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One of the most common concerns I hear from clients is about phytates and their effect on mineral absorption. Many have given up higher phytate foods because of a concern that they negatively affect calcium absorption. Giving up phytate containing foods means you are giving up some really healthy foods that your body needs.
Interestingly, women who regularly eat generous amounts of high-phytate foods, like whole grains, beans, and nuts, seem to have better bone density. So here is the story on phytates and why you should be eating phytate containing foods, not avoiding them. Phytate is a naturally occurring substance found in all plant seeds. The concern with phytate containing foods being mineral absorption inhibitors and causing bone softening seems to have started with some research on puppies in 1949. Some research on rats followed and seemed to confirm this. However, more recent research in humans has found that our bodies become accustomed to the higher phytate ingestion over time.
Subsequently another study set out to determine if people with low phytate diets had better bones. Turns out they didn’t and that people eating high phytate foods had stronger bones in the heel, spine, and hip. The authors of the study concluded that phytate consumption in the diet had protective effects against osteoporosis and that eating a low phytate diet should be considered a risk factor for osteoporosis. When they measured phytate levels in women’s blood, they found the women with the highest phytate levels had the lowest level of bone loss in their spine, and hip. Phytates appear to help block the action of bone eating cells and their bone destroying activity, similar to drugs like Fosamax but without the bad side effects.
In addition to the positive effects of phytates on bones, phytates also may decrease your chances of cancer, especially colon cancer. When you eat phytates they are efficiently absorbed from your gastrointestinal tract and then rapidly taken up by any cancer cells in the body. In test tube studies they have been found to inhibit cancer cell growth, but not the growth of normal cells. They also reduce the chance of kidney stones, protect against diabetes and heart disease. Evidently Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she included phytates in plant foods.
So, please don’t avoid phytate containing foods. I recommend my clients eat ¼ cup of nuts every day, consume whole grains instead of refined, and they find lots of ways to include beans in their daily diet.
Photo used with permission from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Photo taken by Joycelyn Faraj, MS
posted on 1/10/2023