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?
Yes. Yes, you do. Maybe not a huge amount, necessarily. But you do need some.
With that out of the way, allow me to address some of the pertinent questions I receive from readers. See, MDA readers are an astute bunch. They don’t just send me one line emails with questions in all caps; they send questions and then proceed to lay out very persuasive arguments. Let’s look at some of them.
“What about the traditional cultures that ate little to no plants or vegetables and were healthy? Like…”
The Inuit – While they ate a high-fat, high-protein, low-carb diet consisting of the fat and meat from seal, walrus, whale, caribou, fish, and other wild game, 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.
The Maasai – Milk, meat, and blood were the high-fat, low-carb staples of the Maasai diet, particularly that of the male warriors. But it’s not all they ate. 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).
Or the Sami – The reindeer herders of the Scandinavian north, the Sami people eat a low-carb, high-protein, high-fat diet of meat, fish, and reindeer milk. They also gather wild plant foods, particularly berries and mushrooms (Finland’s forests produce 500 million kg of berries and over 2 billion kg of mushrooms each year!), sometimes even feeding their reindeer hallucinogenic mushrooms to produce psychoactive urine.
Plants played small but important roles in their diets. Not as a source of calories, necessarily, but as a source of micronutrients, plant polyphenols, and medicinal compounds. We can’t know that they would have gotten the results they did without the plants.
“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. 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.
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.
Magnesium – Involved in hundreds of crucial physiological functions, the best sources are leafy greens like spinach and chard.
Fermentable fiber – The best sources are plants.
Whoa, whoa. Fiber? What is this, the AHA? No. I’ve questioned the merits of insoluble fiber-driven fecal hypertrophy in the past, and I remain puzzled at the relentless pursuit of toilet bowl blockages, but I strongly support the consumption of fermentable fiber. 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.
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.
“What about people who just hate vegetables? Or who don’t like them all the time? Shouldn’t we listen to our instincts?”
I have a sneaking suspicion that the ability to sense nutrients noted in many animal species is also present in people. Like how salt-deficient cattle will gravitate toward the salt lick, maybe some people just don’t need that extra hormetic stimulus provided by the plant, and their bodies are letting them know by making vegetables taste bad. Maybe they’re so darn optimal that they only require the basic vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients to maintain their health.
But remember: the body is kind of a dumb instrument. It evolved in an environment when little mistakes could be very costly. A sprained ankle could mean death, destitution, or a limp that never leaves; these days, a sprained ankle means some ice, some elevation, and parking a little closer to the office/grocery store. 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.
People known as “supertasters” are particularly sensitive to the bitter compounds in plant foods and generally eat fewer of them as a result; some research indicates that they may be at a greater risk for certain cancers, while other research indicates that supertasters weigh less, with a lower risk of heart disease, than “normals.” However, that’s because they’re more picky about food and eat less of it in general, not because bitter vegetables are fattening. It’s not conclusive either way.
The Bottom Line
Plants complement meat. They make meat taste better, 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. 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.
Vegetables also compliment meat. They notice when meat has had its hair and nails done, or when it’s lost weight. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard kale say the words, “Have you been working out?” to a lamb shank. Even if they’re not always totally sincere, they obviously care about making meat feel good about itself. That’s awesome. Harmony on your plate is always good.
If you hate veggies and refuse to eat them, fine. You can get most minerals and vitamins elsewhere (though it’s tough, and some spinach would take care of most of them), and using supplements is an option. 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. 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.
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.
What does everyone else think? Can you be truly healthy without including plants, particularly veggies, in your diet?