Let’s break it down and apply some critical thinking…
Do You Really Need to Eat Vegetables to Be Healthy?
The idea that vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet has been hammered into our collective consciousness by every authority out there. Parents, teachers, scientists, government health “experts” all stress the importance of eating your veggies. Problem is, they also told us that butter would kill us, margarine would save us, animal protein would give us cancer, and animal fat would give us heart disease. They said we should jog for an hour a day three days a week, that deadlifts would hurt our backs, and that we need to wear shoes with “good arch support.” Basically, conventional wisdom gets it wrong an awful lot of the time, so what should we think about the CW regarding vegetables? It’s a fairly common query I receive from readers:
Do you really need to eat vegetables – or plant matter in general – to be healthy?
Good question – thus far, I’ve found no evidence that you do.
(note early shifting of goalposts from “veggies” to “plants”)
And no, epidemiology/anthropology is NOT evidence of what is healthy.
Yes. Yes, you do. Maybe not a huge amount, necessarily. But you do need some.
Oh ok. We DEFINITELY need vegetables – or plant matter in general – to be healthy.
Got it. Case closed. RELEASE THE BROCCOLI!
“What about the traditional cultures that ate little to no plants or vegetables and were healthy? Like…”
And here comes the epidemiology/anthropology – which even Mark has previously said over and over that it’s not evidence of anything except that we can observe people doing it – not that it causes anything.
The Inuit .. actually utilized a wide variety of plant foods including berries, sea vegetables, lichens, and rhizomes. They made tea from pine needles, which are high in vitamin C and polyphenols.
And they wouldn’t be healthy without them? Ok so tea is an essential vegetable now, coolo.
The Maasai … often traded for plant foods like bananas, yams, and taro, too, and they cooked their meat with anti-parasitic spices, drank bitter (read: tannin- and polyphenol-rich) herb tea on a regular basis, and used dozens of plants as medicines (PDF).
And according to Dances With Wolves the native Americans traded for shiny things and tobacco – more health stuff.
Oh and ah – the plants = medicine thing, we’ll get back to that…
Or the Sami … They also gather wild plant foods, particularly berries and mushrooms .. sometimes even feeding their reindeer hallucinogenic mushrooms to produce psychoactive urine.
Hmm, seeking out hallucinogens – because you can’t be healthy without those…
But yeah, pretty much every culture has a history of seeking out or cultivating mind-altering substances – probably good for the mind/positivity, I guess that could be called a health benefit.
Plants played small but important roles in their diets. Not as a source of calories, necessarily, but as a source of micronutrients, plant polyphenols…
Micronutrients – NONE of which are in a vegetable which we require that aren’t in animal foods. That’s right, zilcho.
Polyphenols – again with these, YES there are indications that they are helpful – typically in someone deficient in something (ie medicinal/remedial) - but they are NOT essential to health.
Then there’s stuff like this:
Frozen broccoli lacks ability to form healthy compound: Study
Commercially available frozen broccoli almost entirely lacks the ability to form the beneficial compound sulforaphane from the phytonutrient glucoraphanin, according to new research.
And sometimes I wonder what people think these green things like kale and broccoli etc actually are, pretty sure most folk don’t realise it’s hardly some natural superfood from the wild – much of the “essential greens” are just a well sorted selective breeding program:
Not that these are arguments for them being unhealthy, just pointing out they’re not exactly the powerhouse foods that the “Paleo/Primal” crowds like to fantasize about.
Plants played small but important roles in their diets … medicinal compounds
Medicinal compounds! THIS is the best argument for health from plants – and not necessarily “vegetables” as this article started out about. Pretty much all medicinal stuff comes originally from plants, where we found a way to concentrate a given compound/toxin to find a way for it to be useful to a human who is in ACUTE need.
We can’t know that they would have gotten the results they did without the plants.
Right, so why do we start out the whole article with stating matter-of-factly that you definitely need vegetables to be healthy – when we simply don’t know? Hmm…
[Reader quote] – “Animal foods provide all the micronutrients a person needs.”
Animal products include some of the most nutrient-dense foods available. They’re our best (and often only) source of vitamin A (retinol), DHA/EPA, and vitamin B12, as well as lesser-known nutrients like choline, creatine, and carnosine.
Telling argument – basically there’s plenty of nutrients we NEED in animal foods exclusively, but none in veggies that are unavailable in animal foods.
But a diet devoid of vegetables and other plants will likely be a little low in certain nutrients that we need. Like:
Betaine – A vital liver-supporting nutrient, the best source is spinach.
Betaine is distributed widely in animals, plants, and microorganisms, and rich dietary sources include seafood, especially marine invertebrates
But “the best source is spinach”? Seriously WTF come on – talk about something rotten in Denmark…
Potassium – Important electrolyte and regulator of blood pressure, the best sources are avocados, leafy greens, citrus fruits, and bananas. Meat contains potassium, but you have to capture the juices to get it.
Caveat: if you’re not using the juices from meat as a sauce/gravy/broth then you’re doing it wrong.
Basically – if you’re discarding the nutritious part of your food you might need a vegetable instead.
Magnesium – Involved in hundreds of crucial physiological functions, the best sources are leafy greens like spinach and chard.
Again with the spinach – seriously? “Best source” is hardly the right word, consider the bioavailability which is often compromised by the “anti-nutrients” that come along for the ride – in the end, “rich in” =/= “good source”. For instance:
Fractional magnesium absorption is significantly lower in human subjects from a meal served with an oxalate-rich vegetable, spinach…
Look, you can start a damn cherry-picked citation war for eternity to prove anything you like, point is spinach is perhaps not the greatest thing to hold your hopes for nutritious veggies on.
Either way, even if leafy greens ARE rich in and a good source of it, that doesn’t mean you need to get it from them, there are plenty of other perfectly good sources. This is another caveat argument.
Fermentable fiber – The best sources are plants.
Er, the ONLY sources are plants aren’t they? Well, poop too I guess, but a minor point…
If you’re convinced of the importance of a healthy gut microbiome populated with happy, vibrant gut flora – and you should be, by now – you can’t ignore their food requirements. They need fermentable fiber to survive and tend to your immune system, and the best way to provide that is to eat plants.
That’s just it, I AM convinced of the importance of a “healthy” gut microbiome, but the assertion that this is only possible via fermentable fiber is silly.
There’s a whole bunch more about fiber/fibre right here. TL;DR – the fiber fantasy is fallacious.
In the end, fiber is hedging bets – there’s evidence that it IS beneficial to the gut and general health (mostly via displacement of refined carbohydrates), but this data is (AFAIK) exclusively from people who tend to eat lots of plant matter and/or processed junk food.
There’s no studies on people who don’t eat “normal” stuff, but the rodent studies suggest that the ABSENCE of significant gut bacteria in a ketogenic/carnivorous scenario is far more beneficial than having heaps.
So – if YOU think fiber is good for YOU, eat it. If you don’t, don’t eat it. Point is there is NO CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE either way, the only thing we know for sure is you’re just fine without it, and you avoid the multitude of damaging effects of fiber, but you can live with it too.
It’s also easy to miss out on nutrients like folate (if you don’t eat offal) and calcium (if you don’t eat dairy or small bony fish).
Again with the caveats. Starting to see a pattern…
Plus, and this is an important point, we evolved eating wild animals. Wild animal meat and fat comes loaded with antioxidant compounds from all the wild plant matter they eat. Grass-fed beef (the more easily attainable alternative to wild meat) is also higher in B-vitamins, beta-carotene (look for yellow fat), vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), vitamin K, and trace minerals like magnesium, calcium, and selenium. Unless you’re hunting game or eating “salad bar” beef (what Joel Salatin calls grass-fed beef), eating vegetables, herbs, and spices with your meal will help emulate the ancestral steak dinner.
So – try to eat quality animals who were raised eating THEIR natural diet.
And just in case you missed it, why selectively talk about us evolving to eat wild animals, and if your animal sources aren’t great then you’ll need veggies? Because those veggies are also the “wild” locally native and infrequently available veggies we also evolved on?
I’m guessing nope. For the supremely vast majority of people, they’ll be getting their veggies from the produce section or freezer of the supermarket, the problems with this are outlined elsewhere.
I fail to see how substituting or supplementing one non-evolutionarily-perfect food source with another of even more suspect sources can be a worthwhile strategy.
[Reader question] – “What about people who just hate vegetables? Or who don’t like them all the time? Shouldn’t we listen to our instincts?”
The problem with the “listen to your body!” meme is that we’ve all had 20-100 years worth of having our instincts displaced by acculturation – if you’d have asked me what I should be eating based on my instincts a few years ago I would have said beer and donuts.
Eating the wrong plant, or the wrong part of the wrong plant, might destroy your liver; these days, you just Google “[plant] toxicity.” So we’re subconsciously hypersensitive to things that may (have once) pose(d) a threat that we may miss out on some good stuff. Plant toxins, also known as phytonutrients, are one of those things.
Carrie already explained how some folks’ distaste for bitter plant toxins might be an adaptation from the days when a portion of the available plant food was too dense in toxins/phytonutrients for regular consumption – an adaptive holdover that prevents us from enjoying the extremely healthy, hormetic, moderate levels of plant toxins in cultivated plants.
I actually get where these people are coming from. I’ll go days where I don’t really want any green things on my plate, where a salad (even a Big Ass one) just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ll also have days where I don’t really feel like eating a steak, where a few bites of it is plenty. I tend to listen my body in these cases.
And there’s some folk for whom “days” is actually “months” or “indefinitely” – again listening to their body.
Are they just as right or just as wrong?
Over and over on the nutrition blogs/forums you hear people go on about “what the body tells you it needs”, it’s more a case of what it wants based on a lifetime of habits/abuse. End point is, people will argue this incessantly (and inanely), and those who are particularly inclined will extrapolate their own experience crossed with their bias and try to apply it to everyone else.
Plants complement meat. They make meat taste better.
Purely subjective – but usually true. I’ll give it that.
Also – a bread roll with tons of butter and a chunk of meat on it is absolutely divine. Bread complements meat – therefore a health food too?
[plants] make it healthier by preventing the formation of carcinogens during cooking when you incorporate them into marinades, and reduce the impact of those harmful compounds when you consume them alongside.
Plants are the MAIN FACTOR in carcinogens/Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs)/acrylamides/etc.
AGEs are from a formation of a covalent bond between glucose and protein – and in very simple terms it really messes up those proteins, you know, the structural parts of your body. One of the biggest exogenous factors for this is by cooking glucose and protein together, typically a marinade is a Noah’s Ark for AGEs.
AGEs are formed both outside and inside the body. Specifically, they stem from glycation reaction, which refers to the addition of a carbohydrate to a protein without the involvement of an enzyme. Glucose can bind with proteins in a process called glycation, making cells stiffer, less pliable and more subject to damage and premature aging. This process is involved in the aging of the skin. Outside the body, AGEs can be formed by heating (for example, cooking).
Acrylamides are formed primarily by – guess what – cooking plants:
You Can Help Cut Acrylamide in Your Diet
Cutting down on certain fried foods can also help you cut down on the amount of acrylamide you eat. That’s a good thing because high levels of acrylamide have been found to cause cancer in animals, and on that basis scientists believe it is likely to cause cancer in humans as well.
FDA chemist Lauren Robin explains that acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods—mainly plant-based foods—during high-temperature cooking processes like frying and baking. These include potatoes, cereals, coffee, crackers or breads, dried fruits and many other foods. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, acrylamide is found in 40 percent of the calories consumed in the average American diet.
Acrylamide forms from sugars and an amino acid that are naturally present in food. It does not form, or forms at lower levels, in dairy, meat and fish products.
And yet another caveat for the meat eater – the “harmful compounds” in meat are from people who use a scorched earth policy on their food, burning the fats and denaturing the proteins. Vegetables may help here – but again it’s a case of poison/antidote – how about just don’t stuff up your food to start with.
Cruciferous vegetables are a classic example; that broccoli you’re eating with your steak contains phytonutrients that reduce the potential mutagenicity (cancer-causing properties) of heterocyclic amines in well-done meat.
Yet another caveat – “well-done” meat.
Cooking has it’s place, and was likely evolutionarily important – but overcooking isn’t just death on a plate culinarily, it also destroys many of the nutrients and introduces stuff you just don’t want to put in you.
As for those precious “cruciferous vegetables” and the phytonutrients that keep appearing:
Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food
Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients …
The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers. …
Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste.
Second, early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil. These energy-dense plants were pleasurable to eat and provided the calories needed to fuel a strenuous lifestyle. The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.
Soooo yeah, supplement… if you NEED supplementation.
But if I were you, I would at least strongly consider drinking tea, eating phytonutrient-rich fruits like berries, eating phytonutrient-rich legume extracts like dark chocolate, and using lots of different spices and herbs in your cooking.
Fair enough, all these are *associated* with health benefits, no proof that you can’t be healthy without them, but also I doubt they’re particularly damaging compared to the good things stuff like this does for your peace of mind.
That’s hardly like the original premise that you MUST EAT VEGGIES TO BE HEALTHY.
These won’t have a large caloric (or carb) load, but they will offer nutrients you simply can’t obtain from animals and they provide the largest plant bang for your buck.
What nutrients do they provide which you can’t get from animals that are NECESSARY for health?
Why does this argument even keep coming up?
Before you throw in the towel, be sure to try lots of different plants. There are thousands of edible and medicinal ones out there, with tens of thousands of recipes and preparation instructions available right this instant just a few keystrokes away. You’ll find something you like if you keep looking.
The amount of plant matter that’s edible is ridiculously tiny, and has taken a helluva lot of engineering and modifying and selective breeding and cooking methods just to get it that way.
Go for a walk in nature proper – find a plant you can subsist on as a gatherer. If you can’t be bothered then read up on those who’ve tried – it’s the hunters who thrive.
Yes, there are thousands of veggies you can eat – some might even be mildly beneficial – but if you don’t want to eat them there’s no reason to scour the earth finding one you like or can tolerate.
They can be delicious though, which so far is the ONLY reason I can see is why you’d bother eating them.
TL;DR of MDA’s article
BECAUSE EVERYONE KNOWS VEGGIES ARE SUPER HEALTHY BECAUSE WE’VE BEEN TOLD THAT JUST LIKE CANOLA AND SOYBEAN OIL AND GRAINS AND FIBER AND…
BTW if you can’t tell ^^that’s totally hyperbole^^, but, well, you get the story.
Point is, even MDA can’t say a bad word about veggies without softening the blow because it’s so much a part of the “Primal” culture, when really he could have made all parties happy simply by saying “no you don’t need veggies, but yeah they have benefits too”.
Yes, you can eat veggies – they’re hardly a good source of food though.
Even though they’re often rich in nutrients, they’re often not a good SOURCE of nutrients, as they come with plenty of “anti-nutrients” which tend to bind to the same receptors and reduce uptake by the body, or are destroyed by cooking or are unavailable without certain fats etc etc.
Eat veggies if you want – not because they’re “healthy”, but because they can be delicious and really help round out a meal. (And keep mother happy)
This article telling you that veggies are essential is all about caveats – pretty much every reason touted to eat your veggies is because you’re avoiding good sources of animal foods or destroying them through poor cooking practices.
It started out trying to convince you that eating your veggies is necessary for health, and ended up saying you’re just fine without them if your animal foods are decent, but plant compounds tend to have remedial/medicinal benefits if you’re ill or deficient.
I’m not trying to attack Mark/MDA, I think he’s done some of the best work anyone ever has in improving the lives of (hundreds of) thousands of people, I’m just a bit wary when gurus make blanket statements.
Also, this isn’t coming from some 3yo kid who won’t eat his veggies having a tantrum looking for excuses, I came to the mostly carnivorous way of life BECAUSE of research, not despite it. Just pointing out the caveat-based house of cards this whole MDA article is stacked on.
It’s understandable, he can’t outright demonise veggies – just re-read the first paragraph of the article again and he points out why, because it’s so well ingrained that we need them, even he can’t put an affront on plants with his semi-mainstream position. ACCULTURATION.
Also, he understands that a huge portion of his followers are into replacing their acculturated junk foods with “primal” versions, and are more often than not coming from a background of sickness and broken metabolism – so there has to be a fair bit of plant sympathy for these folk.
However in a roundabout way he does admit veggies are unnecessary to health.
That’s the crux of it.
If you’re eating an animal-based diet where the staples are grass-fed pasture-raised ruminants, quality fish and shellfish, eggs, and the occasional bit of liver/offal – you’ll get by perfectly well, thrive even, without putting a single vegetable down your steak-hole.
Eat veggies because they’re delicious, but don’t be fooled into thinking you need them to be healthy, or that they are even particularly good for you…
…unless you have a specific deficiency.
So, if you still want to incorporate veggies into your kid’s diet, here’s some great advice: