How Beans Help Our Bones

How Beans Help Our Bones

Health authorities from all over the world universally recommend increasing the consumption of whole grains and legumes—beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils—for health promotion. But what about the phytates?

Phytate is a naturally occurring compound found in all plant seeds (like beans, grains, and nuts) that over the decades has been maligned as mineral absorption inhibitors. That’s why, for example, one hears advice to roast, sprout, or soak your nuts to get rid of the phytates so we can absorb more minerals, like calcium.

The concern about phytates and bone health arose from a series of laboratory experiments performed on puppies published in 1949, which suggested that high phytate diets have a bone softening and anti-calcifying effect. Subsequent studies on rats, in which they fed them the equivalent of ten loaves of bread a day, “confirmed” phytate’s status as a so-called anti-nutrient. But more recently, in the light of actual human data, phytate’s image has undergone a makeover.

A recent study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food asked a simple question: Do people who avoid high phytate foods—legumes, nuts, and whole grains—have better bone mineral density? No. Those that consumed more high-phytate foods actually had stronger bones, as measured in the heel, spine and hip. The researchers conclude that dietary phytate consumption had protective effects against osteoporosis and that low phytate consumption should actually be what’s considered an osteoporosis risk factor.

A follow-up study, measuring phytate levels flowing through women’s bodies and following bone mass over time, found the same thing: women with the highest phytate levels had the lowest levels of bone loss in the spine and hip. Those who ate the most phytates were also estimated to have a significantly lower risk of major fracture, and a lower risk of hip fracture specifically.

This is consistent with reports that phytate can inhibit the dissolution of bone similar to anti-osteoporosis drugs like Fosamax. Phytates don’t have the side effects, though, such as osteonecrosis (bone death) associated with that class of drugs. People take these drugs to protect their bones, but by doing so may also risk rotting them away (See Phytates for the Prevention of Osteoporosis).

Eating healthy can help us avoid other drugs as well. See, for example:

Beans might not just help our skeleton last longer, but the rest of us as well. See Increased Lifespan From Beans.

How might one boost mineral absorption? See New Mineral Absorption Enhancers Found.

Alkaline Diets, Animal Protein, & Calcium Loss is another surprising video on bone health.

And more on the benefits of phytates can be found in my videos:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Asja Boros / Flickr

  • guest

    What about the high phosphorous amounts in beans, compared to calcium in beans? Can excess phosphorous in relation to calcium prevent adequate calcium uptake?

  • guest

    Data on amino acid supplements for vegans? Harmful, harmless? Natural, un-natural?

  • Audrey

    Does beans inclure soy and tofu?

  • Laurie Masters

    Dr. Greger – Do you need to update your “New Mineral Absorption Enhancers Found” info in light of the above? That video states: “One of those phytonutrients though, phytates, or phytic acid … can partially inhibit mineral absorption … but because it
    binds up some of the minerals, that just means one just have to eat
    more whole healthy plant foods—or eat mineral absorption enhancers”

  • Robert

    So should we no longer be soaking our grains prior to cooking? If phytates have been found to have a beneficial effect, it would seem that soaking grains (in a slightly acid medium) to reduce phytates is not something we should be doing, right?

    • Selina

      If you eat enough legumes and grains daily, you should get some phytates in your system even if you soak and cook them. I bet it is still better not to get too much phytates, but small amounts are beneficial.

      • Lee

        IP-6/Inositol Hexaphosphayte (aka phytic acid, phytate) was demonstrated by Dr. Shamsuddin and others in peer-reviewed research (he also has two books available on Amazon – see links below) back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s to be a helpful aspect of human nutrition, and not an ‘anti-nutrient’ as it was dubbed early on. One can think of it as in one way, a powerful regulator of certain nutrients (e.g. heme iron) where too much can indeed be harmful to the human body, and in this sense, it is a selective nutrient ‘regulator’, not ‘anti’.

        One of the potential aspects that beans, legumes, grains, seeds, etc., are considered healthy, and may help keep cancer at bay (in addition to fiber) is their content of IP6and how IP6 is converted in the body to IP3, which helps in cellular signalling. This is particularly interesting with regards to immature cancer cells, which ‘fail to grow up’ to become the mature cell they were meant to be. With large doses of IP6/inositol treatment, these cells then are responsive to this signalling and then differentiate.

        He also developed and advanced early-detection colon cancer screening based on his work.

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9244360.
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17044765
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14608114 (free full text)

        http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=shamsuddin+ip6

        It would be great to know if there is any further/recent research on this topic that Dr. Greger could include in a future post/video!?!

    • Kumquat

      Soaking legums and throwing out the water only leeches away nutrients. It’s like boiling vegetables in a pot of water and tossing the water.

      It’s about time this phytate nonsense is put to rest. Billions of people around the world eat colossal amounts of legumes and have fewer health problems on average than the typical American with a low phytate diet.

  • Dommy

    I can see it now: “New! Phytate supplements! on sale now!” — the vitamin industry.

    • b00mer

      IP6 supplements do exist. Have seen them recommended in paleo circles.

      • Thea

        Oh, now that’s super interesting. I thought the paleo people were the biggest haters of phytates. Now I’m scratching my head.

        • b00mer

          Don’t try to make sense of it Thea. :) They fashionably avoid phytate containing grains, yet phytate containing nuts and seeds get a pass. They rail against the dangers of micronutrient dense, disease fighting, health promoting whole food phytate sources, yet take supplements. I remember reading about it in the context of intentional iron chelation. I can imagine menfolk especially on a paleo diet could be risking iron overload.

          I think you’ll get a kick out of this too: I recently stumbled upon the “Primal Potato Diet”. As in, eat nothing but potatoes and lose tons of weight. People seemed quite surprised by how great they felt, no dizziness, no hunger, no cravings, and how easily the weight fell off. Despite seeing references to McDougall, it didn’t appear anyone was willing to look at a high starch low fat diet as a viable lifestyle, just as a short term “hack” to take off weight quickly. One person even remarked about how great this was since he tends to gain 5 or 10 lbs a year, and now he can take it off quickly with a week or two of potatoes, instead of 6 months of meticulous paleo eating. *facepalm*

          I want to yell, hey over here guys! All the potatoes and corn and pasta you want! Come over to the dark side hehehe. And by dark side I mean the fabulous and delightful world of the plant based diet.

          http://www.marksdailyapple.com/forum/thread96746.html

          • Thea

            b00mer: What a great post. I’m still smiling. You have a great way with words. I facepalmed with you – just cause I couldn’t help myself.

            The text on your page link from 1849 is *very* interesting. It sounds like they were experimenting on prisoners. Wow. But at least it was a good experiment… And I got a real kick out of this part: “… all were employed at light work, teasing hair.” I don’t know if I’d want a prisoner teasing my hair…

    • Thea

      I’m sure you’re right!

  • ron

    There is an obvious Nutrition movement going on with many conflicting arguments for and against, as example, stay away from high saturated fats but there are good fats like coconut oil with 90% saturated GOOD FAT. Also, don’t eat wheat or whole grains say’s Dr. Davis in his book, Wheat Belly. So what do you say, have good saturated fats and eat whole grains because its better for you and it is healthier?

    • dogulas

      No, minimize saturated fat, consume no coconut oil, but yes eat whole grains.

      • ron

        Here is just one resource on coconut oil on following links.

        Check out these articles on coconut oil and saturated fat:
        http://draxe.com/the-top-5-health-benefits-of-coconut-oil/
        http://draxe.com/ive-got-a-lovely-bunch-of-coconuts/
        http://draxe.com/the-truth-about-saturated-fat/

        • Dave

          None of those links prove that consuming coconut oil is good for you.

          Also, saturated fat is created in the body (as well as cholesterol), so it’s not essential to consume it.

          • ron

            Hi Ron,

            You can find people on both sides of any food argument. My research has
            lead to unequivocally categorize coconut oil as a healthy food. What I also tend
            to look at is history. People have been consuming coconut products for thousands
            of years. That goes a long way in my book. Coconut oil went out of fashion from
            roughly 1980 to 2000. Most people now recognize as a healthy food.

            Ryan

          • Nut Butter Nut

            I personally would prefer coconut cream or coconut butter that is made from the whole coconut meat. There you get all the benefits of the coconut meat not just the extracted oil.

          • largelytrue

            “People have been consuming coconut products for thousands
            of years. That goes a long way in my book.”

            Beside the general idea that people have been consuming refined sugar (honey), meat of several types, eggs, dairy, and carcinogenic plants for thousands of years as well, this video might help give you some ideas of which could prevent a mere history of consumption from taking you that far:

            http://plantpositive.com/blog/2012/3/27/the-tokelauans-the-samburu-and-the-masai-again.html

    • LG King
      • Kumquat

        No olive oil? LOL, that must explain why those mediterraneans have so much CVD!

  • Bebe

    I’m glad to see ev1 is confused as I am. Maybe I’ll stop soaking grains and continue to soak beans except lentils and green peas. My family is convinced their digestion of beans is better after they r soaked with whey or lemon. On the other hand, as an avid exerciser, I was shocked to have lost a tiny bit of bone in my hip.

  • And what about peanuts? New research shows that their lectins help cancer metastasize. http://eatandbeatcancer.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/breaking-anti-cancer-news-ditch-the-peanuts-and-spread-the-word/

  • Peanut lectins survive cooking and digestion. How long do you have to sprout and/or cook other legumes in order to inactivate their potentially harmful lectins? Can anybody answer that?

  • I don’t mean to hijack thread since I am not sure where to ask ..there is a company promoting cricket powder as a new protein alternative without the side effects animal protein. What are your thoughts and will you consider examining this “new” kind of protein..I know people have eaten bugs for years but this is a “sterilized” environment where bugs are grown then ground up for powder and made into bars

    • jj

      I saw a video on that but I’ll pass, thank you. Unless it was eat that or starve and die.

      • eric spector

        At one time people threw lobsters in fields thinking they were unedible. We probably saw the same vid. It appears they grind bugs into a meal and add flavor so more appetizing. I am interested is this a free source of protein without the cholesterol

        • Thea

          eric: Dr. Greger did a video on eating bugs. Here it is:
          http://nutritionfacts.org/video/good-grub-the-healthiest-meat/

          But you don’t need to eat bugs to get more than adequate protein. I highly recommend that you take a look at the following page, which is not only fascinating, and fully referenced, but is based on well established information:
          http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/protein.html

          Another great article that supports and expands on the above page is from Dr. McDougall.
          http://www.drmcdougall.com/hea
          (check out December 2003 for McDougall’s site, “A Brief History of Protein: Passion, Social Bigotry, Rats, and Enlightenment”. Also April 2007, “When Friends Ask: Where do you get your protein?”)

          Hope that helps.

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  • Eydie

    Will eating beans regenerate the bones for people with significant bone loss? And if so, how much should one eat per day?

  • bahminj

    According to my Dr. I have severe osteoporosis and as prescribed Boniva. I’m reluctant to take this medicine. Have you a suggestion for treating osteoporosis?

  • Kevin H

    s there a vegan treatment for pain from a bone fracture? I broke a greater turbercle in my shoulder 3 weeks ago and my shoulder and arm still hurt!

    Thanks,

    Kevin

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hey Kevin. Thanks for reposting this question. Perfect spot with the bean and bone information above ;) I only know of diet helping reduce bone fracture risk. Once the damage is done I’m not sure there is a specific “treatment” however in clinical research, signs point to assuring proper nutrition in times of healing. Some vitamins and minerals that help bone formation are calcium, vitamin C, vitamin D, phosphorous and magnesium. Protein plays a large role in healing. Think sunshine, greens, beans, and citrus. I forget the exact numbers (anywhere from 1.2-1.5 grams of protein/kg), but during times stress (surgery, trauma) increasing your protein intake shows better results. You could try adding 10-20 grams extra protein per day? That isn’t much, about a cup or beans. There are too many factors I would need to know before more specific advice, but I think eating a healthful diet, a bit more protein, and getting plenty of rest while managing stress, etc., would all help. At the very least it can’t hurt :)

      Good luck we hope you recover swiftly,
      Joseph

  • Xenomorph

    I think this is very interesting but I have two questions because from those short lines I can’t really tell what other variables the studies took into account. Mind you, that my points are not attacks but it didn’t become clear for me if this was looked at and just not reported in this blog post or if it really was not addressed by the studies:

    1. Is it possible that this effect appears due to confounding variables?

    If the participants in one group did not eat legumes, seeds, nuts etc. at all and the others did, then maybe the health benefits did not occure specifically due to the phytate but simply by the fact that they ate those healthy foods in general and despite the phytate it was enough to make a difference?

    This could still leave the possibility open, that if the consumers of seed, nuts and legumes removed most of the phytate from the seeds (e.g. by soaking), they would have even better effects. What I try to say is, to really make such a statement a study would have to keep every variable the same except for the phytate. As thus you should test a group that eats their nuts and legumes unaltered and one that removes the phytate from them (soaking and so forth). If the latter group were to have better bone health, then phytate would either be indeed an inhibitor or the soaking would trigger other reactions that improve bone health, which could be assessed in a follow up study. If there is no difference between the groups then the phytate may be unrelated but either way it would indicate that it is not the phytate but the other components of the nuts and the idea that phytate is good would simply be a false correlation because it happens to be present the same time when nuts, legumes and seeds are.

    A similar case can be made for the study that measures women’s phytate levels: Did they check for their food? Did the ones with high phytate levels also happen to eat a lot of the afore mentioned foods whereas those with low levels didn’t or were there consistent cases of women who had high levels of phytates but no nuts, seeds and legumes consumption and also better bone health at the same time?

    2. I don’t know if it is bogus but is it true that soaking nuts, seeds and legumes increases the nutrient levels? I have read on several occasions that soaking them triggers the sprouting process so that after a night – even when the seends/nuts/legumes haven’t sprouted yet – you’ll already have elevated levels of vitamins etc., so soaking them is preferrable for that reason.
    I haven’t really found any science regarding this questions. This is especially interesting for my consumption of almonds, flaxseed and sesame which I eat almost daily. Does soaking them turn those foods into “powerhouses” or am I not missing out much if I don’t soak them?

    Thank you very much for taking your time to read

    Morphx

  • jane

    New to here and I see the posts are all two years old, but hopefully I may get an answer. So, regarding the above video and after reading Dr. Greger’s book ‘How not to die” – should I soak or not soak. Is this just beans or nuts and seeds too. A little confused now that Phytates are the ‘good’ guys. Thanks.