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Reasons why your body may limit nutrient absorption

Reasons why your body may limit nutrient absorption

Published: 28 February, 2024 | 5'

Following a varied and balanced diet is the foundation for our body to have the necessary nutrients and function properly. However, this is not always the case, and it can occur due to various factors. For example, some daily habits that we are unaware of can hinder the absorption of certain nutrients.

We will explain why this happens and the tricks you can apply from now on in your daily life to enjoy your regular diet with the collaboration of Dr. Yaiza Acosta, a nutritionist, along with Maria Mercedes Sánchez, responsible for the Scientific Information area at MARNYS.

What are antinutrients?

As the name suggests, 'antinutrients' are substances that decrease the bioavailability of other compounds in the body. Therefore, they interfere with the proper absorption of certain vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, or zinc.

They are found, like nutrients, naturally in mainly plant-based foods, but also in animal-based foods, although their presence in the latter is minimal1.

Foods rich in antinutrients

Some of the foods with a high percentage of 'antinutrients' are legumes, whole grains, nuts, and cruciferous vegetables (spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.). As Dr. Acosta explains, "in the case of legumes, they contain phytates, which reduce the bioavailability of certain minerals such as calcium, iron, and zinc when consumed raw and in large quantities."

In plant-based foods, antinutrients play a role in seed maintenance and protection systems. Some examples of antinutrients in these foods are:

  • Firstly, as mentioned earlier, legumes, cereals, and nuts. They contain phytates, lectins, and saponins, which reduce the absorption rate of iron and other micronutrients.
  • Cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts contain glucosinolates, which can inhibit iodine absorption2.
  • Leafy green vegetables like chard or spinach contain oxalates and can interfere with calcium absorption.
  • Chocolate, tea, coffee, and wine, as well as some fruits like raspberries, blueberries, and grapes, contain polyphenols, which give them a bitter taste and bind to minerals like zinc or iron, limiting their absorption.

The intake of antinutrients is beneficial for the physiological processes of our body. For example, phytates have shown a positive effect on gastrointestinal and cardiovascular well-being. Therefore, it does not mean that we should stop eating foods that contain antinutrients. Instead, to make the most of their properties, it is recommended to consume them in a specific way or change some habits during food preparation.

Benefits of antinutrients

"Despite their name, antinutrients provide different benefits to our body. For example, they are a source of protein, and some of them participate in the processes of the immune system," says Dr. Acosta.

Notable examples of the benefits of these antinutrients include:

  • Polyphenols and phytates have antioxidant activity; the former promotes cardiovascular well-being3, while the latter has positive effects on the gastrointestinal tract4.
  • Lectins, on the other hand, slow down carbohydrate digestion5, which could be beneficial in glucose control dietary schemes.

Absorption of antinutrients and nutrients

To make better use of their properties, Dr. Acosta indicates how to consume these foods, as "the majority of antinutrients in foods decreases when they are soaked, cooked, or consumed separately from other foods."

For example, it is ideal to soak legumes for 24 to 48 hours before consuming them and cook them with double cooking before consumption. In the case of nuts, this can be solved by consuming roasted nuts.

She also indicates which foods to avoid combining: "It is preferable not to combine legumes with certain vegetables such as spinach, leeks, or lettuce, and these, in turn, with dairy products, as they interfere with calcium absorption due to their oxalate content. As a solution to this, dairy products can be consumed separately in another meal if you want to facilitate their assimilation."

Who hasn't heard that lentils must be eaten with rice or potatoes? As an alternative, to make the most of the properties of legumes and their high protein content, it is ideal to combine them with a source of carbohydrates and vitamin C (kiwi, orange, among others) as it facilitates their absorption.

Pay attention to caffeine, theine, or tobacco consumption during meals

Caffeine, and even theine, interfere with the absorption of some vitamins or nutrients, such as vitamin C. "Vitamin C contributes to the normal function of the immune system and protects cells against oxidative stress," explains Maria Mercedes Sánchez, specialist in Scientific Information at MARNYS. Therefore, it is important to make the most of its consumption.

Caffeine has a diuretic effect on our body, so water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C are eliminated more rapidly via the kidneys8,9. For this reason, it is recommended to consume caffeinated or theinated beverages between half an hour and an hour before consuming foods or dietary supplements with vitamin C. Otherwise, its benefits may be reduced.

On the other hand, smokers, due to the toxic effect of tobacco, have very high levels of free oxidative radicals that exceed the amounts and antioxidant activity of vitamin C in the body. For this reason, a higher intake of vitamin C is recommended for smokers through their diet and the use of dietary supplements if necessary6,10.

Liposomal technology for better absorption

People who take care of their well-being by consuming a balanced diet and exercising may also complement it with dietary supplements in certain situations. In these cases, it is crucial to know how to promote the bioavailability of nutrients. Dietary supplements with liposomal technology allow for more efficient absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.

"Liposomal technology consists of a delivery system for the active ingredient, which travels 'encapsulated' in liposomes to prevent gastric juices from affecting its structure and functionality, facilitating the absorption and utilization of the active ingredient in our body," explains Maria Mercedes Sánchez. "Liposomes are microscopic spheres that can incorporate nutrients and vitamins, which makes them ideal carriers, especially in the pharmaceutical and dietary supplement sectors."

How can I tell if my body is properly absorbing nutrients?

In addition to incorporating these habits into your regular diet and taking care of your daily routine to make the most of the benefits of the foods you consume, there are other factors that can limit nutrient absorption. A clear example is gluten or lactose intolerance.

Therefore, Dr. Acosta recommends that "whenever you experience any symptoms, it is ideal to consult a doctor who can conduct a comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis to find the root cause of nutrient malabsorption."


Content developed with the collaboration of the responsible for the Scientific Information area at MARNYS and Dr. Yaiza Acosta. This article is informative and does not substitute the consultation of a specialist.

Dra. Yaiza AcostaAbout the specialist

Dr. Yaiza Acosta @dra_saludable

Dr. Yaiza Acosta is a licensed physician and surgeon, a specialist in physical and sports medicine from the University of Barcelona, and an expert in nutrition and applied dietetics. She also promotes the dissemination of a healthy lifestyle through her social media channels as @dra_saludable.

Health specialists