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Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Meat-Eater's Guide to Crafting a Meatless Meal, pt 4: The Anti-Nutrients and Minerals

Our meat-heavy diets provide our bodies with much more than protein. Several minerals, including iron and zinc, are also made abundant to us through consuming meat. When eating less meat, we need to pay attention to how we're getting those other nutrients to make up for what is left out in our meatless meals.

The difficulty is that it isn't as simple as adding some spinach, beans, or whole grains to your diet to get those extra nutrients. Plant sources tend to be less bioavailable than meat sources for iron and zinc. I mentioned a bit about anti-nutrients yesterday and that they can impair the body's ability to absorb essential amino acids. In addition to interfering with amino acid absorption, anti-nutrients can also bind the uptake of minerals. 

When we think of beef, one of the first nutrients that comes to mind is iron. Non-meat sources also contain iron. However, the form of iron found in plant sources (non-heme iron) is not as absorbable as the iron form found in meat (heme iron). Various compounds, substances, and minerals impair the body's ability to absorb the mineral iron. 

Polyphenols (in tea and coffee), oxalic acid (in some berries, leafy greens like spinach, beet greens and chard, as well as chocolate and tea), phytates, inositol hexaphosphate, and polyphosphate (in beans, whole grains, and corn), phosvitin (in egg yolks), calcium, zinc, manganese and nickel (yes, there's nickel in some foods) can all inhibit the uptake of iron from plant sources.

We always think about vegetables like spinach as being especially high in iron. After all, Popeye got his extraordinary strength from a can of spinach. And if you look at a table of nutrients for spinach, it will indeed tell you that this vegetable has a lot of iron. It's just these anti-nutrients get in the way of the human body to access that iron.

Despite this, there are some super simple ways to increase your absorption of this vital mineral. 

  1. eat a food that is high vitamin C along with the plant-based iron-rich food. This can be as simple as serving orange juice with the meal, or sprinkling lemon juice over a bed of spinach, or serving a tomato sauce-covered pasta dish with the greens or beans, or adding some canned pineapple chunks or tomato sauce to baked beans, or combining cooked or canned beans with shredded cabbage and sunflower seeds as a slaw-type salad. Some vitamin C foods include strawberries, citrus, raw cabbage and broccoli, and tomatoes.
  2. eat your iron-rich vegetables along with a small amount of meat, poultry or fish. It's unknown why this works, but the pairing of some animal flesh with the non-heme iron increases the bioavailability of iron for the plant-based food. This would be one of those less meat meals instead of meatless ones.
  3. a little bit of sugar, especially fructose is said to boost iron absorption, as well.

Information on boosting non-heme iron absorption found on The Nest and The Mayo Clinic's website.

The mineral zinc is also not as easily absorbed from plant sources as it is from animal products. In addition to being found in seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, zinc is found in whole grains, soy products, legumes, nuts, and wheat germ. 

These same plant foods that contain zinc also contain phytates (or phytic acid), the anti-nutrient that binds minerals and prevents their absorption. In particular, whole grains and legumes are particularly high in phytates. Phytic acid in itself is not a bad thing. In fact, there's growing research that indicates this anti-nutrient may inhibit tumor growth, help prevent cardiovascular disease, improve kidney health, and help the pancreas in insulin secretion. It may also give us that sustained full feeling after eating. But, if the diet is heavy in phytates with no mediation, it can bind minerals, such as zinc.

There are several things that can be done to reduce phytates in grains and beans:

  1. for grains, yeast breads have less phytic acid than flatbreads, and the breakdown of phytates is even greater in sourdough bread (there's that sourdough again).
  2. soaking beans and grains before cooking reduces phytates and other anti-nutrients. With beans, soaking overnight reduces more phytates than using the quick-soak method (bring to boil, shut off heat, allow to stand 1 hour). 
  3. fermentation is another good method of deactivating phytates. Using a sourdough is a form of fermentation. Rice can be fermented, too. Here's a tasty recipe for fermenting brown rice (scroll down through the article).
  4. sprouting beans, grains, nuts, and seeds before using in recipes/baking  decreases phytates.
  5. consuming vitamin C-rich foods with phytate-containing grains, nuts, seeds, and beans can also improve zinc uptake.
  6. as with iron, consuming a small amount of animal flesh along with the grains, beans, nuts and seeds can increase zinc absorption.

Information on increasing zinc absorption found on Precision Nutrition and The Mayo Clinic's website.

This sounds like a lot of information to digest to ensure adequate iron and zinc absorption. However, there is some overlap in the anti-nutrients affecting uptake of minerals and how to mediate them through simple dietary additions.

I predominantly use two methods in my own cooking to help with iron and zinc absorption. I add Vitamin C rich foods to meals with high plant-based iron and zinc content. And, we consume these plant foods alongside small amounts of animal flesh for less meat meals. I'll often add an ounce of beef, chicken, or pork per person to an otherwise vegetarian meal, such as a bean soup or rice and bean casserole. The little tidbit of meat adds satiety and texture to the meal, yes, but it also improves mineral absorption. 

To a less extent, I also have also done some sprouting (as you know with my sprouted lentils), and I'm working with sourdough (fermentation of wheat) this spring during this yeast shortage. I also try to use the overnight soak method when cooking beans as mush as possible instead of the quick soak method.

Some quick lists for good foods to keep on hand. Read through and see which ones you might enjoy most.

Plant-based foods that are high in iron and good to keep in the pantry or fridge:

  • dried or canned beans, especially soybeans (and foods made from soy), lentils, white beans, kidney beans, chickpeas/garbanzo beans, cowpeas/black-eyed peas, and black beans
  • dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, chard, beet greens, and collards
  • whole grains, such as amaranth, teff, oats, wheat, and quinoa, and to a less extent, cornmeal, rye, and barley. Brown rice and couscous are at the bottom of the whole grain iron list on
  • nuts and seeds, especially pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, hemp, and flax seeds, but also cashews, almonds, pine nuts, macadamias, peanuts, coconut milk, pistachios (full list here)
  • potatoes (iron is mostly in and just under the skins)
  • tomato paste and dried tomatoes
  • oyster and white mushrooms

Non-meat foods that are high in zinc and good to keep in the pantry or fridge:
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • whole grains, particularly whole wheat as flour
  • wheat germ
  • soy products
  • legumes (especially cowpeas, navy beans, lentils, black beans, white beans, and green split peas, to a lesser extent garbanzo beans, lima beans, and kidney beans) 
  • nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin, squash, and sesame seeds)
  • peanuts and peanut butter

Good vitamin C foods to keep on hand for mediating some of the mineral absorption issues:

  • bottled lemon and lime juice
  • canned pineapple
  • fresh or frozen bell peppers or strips
  • cabbage
  • canned, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, or tomato paste with which to make a sauce
  • orange juice

Next time, I'll wrap this up with some of my family's absolute favorite meatless renditions of meaty dishes. Till next time . . .


  1. While some of this information makes my head swim, you have made it more accessible on a practical basis. I struggled with anemia a few years ago and had learned a lot about iron sources and the best way to get them. Thanks for continuing to educate us!

    1. Hi Kris,
      Oh, anemia can be such a difficult struggle for women. The fatigue can be life-altering. I've gone through periods of anemia myself and still take a supplement from time to time. I'm glad that you've discovered ways to get enough iron.

  2. This is a lot of information to absorb. It has at least got me thinking about what I serve my family. I never really gave it much thought--a protein, a veg., grain and dairy. We have them all covered when the kids were little. I now often just serve a protein and veg. for the main meal. I cover the grain for breakfast and dairy might be homemade yogurt with raspberries. A bit on the lighter side but I think I have the essentials covered.


    P.S. so strange that on my "newer" computer I cannot select my google account to post comments nor can I use "anonymous" to comment anymore. I am signed into my google account already but it just doesn't like me posting comments. Ideas, anyone?

    1. Hi Alice,
      You know, I think that how we eat can be such an individual thing. If you have found the right way to eat for your body, then that's what matters. And I think how we need to eat changes with life's changes. I know I can't eat the same as I did when my kids were all young.

      I love your breakfast of yogurt with raspberries. I can scarcely wait until raspberries are ready for picking, here!

      I wish I had the answers with google products. I keep trying to tweak things so that I can access my own accounts and what I do for my own use (including this blog) could be impacting you. I'm sorry about that, if that's what has happened.


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