They say ignorance is bliss. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case when trying to assemble the puzzle of healing. While the GAPS diet has drastically improved my autoimmune disease, I know there are still missing pieces in my healing journey. Stomach acid was one. Oxalates are another.
What are Oxalates?
Like phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, plants produce oxalates because they don’t want to be eaten! While these molecules can cause health issues for humans, it actually tears up the teeth of insects which try to eat high oxalate foods.
In a non-leaky human gut, oxalates are degraded by the bacteria oxalobacter formingenes. This prevents the molecules from traveling to the large intestine and being absorbed by body tissues. This person would have low oxalate content in blood and urine samples.
In a leaky gut or when oxalobacter is diminished (by antibiotics, for example), oxalates escape into the bloodstream, damaged body tissues, glands, secretory organs and the brain. Out of place, oxalates impair enzymes, oxidize cell membranes, interferes with nutrient absorption, and can even alter DNA transcription. When oxalates link up with calcium, it forms irritating crystals (kidney stones, for example).
But does a leaky gut really make a difference with oxalate build-up? Yes:
Ordinarily, the gut won’t absorb much of the oxalate from the diet because most of [it] will be metabolized by flora or just leave the body with the stool. Under other conditions, such as when there is gut inflammation, a lot of dietary oxalate is absorbed. The difference can be as great as going from 1-2% of the dietary oxalate absorbed to 50%. (Source).
Wow! 1-2% to 50%… that is a huge difference.
Do I need to be concerned about oxalates?
Generally, if you are healthy and have a well-functioning digestive system, you can probably focus on eating a variety of nourishing foods and not worry about oxalates. But you may wish to consider reducing oxalates if you:
- have taken antibiotics frequently or for long periods of time
- have a leaky gut and food sensitivities/allergies
- have any autoimmune issue
- have any inflammatory issue like asthma, arthritis or fibromyalgia
- have fat maldigestion
- are on the autism spectrum or have a brain disorder like A.D.D., depression or dyslexia (Source)
From my research, I’ve discovered that many folks find a low-oxalate diet quickly makes a noticeable difference with autism and arthritis.
High oxalates on a grain free diet
So why am I calling oxalates a grain-free diet trap? When transitioning from meals filled with convenient starches, many folks to into cardiac arrest on their first day of grain-free and scream, “Just give me something bready!!” (*ahem* I may or may not have shared that experience). Then they discover the solution: almond flour and other ground nuts.
Almonds (and most other nut and seeds) are very high in oxalates. To make things worse, we can consume huge amounts of almonds/nuts/seeds when they are ground into flour and baked into a treat. As a matter of fact, a cup of almond flour contains 90 almonds! The same point applies to nut butters (a tablespoon of almond butter contains 6 almonds).
A high-oxalate diet is not inherently bad. However, it is something to be aware of it you are still struggling with digestive symptoms after transitioning to a grain free diet. I recommend following the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol, a temporary healing diet to seal a leaky gut, before trying a low oxalate diet. So many individuals experience radical shifts in digestion and symptoms after starting the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol.
With that said, here are some popular foods to keep on your oxalate radar:
Common Foods with Medium Oxalates
- Fruits: bananas, mandarin oranges, pears, papaya
- Vegetables: red potatoes, raw broccoli, boiled carrots, raw collard greens, eggplant, leeks, lima beans, string beans, tomatoes
- Grains/Legumes: Lentils, rice, oats, chickpeas
- Other: Pumpkin seeds
Common Foods with High/Very High Oxalates
- Fruit: berries, persimmons, orange zest (marmalade), lemon zest, lime zest, figs, currants, dates
- Vegetables: raw and steamed carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery, beets, chard, cooked broccoli, cooked brussels sprouts, cooked cabbage, chili peppers, rhubarb, spinach, peppers, processed tomatoes (canned, sauce or paste)
- Grains/Legumes: Most grains and starches (wheat, rye, kamut, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, arrowroot, potato starch, rice flour). Also most beans (black beans, chickpeas, navy beans). All soy products, too (but you are generally avoiding those already… right?) .
- Other: Most nuts and seeds, including nut/seed butters and flours (almonds, macadamias, cashews, pecans, pine nuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, hazelnuts, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, pistachios). Also: stevia, chocolate, carob, kombucha and chia seeds
(Adapted partly from this chart. You can find a more detailed list there.)
UPDATE: Many readers have told me that the most accurate and up-to-date information about the oxalate content in certain foods can be found by joining the Yahoo Trying Low Oxalates Group.
“OMG… I’m gonna starve!”
You’re probably asking me, “Is nothing sacred? Now even organic spinach is cursed!” Take a deep breath… we’re going to get through this!
First: if you suspect that your symptoms may improve by reducing oxalates, it is not all-or-nothing. Let grassfed/pastured/local meats, eggs, dairy (like my homemade raw yogurt), and low oxalate produce make up the bulk of your meals. Then mindfully include small amounts of medium oxalate treats on occasion. Remember, a grain-free diet like the GAPS diet can reverse a leaky gut. So look forward to a high oxalate indulgence in the future, after some healing has taken place.
If you don’t want to go on a full-blown low oxalate diet, be mindful of the high oxalate foods you are currently eating. Are your desserts made of dates and ground nuts? Do you have a green smoothie everyday? Those are places where you can make an easy change. Simply leave the spinach out of your smoothie and use raw honey instead of dates.
Also, gradually reduce oxalate consumption to prevent an overwhelming detox reaction. In a Julie Matthew’s interview, the autism/nutrition expert’s guest explained:
Calculate, as best as you can, how high‐oxalate your diet is beforehand, if it’s very high, reduce one item at a time, if you’re using almond flour, don’t pull almond flour completely outright, but maybe substitute a lower oxalate flour like chestnut, it’s also high oxalate but it’s nowhere as high as almond and just start slowly reducing. The one thing that you don’t want to do is detox faster than your body can handle. (Source)
If you consider yourself healthy with a wonderfully competent intestinal lining (I’m jealous), then you have room to relax about oxalates. Enjoy some kombucha, tamari sauce and almond butter. Just remember the cardinal rule: moderation.
Are you trying to juggle a low oxalate diet and a grain-free diet? Have you found a low oxalate lifestyle helpful in ameliorating health issues?