Are vegetables good for you?

Before I begin, let me briefly talk about my biases. I would like to emphasize that I always loved eating vegetables. Even as a child, I enjoyed eating the lowliest, most hated of vegetables, including spinach, broccoli, peas, turnips, and just about everything my talented cooks of vegetarian parents offered me. Later I discovered, quite by accident, that my most acute health problems could be completely alleviated by going from a very low carbohydrate diet that included large portions of non-starchy vegetables, to an essentially carnivorous one. However, I mostly have assumed that this drastic health improvement has been in spite of avoiding vegetables. I have been more likely to hypothesize that this difference is down to extreme carbohydrate intolerance, a need for a particularly deep therapeutic level of ketosis, or that I perhaps have some micro-organism invading my body, such as candida, that will flourish to my detriment even on cabbage, but will leave me alone if I eat only meat. More recently, and rather reluctantly, I have had to examine whether, in fact, vegetables themselves, or at least some of them, are what is causing me harm.

In this post, I want to point to two sources that have helped me understand and embrace the idea that vegetables not only are not necessary for good health, but they may actually do harm in many people.

The first is a curious small study from 2002 in the British Journal of Nutrition. The point of the study was to see if the anti-oxidants in green tea have a positive effect on oxidative markers of stress. In order to make sure the effect was coming from the tea, they removed all fruits and vegetables (except potatoes and carrots) from the subjects’ diets. The researchers didn’t find any long-term effects from the green tea extract, but they did notice something interesting. The removal of flavonoid containing elements of the diet did improve those markers. A “decrease in protein oxidation, in 8-oxo-dG excretion and in the increased resistance of plasma lipoproteins to oxidation in the present study points to a more general relief of oxidative stress after depletion of flavonoid- and ascorbate- rich fruits and vegetables from the diet, contrary to common beliefs.” In other words, it appeared in this study that not eating fruits and vegetables was better for the participants than eating them. If nothing else, this must give one pause.

The second I came upon just this week. At the 2nd Annual Ancestral Health Symposium 2012 (AHS12), Georgia Ede, M.D. gave her presentation titled “Little Shop of Horrors? The Risks and Benefits of Eating Plants”. In it and on her website, she points out that there are no studies that she could find (and the above is the only one I know of) that actually compares diets with and without vegetables. The studies that she did find that showed positive benefits to eating vegetables are all flawed in some way such that it can not be determined which aspect of the intervention gave a positive benefit. For example they had people eat more vegetables and less refined sugar, or eat more vegetables and exercise more. Moreover, the only studies she found that did not have these confounders, had negative results, that is, they did not show the benefits the researchers were expecting. Of course, this is only absence of evidence, but with the extensive promotion of vegetables that we are exposed to so vigorously, one would hope to see something more concrete behind it.

Dr. Ede notes that there have been groups in the past that survived fine without vegetables. She makes cogent arguments against the assertions that fiber is beneficial, and that vegetarians are healthier than non-vegetarians. She shows that micronutrients are more abundant and/or more bioavailable in animal foods than in plants. Yet the most important insight she provides from my perspective is that there are many compounds in plants that function as protection for the plant, to prevent it being eaten. Even though many people can tolerate them at low levels, in high doses (or low doses for sensitive individuals) they are at best double edged swords, and at worst harmful. This is true even of compounds that have been touted as health-promoting, such as anti-oxidants.

She promises to write about many classes of toxins, and the first article has already been written. It describes the problems with brassicas (a.k.a. cruciferous vegetables).When I was on a simply low-carb diet, instead of a “zero-carb” diet (that’s a bit of a misnomer, since there are trace carbs in meat, and I sometimes eat liver or cream, which have a bit more) I ate a lot of those, because they are very low in carbohydrates. As she claims seems to be the pattern, the ingredients in brassicas that are advertised as fighting disease, also cause problems, actually poisoning mitochondria, generating ROS’s, and more. I recommend reading her post, and the rest of her site.

I’ll leave with a quote that particularly struck me from the AHS talk:


“[P]erhaps these compounds are really only irritants that we’ve had to evolve to deal with because we happen to eat them, and maybe [it’s not the case] that they’re actually good for us.”

34 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    What about coconut oil and palm oil. I don't eat the stuff, but I have a couple gallons of each left over from when I used to. I have been using it as a lotion, but now I'm wondering if that's not such a good plan. I have enough to turn into soap: what do you think, would it still be toxic as soap?

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The palm oil is unrefined and very strong in odor and dark in color, so I am particularly concerned about what could be in there.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Unrelated to the core point of your argument just an observation:

    "the extensive promotion of vegetables that we are exposed to so vigorously":
    this may seem extensive compared to what it used to be but surely given that subsidies are handed out much larger percentage to meat/dairy/cornfeed than to vegetables, and with all the weight of a meat-centric world-view where burgers and barbeques and turkeys are deeply embedded in the culture I am not certain the exposure to vegetables comes anywhere close to that of animal products. It may be more apparent because there is a relative increase in vegetable awareness but compared to the mostly subconscious thus very strong message of a traditional diet I don't think there is a balance.

  4. L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn
    L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn says:

    Hi, Robert. Sorry for the delay in answering.

    This is a great question. I have tended to give coconut oil a pass, because the fatty acid profile is so favourable, and I understand that palm oil is similar.

    The first year or so that I ate carnivorously, I did not eat CO, but I have eaten it regularly since. It does not seem to have an adverse effect on my mood, but it is quite plausible that it is perpetuating my rosacea, which did heal quite a bit when I started, but has been worse lately.

    CO has a lot of salicylates in it, and some people feel that salicylates worsen rosacea.

    So I'm going to try eliminating it again, and see if that helps.


  5. L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn
    L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn says:

    Hi, Jani.

    Certainly meat is a regular part of our cultural experience. I don't know the details about subsidies, but I agree they would constitute a measurable endorsement. Nonetheless, we are bombarded with campaigns that claim that meat is not healthy but that vegetables are; that we need to eat 5+ servings a day for health, etc. Meatless Monday is a thing. Wheatless Wednesday is not, let alone Fruitless Friday.

    As to what is considered normal, at least where I live, there are plenty of vegetarian restaurants, and certainly vegetarian options everywhere. If you tell someone you are a vegetarian, they don't question you, and they know how to help you. To a lesser extent this is even true of vegan requirements.

    When I go out to restaurants I sometimes have to explain myself several times. I am very explicit ("I eat only meat and fat.") Then I will still get asked if I want some random vegetable, and even then half the time the plate still comes with an orange slice or pickle on it.

    Yes, the mainstream assumes that meals often include meat, but essentially no one imagines that a meal could not include something that's a plant.

  6. bluefizzure
    bluefizzure says:

    I have struggled with all foods except animal. Even low carb ones. They caused tons of problems. I felt depressed as eating broccoli made me feel awful as much as wheat and dairy did. Thank goodness no issues with just meat!

  7. John Velden
    John Velden says:

    It could be argued that coconuts evolved anti predatory defense was armor related rather than biochemical in nature.
    Besides humans I can only think of the coconut crab, and humans actively propagate the species so little selection pressure.

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I am another reader who eats just meat and fat because I have found all plant foods and spices to be problematic to my gut. I have been eating this way for quite a few years now. I feel and look great. I am much happier. Life is easier. And I don't have toe cramps anymore! I used to get them all the time when I ate plant foods.

    I eat locally raised, pastured meats, dairy and eggs, fats, and wild caught seafood. I eat organ meats on a regular basis, including sweetbreads from time to time for vitamin C. The only supplement I feel that I probably need is vitamin D, since I live in a northern climate and am not able to get much (if any) vitamin D from sun exposure.

    Thank you for this article, and the great site.

  9. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    I have recently discovered that almost ALL plant foods have moderate to very high levels of salicylates in them. Salicylates interference with mitochondrial function. Most people who are ill already have mitochondrial dysfunction. Eating salicylates only makes things worse. I was a vegan for almost 10 years, and I just got sicker and sick (officially diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1995). Looking back, I can see that I have become progressive more sensitive to salicylates containing foods over the years. When I eat them I get severe migraine headaches and feel general systemic inflammation. Pretty much every food high in salicylates makes me feel terrible. This includes pretty much ALL fruits and vegetables, nuts and seed, herbs and spices, as well as coconut oil, palm oil, olive oil, and avocado! I am so glad that I finally understand why plant foods make me sick.

  10. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    I just saw your comment about coconut oil worsening your acne. Coconut oil make my skin break out if ingested internally or applied topically. It also causes my tongue to swell if I simply use it for oil pulling and do not swallow it. The stuff might be helpful to some because of the MCTs, but the salicylate content makes it a poison for me personally. I stay as far away from it as I possibly can.

  11. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    BTW – are you familiar with a book titled "The Type A / Type B Weight Loss Diet by H.L. Newbold? The title does not do justice to the contents of the book. Basically, Dr. Newbold put his extremely obese patients on an all-meat diet that was comprised almost exclusively of ribeye steaks. He felt that some people were sensitive to "new foods" like sugar, grains, dairy, etc. and that these foods, as well as certain chemicals in the environment (like gas from stoves or ink from copy machines) would send them on eating sprees. There is so much of value in his book that I cannot possibly do it justice here. I highly recommend it.

  12. L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn
    L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn says:

    Just for the record, I've never had acne. I have rosacea of the erythematotelangiectatic subtype. It basically consisted of flushing, and persistent pinkness, but no bumps or anything acne-like. I no longer flush (unless I consume certain high phenol things like black teas or coconut oil, or go out in very high wind), but there is some residual permanent damage to the capillaries.

  13. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    The title is an unfortunate one and is probably why the book never captured a very big audience. Suffice it to say that the book is worth tracking down and reading. It needs to be republished with a different title.I believe it will have many a-ha moments in it for you. It is all about the subset of people living in the modern world with ancient genes who are less adapted to modern foods. Dr. Newbold was a man ahead of his time. He was a part of the orthomolecular medicine group of doctors and was a collegue of Linus Pauling. He includes some fascinating case histories that extend far beyond weight loss. Many of his patients also had mood disorders that were helped by going on his all-meat diet. It is not a boring read!

  14. Esmée La Fleur
    Esmée La Fleur says:

    Ah, interesting. I have not looked into phenols in general, but I am definitely sensitive to other foods not on the salicylate list also, most notably members of the onion family. I wonder if phenols are part of that? Anyways, I am just glad that I am finally figuring all this out (too bad it took me over 20 years to connect all the dots, but better late than never!)

  15. L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn
    L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn says:

    Good morning, Rich. Thank you. Yes, still going — 6 years now. Seven months ago I moved houses, and got a new job as a Data Scientist/programmer. So I've been focusing on those and looking after my growing boys. I recently had a long, intense relationship end, and I'm still getting back on my feet. Recreating myself.

  16. Emmie Warren
    Emmie Warren says:

    I was never vegetarian but liked all vegetables–yet since I've been eating only meat, fish, and fat a (4th month now), I feel great and don't miss them at all–ever. I was always a great meat eater, and this way of eating seems to be perfect for me. I'm hypothyroid and have blood work every 4 months (full panel), and my lipids after 3 months of carnivorous eating were ideal–according to my endo.

    Thanks, Amber, because it's your blog that convinced me to try this!

  17. Henrique
    Henrique says:

    Hi Esmée, I know it's been a while, but since I also have some issues with onions, I’d like to observe that maybe it has something to do with fructans (which are present also in garlic, and other vegetables, fruits and grains).

    I came to this opinion after doing the FODMAP diet for some months, which yielded some good results. (just to clarify, FODMAP refers to fermentable carbohydrates, and it includes not only fructans, but also polyols, GOS, fructose and lactose).

  18. Marmalade
    Marmalade says:

    Plants aren't only vegetables. Also included are grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc. consider that in the 19th century Americans ate more meat than bread. Our high level of plant consumption is extremely abnormal. The data on eating habits indicate Americans are now eating more of the recommended plant food groups than they did in the past.

  19. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Hi, just listened to your Robb Wolf podcast and want to try the carnivorous diet. I was 20 years a vegetarian, the last 3 of those 20 years a vegan and I never felt well. Stumbled on Paleo, courtesy of finding Robb Wolf on the net, and have eaten so for the last 2 years. Feel much better but I no longer want to eat veggies and fruit. I'm at least 20 lbs overweight (thank you dark chocolate) and want to give this a serious go. I'm 65 in great health but I do take meds for hypothyroidism but that's it. Everything I've read says no keto if hypo. Would love your insights on this. Thank you, Amber.

  20. Swan Montiel
    Swan Montiel says:

    Hi, great article ! I'm on a carnivore and fast routine for 6 month and I've never felt better in my life.

    I have one question : You quote Dr. Ede to say "there are many compounds in plants that function as protection for the plant, to prevent it being eaten". Shouldn't it be expected for animals to develop the same kind of protection ?

  21. Jan Townsend
    Jan Townsend says:

    Hi Amber. Beef, even organic beef, aggravates my rheumatoid arthritis. I can eat lamb, pork,duck and chicken fine but I don't think I could ever eat organ meat.

  22. Cristina
    Cristina says:

    "Our high level of plant consumption is extremely abnormal." And yet it is not abnormal in the traditional diets of the Blue Zones, home to the greatest concentrations of (healthy) centenarians. Even though they are located in very different parts of the world with very different cultures and dietary traditions, they all share the fact that they predominantly eat a predominantly plant-based diet (including legumes), with some dairy, while meat is generally eaten in smaller quantities, usually on special occasions. As much as I find the carnivore diet arguments to make a lot of sense, I find that the Blue Zones represent a very strong counter-argument to the healthfulness of a plant-free diet. We have yet to see areas with lots of carnivorous centenarians.

  23. Cristina
    Cristina says:

    Another question related to this: what about the potential hormonal damage to the meat of animals that are raised/slaughtered in extremely poor conditions? And what about all the antibiotics that are now used for such animals since their health is so bad that they get frequent infections?

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