Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Feb

Do You Really Need to Eat Vegetables to Be Healthy?

steak4The 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.

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).

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?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. What on earth would you supplement your veg with on a primal diet?! Guess it depends on your definition of ‘primal’!

    Sally wrote on February 13th, 2014
  2. I do like vegetables, but they are not necessary at all. Liver contains vitami C and a lot of other nutrients so there is no “need” for vegetables as long as you eat the whole animal.

    JAUS wrote on February 13th, 2014
    • You need vitamin C DAILY, or else you will simply excrete it in your urine and very rapidly and run out. This is because vitamin C is water soluble, not fat soluble. It won’t stick around in the body very long.

      How many people do you know who are going to eat liver EVERY day, even the most dogmatic of “eat your offal” folks?

      I mean honestly, you will suffer from copper overload, or vitamin A toxicity, both of which are possibly life threatening, and at the very least, uncomfortable, from the liver before you could even achieve your daily need for vitamin C from it.

      Drumroll wrote on February 14th, 2014
      • I didn’t say that one should eat liver daily that was your assumption. Kidneys is a better source vitamin C than liver since the vitamin A level is much lower.

        I actually do eat vegetables, I was simply answering the topic and the answer is: No, vegetables are not “necessary” at all, although they make things easier since you don’t have to eat guts at a regular basis.

        JAUS wrote on February 14th, 2014
        • http://www.eatthismuch.com/food/view/beef-kidneys,3447/

          10.6 mg of vitamin C in 4 oz of beef kidney. You would have to therefore, eat 1.5 lbs DAILY of kidney just to get the USDA RDA of 60 mg.

          Which I think is woefully inadequate for one of the most readily utilized antioxidants in the body anyway. Oh, you may not get “scurvy” if you eat kidneys daily, but will you optimize your health, saturate your blood and organs with vitamin C as needed? No, probably not. This is just my opinion on it however.

          Eat your bell peppers and your cruciferous veggies and even tea and yerba mate have appreciable levels of vitamin C. The aforementioned pine needle tea is also amazing.

          It’s water solvable, so it’s one of the most absorbable nutrients from any source, even fibrous plant materials.

          Drumroll wrote on February 14th, 2014
  3. Thanks for this article. I’ve been playing with listening deeply to what my body is communicating to me, yet feeling uneasy when I just don’t feel like having a vegetable this day. I may go a day without, sometimes some berries and some spinach in a smoothie will do it. Then, usually the next day I’m looking for a BA Salad. So, for me, it’s about listening to the communications which are coming to you 24/7 from your body and not freaking over the balance…knowing that balance happens naturally when you are paying attention.

    Diane wrote on February 13th, 2014
  4. Veggies are NOT essential. Not ALL Inuits ate them, either.

    Daryl Broussard wrote on February 13th, 2014
  5. I think the dietary need for vitamin C indicates that we should be eating some sort of plant food, just like the dietary need for B12 indicates we need some sort of animal food, and those are just two basic vitamins. It’s also pretty clear we can survive on an all meat diet or an all vegan diet for a time, but it doesn’t look to me like either one is optimal, or even preferable.

    John wrote on February 13th, 2014
  6. What about the alikilizing effects of vegetables?

    Joanna wrote on February 13th, 2014
  7. What about the zero carbers who claim they are healthy and never sick all while not eating veggies? Can you feel good, never be sick, and not be in good health?

    matthew dooley wrote on February 13th, 2014
  8. Fat and fruit….I like to dip my apple slices into the left over lard after cooking…all I need… , to hell with meat or veggies =P

    Issabeau wrote on February 13th, 2014
  9. This was an interesting article. I too dont like too many vegetable and ONLY two fruits. I also felt a lot of guilt and worried about my health for years.

    BUT I was always a big Atkins fans and had a spetacular weight loss on Atkins and and enjoyed wearing mini skirts and a bikini at age 48 (a few years ago) and having the energy of a sixteen year old. Love the way I feel and look as a primal hottie.

    After reading Marks article it kind of jibed with my thinking that you kind of only like the food that is good for you…ever since I was a little girl I have loved mountains of meat, onions and certain veggies and occasionally fruit. I always felt like such a weirdo around other people…and at my age I have seen a lot of food fads come and go.

    People should not worry about the fruit, veggie thing. EVERYONE like at least two veggies and two fruits…just eat those and if you feel good dont sweat it.

    Thanks Mark, I so enjoy reading your articles and the kindness and compassion that is also in them..Many blessings to your family!
    .

    Y wrote on February 13th, 2014
  10. I can’t help but notice all of the comments going back and forth around taste and gut problems, so I thought I’d add something to help.

    In previous articles on this site Mark has made comments about all different types of diets and foods. When making any shift in diet we have to be conscious of what the diet was before and what our body will crave as we shift our habits. If it’s a tendency to not like the taste it could be the way our bodies interpret the taste, and since the majority of taste is rooted in our smell, it tends to be more of the psychological nature, and not necessarily physical. For example, if it’s the woody taste of broccoli you cant stand was that because you were bullied into eating wood when you were a kid? Or does the slimy texture of some cooked veggies gross you out because a sibling tortured you with worms or something of the sort? Remember, we’re not born to like something, we learn to like it through exposure and understanding, like Mark said there is a bit of a primal instinct but it’s very minimal to say the least.

    In terms of gut pains it’s very likely your eating too much of one thing at once, or you’re not used to it. For some people there are some homeobox genes that turn on and off when necessary. For example, some people can easily eat dairy for years, but suddenly they’ll stop for a few months. When they go back to eating it they’ll have adverse reactions like they were allergic, but they can slowly introduce it back into their diet slowly – we often site situations like these as food sensitivities. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat it all together it just means we are only made to consume low amounts of it, or when necessary.

    Hope this helps!

    :)

    Ian wrote on February 13th, 2014
  11. Don’t forget the fruits. :)

    tam wrote on February 13th, 2014
  12. Good article. I like all vegetables and can’t imagine a meal without them. I eat even more of them since giving up grains.

    Jim wrote on February 13th, 2014
  13. Wow…another great article! Thanks for reassuring all of our nation’s children that they do, in fact, need to eat some veggies. :)

    Carey Huyser wrote on February 13th, 2014
  14. Personally, I think vegetables are important and I’m one of the lucky ones who likes them! But I did hear someone on the radio with a valid point regarding eating what we don’t always like.

    With the availability of salt and sugar, we have turned away from eating for survival toward eating for pleasure. And while nothing is wrong with eating for pleasure, eating for survival takes precedence. If your goals are to be healthy.

    I wouldn’t gag myself, but I do eat things where my taste buds would prefer something else. Sometimes. Not always. :)

    Vincent Parker wrote on February 13th, 2014
  15. Roast your veggies with your meat and I believe you will enjoy them! :)

    Claudia wrote on February 13th, 2014
  16. Damn, people, if you don’t like your veggies so much, don’t eat them! Mark is not trying to shove veggies down your throat!

    Did he not mention fruits, dark chocolate, teas, coffee, and herbs? Hell, even mushrooms and other fungi count!

    There are lots of ways to consume plenty of plant attendant obtain their benefits even if you don’t like your veggies. I think part of this article’s point was to tell us how easy it is to integrate plantsintoour primal diets. Low carb, high carb, or in between, there are lots of plants you can use!

    Even you “meat only” folks can’t tell me you’ve never used coconut oil to cook pork chops or a steak in. You seriously never marinade your meat in vinegar or wine or lemon juice or give it a good rub-down with some herbs? Guess what? Those are all… *gasp* PLANT PRODUCTS!

    It really is that simple!

    Drumroll wrote on February 14th, 2014
    • Wow, auto correct fail. xD

      You guys get my point. :D

      Drumroll wrote on February 14th, 2014
  17. Human digestive system is not prepared to receive plants or herbs, search on google. Veggies are useless or to put it better, for usless hunters :)

    Lara wrote on February 14th, 2014
  18. what about people who actually can’t eat vegetables. My friend can taste chlorophyl. Eating green vegetables such as green beans, or peas etc… makes him sick to his stomach.

    Sam wrote on February 14th, 2014
    • though lettuce he can eat since its mostly water.

      Sam wrote on February 14th, 2014
  19. How should I reconcile this piece with Terry Wahls who advocates like 8 cups of veg per day?

    I have IBS so I can’t eat a ton of veg myself, and feel perpetually worried that I’m not getting enough of all good vitamins and minerals and antioxidants.

    Renee wrote on February 15th, 2014
    • I love veggies, but I can’t eat a ton of them either, and I don’t think the Terry Wahls approach is a particularly good idea since everyone is different as to the amount of plant fiber they can tolerate. You have to do what works for you, personally.

      You might try a high-quality powdered green drink if you feel you aren’t getting enough nutrients. I like Garden of Life, but there are many good ones on the market. Most health food stores have a good variety, but they are also available online. Some are more nutrient-dense than others but less palatable. If the flavor of pulverized grass clippings leaves you cold, try one of the flavored ones until you get used to the taste. Amazing Grass has a chocolate version that’s pretty decent.

      Shary wrote on February 15th, 2014
  20. I had the thought pop up today as I was eating spring mix again after going to Whole Foods yesterday. I felt fine the days I didn’t have any fruits/vegetables and was curious. Now I concluded that just a little is enough for me. One apple a day will do, and a little veggies will be okay. I don’t like being controlled by my paranoia or conform to societal rules or standards. It’ll also save me money as a college student :D

    Thi Nguyen wrote on February 15th, 2014
  21. I always wonder why people refer to the diets of certain traditional cultures when trying to justify their own preferences. E.g. the Inuit. Yes their diet was high in animal protein and fats, but they did not have modern day processed junk in their diet. Zip. Zilch. Of course, the moment that changed and they introduced bread and sugary sodas and Bic Macs to their diet (like with so many cultures that changed from their ‘traditional’ diet to a Western diet) as well as a sedentary lifestyle, they also got the lifestyle diseases that go with it, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It is an ongoing process happening to many cultures as we speak.

    Marian van Niekerk wrote on February 18th, 2014
  22. What’s the verdict on frozen vegetables? Yea? Nay? I find them the easiest and cheapest way to go for me. I HATE chopping stuff up…and fresh veggies always go bad so quickly.

    Paul wrote on February 18th, 2014
  23. I’m really liking the light-hearted writing style in your blog Mark.

    Looks like I’m saving your blog in my bookmarks.

    Keep up the great work and stay healthy.

    cheers

    Bill Bixby wrote on February 19th, 2014
  24. Ummm, so hang on a minute… Why do the Sami want to produce psychoactive reindeer urine? Wouldn’t you just eat the shrooms yourself?

    AJ wrote on February 19th, 2014
    • The mushrooms vary wildely in the amout of psychoactive compounds and poison they contain. Some are so strong that a nibble will knock you out, while you may need to eat five others to get a similar effect. Also, overdosing is deadly. The reindeers metabolize some of the compounds, producing a diluted and relatively uniform solution.

      By the way, amanita muscaria (fly agaric), the mushroom in question, tends to produce visions of flying. It is red and white. And fed to reindeer. Ring any bells? :)

      Linda wrote on February 20th, 2014
      • widely*

        Linda wrote on February 20th, 2014
  25. What if we also added organ meats and bone broth? Would that enable us to remove vegetables and still get the nutrition we need? I mean, don’t wild carnivores live off these things (except they eat the bone as opposed to making bone broth, lol)?

    Eric wrote on February 27th, 2014
  26. I eat blueberries almost every morning. They’re incredibly high in anti-oxidants.

    Anthony wrote on March 4th, 2014
  27. My son, 17 yo, still growing period.
    But he goes to gym 1 hour/day, only eat chicken, brown rice, tuna tomato pasta, 1 apple, milk, musli bar, milk, oats only. Again n again, everyday so he can get muscle man.

    I’m just worried.. Think he should eat coloured vegetable like pumpkin, broccoli etc

    Mami wrote on April 28th, 2014
  28. I have not ate a fruit or veggie besides potatoes in over 20 years. N i dont take vitamins either.

    Cory wrote on June 11th, 2014
  29. The Best source for Magnesium is WATER.
    Read the article “Is your bottle water killing you”
    Water naturally has alot of magnesium, but it gets filtered out by water companies and your local municipality.
    I drink gerolsteiner

    Brett Y wrote on July 17th, 2014
  30. I grew up hating veggies. There was always a war at dinner time so it became more of a power struggle then anything. Now that I’m older I find I like them more and more and have broadened my horizons with different types. I find that I can eat – and truly enjoy – any veggie that’s been grilled or oven roasted.

    Donna wrote on July 17th, 2014
  31. I love that you mentioned supertasters. I’m a supertaster, mostly vegetarian, sensitive to dairy, and low carb. It tends to greatly limit the amount of foods I am willing to eat. I’ve had some success retraining my taste buds by removing added sugar from everything and slowly adding greens to my smoothies over time. 3 years ago I wouldn’t eat any type of green vegetable. Now I eat zucchini, peas, broccoli, spinach, onions, garlic, black beans, bell peppers, celery, cucumbers…all foods that I used to gag on, even if they were “hidden” in other foods.

    Katie wrote on July 17th, 2014
  32. Thx u so much! This information was exactly what I was looking for when I searched about vegetables.

    Ryan wrote on August 21st, 2014

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