By Anna Herby
What are phytates? Are they something to be feared? For many years, phytates have had a bad reputation for preventing mineral absorption. Common advice has been to roast, sprout or soak certain foods like nuts and grains to get rid of phytates. Some people even avoid these foods all together for fear of phytates counteracting calcium absorption.
Phytates are natural compounds found in the seeds of plant foods such as nuts, whole grains, beans and seeds. While previous animal studies showed phytates having a bone softening effect (possibly due to prevention of calcium absorption), how a certain nutrient acts in animals (such as rats and puppies) does not necessarily speak to how the nutrient functions in the human body.
Newer studies on humans have found phytates to be protective for bone health. People who eat high amounts of phytate-foods like beans and whole grains were found to have a greater bone mineral density, less bone loss and fewer hip fractures. Researchers propose that phytates block the action of a certain type of cell that breaks down bone: osteoclasts. They’ve even proven to work equally as well as osteoporosis drugs like Fosamax, but without the side effects.
In addition to being protective for bone health, phytates also fight cancer. When put into a petri dish with cancer cells, phytates inhibit the growth and reproduction of tumor cells. This is true for multiple types of cancer cells, including colon, breast, cervix, prostate, liver, pancreas and skin. Even more noteworthy is the ability of phytates to differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells, leaving the healthy cells alone and only targeting cancer cells. Researchers have found phytates so effective at finding cancer cells that they inject phytates into the bloodstream and follow them to find tumors in a person’s body.
Phytates also have a way of acting to enhance the immune system. They work to boost the activity of Natural Killer Cells, the immune cells that are in charge of hunting down and disposing of cancer cells. They go on to cut off the blood supply of tumor cells, denying them the necessary nutrients to reproduce. In some cases, phytates even cause cancer cells to revert back to their normal state, meaning they no longer behave like cancer.
This, in combination with being powerful antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and protecting against other health conditions such as kidney stones, diabetes, dental cavities and heart disease, make phytates nutrients not to be avoided. Though previous fears that phytates may inhibit mineral absorption were based on science, this is found only to be true in extremely high amounts and in combination with a poor diet. By looking at the big picture, we understand that phytates may be one of the most protective of plant-chemicals yet identified. So don’t let fear of phytates prevent you from enjoying a great meal of beans and rice!
Anna Herby is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist living and working in Seattle, Washington. She has been a vegetarian since the age of 12 and was drawn to study nutrition from this early interest in an alternate way of eating. She’s received a Master of Science in Nutrition through Bastyr University and completed a Dietetic Internship through the University of Houston. Anna has also worked with John McDougall’s 10-day program and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. When she’s not working as a Dietitian, she enjoys hiking through the mountains of the west coast, having completed a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 and planning to tackle the Continental Divide Trail within the next few years. Click here to schedule an online nutrition consultation with Anna, or click here to read her nutrition and hiking blog.