be the healthiest food on the planet?"

Plants can be healthy depending on how they are processed and what the 'metabolic milieu' of the person is. The biggest takeaway to understand is that plants are alive, which means they have survival mechanisms within them to continue to live, otherwise, they would go extinct. This begs the question, how do plants defend themselves from predation? The answer is antinutrients.

Let's consider oxalates. Oxalates are sharp, microscopic crystals that can cause many health problems for individuals who consume them on a regular basis. Oxalates are contained in spinach, chard, chocolate, and certain mushrooms like Chaga, again, naming only a few. Oxalates can bind with minerals like calcium and form calcium oxalate stones. Sound familiar? It might if you've ever had the unfortunate experience of passing a kidney stone.

This is why so many traditional recipes call for the processing of plant foods before they are consumed. Chaga mushroom is brewed for days before consumption, other foods like cabbage and soybeans are fermented before it is consumed.

A great example of a clear anti-nutrient is in the isothiocyanate family, called sulforaphane. Do plants contain any sulforaphane? The answer is no, it does not. Sulforaphane is a pro-oxidative compound and would damage the plant if it was found in that form. How sulforaphane is formed is a very telling story. Brassica vegetables like kale, broccoli, and cabbage, all contain a sugar called glucoraphanin and an enzyme called myrosinase. These two compounds are found in different parts of the plant. When the integrity of the cells of the plant gets compromised, like getting chewed or blended, these two compounds combine and create sulforaphane.

It is worthwhile to mention that some of these compounds do have medicinal effects on the body, but is it optimal to take medicine every single day, or to understand how the compounds work and consciously use it when we need it?

In summary, plants are also alive and certainly have the means to defend themselves. They do so chemically, whereas animals have claws, teeth, horns, and can run away to defend themselves. As with anything, there are certain exceptions like pufferfish, that would be poisonous to consume, as they contain a poison named tetrodotoxin which is 1200 times more deadly to humans than cyanide.

The point is to be aware that certain plant foods may not be well tolerated by us and can and have caused problems for humans and other animals.

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