Eating beans and whole grains can be very healthy, since these foods provide fiber and other essential nutrients. However, these foods also contain phytates, or phytic acid, which can decrease the absorption of certain minerals contained in these foods. Thankfully, there are other foods you can eat along with foods containing phytates to minimize this problem.
Phytates are chemicals in plants that bind with minerals, which makes minerals from foods containing phytates less likely to be absorbed by the body when these foods are eaten. They have antioxidant properties and may increase immunity, according to a review article by C.H. Fox published in "Complementary Therapies in Medicine" in 2002.
Phytates in food can decrease the absorption of iron by up to 50 percent, according to a study by L. Hallberg published in 1987 in the "Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology Supplement." It has a similar effect on some other minerals, including calcium. Fox notes that although so far studies have only been done using animals, phytates may help to prevent and treat cancer.
Phytates are mainly found in grains, legumes, nuts and rice. They are not found in animal products. There are more phytates in whole grains than in processed grains. For example, phytates are in wheat bran, and refined wheat does not contain the bran, so it doesn't contain as many phytates.
Eating foods containing vitamin C or animal sources of iron along with foods containing phytates will increase the absorption of iron from plant sources and make up for most of the inhibiting effect of the phytates, according to Hallberg.
Most people also have an enzyme that helps to break up the phytates consumed in plant sources, according to the AskDrSears.com, and this, along with the lower phosphorus content of vegetable sources of calcium, helps to make up for the inhibiting effect of phytates on calcium absorption.
Consuming foods containing phytates in moderation may be beneficial to your health, as long as you make sure to consume them along with other foods that increase the absorption of essential minerals, such as calcium and iron. These foods have a number of healthy components besides phytates that are part of a healthy diet, including fiber, so you don't want to avoid them entirely.