Time to clean up your plate in your annual foray at dieting? You’d be forgiven for ticking off the usual boxes. More veggies. More fiber. A few extra servings of green goodness to get you started.
And why not? They’re low on calories, fill you up, and stop you from turning acidic and contracting cancer. As the lore goes, plants have been put on this earth to be your friends. This is the Garden of Eden diet, a blissful time before red meat invented disease.
But since the downfall of Adam, plants have been making a strong and persistent comeback. Over the millennia, we’ve built up a pedestal for our vegetable contemporaries, elevating them to the point where they can do no wrong. While they now make up the vast majority of the modern diet, they also sit at the frontline of pursuits into wellbeing and longevity.
Plants are now widely regarded as the apex source of nutrition. To the point where many of our supplements and pharmaceuticals are plant extracts. Healthy dinner plates are often made of plants, with plants, topped with more plants. Processed foods are concentrated combinations of grains and vegetable oils. At this stage, they’re everywhere.
It’s clear why they’ve become the dominant food source. They’ve been certified healthy by the top health boards, are easy to produce in huge quantities to support the world’s runaway population boom, and don’t belch methane into the air.
So despite the fact that some of those foods, the processed variety, are a bit dubious in their place in a healthy diet, plant sources are a net positive in our quest for physical, mental, and ethical wellbeing.
Now for the scary thought, what if we’re wrong?
Let’s play around with the idea that our assumptions have landed way off the mark. On the face of it, you can laugh your fears off. We’re living longer, and there’s an emphasis on health that wasn’t there before. The quest for plant power is on track.
However, amongst all the positive energy, obesity rates are climbing. Heart disease is a bigger risk than ever, and it’s getting worse. Metabolic dysfunction is becoming the new norm, on track to hit 50% of the population by 2050. We might just be getting worse. One suggested fix is to reduce our dwindling meat intake ever further. Or perhaps, we could turn the scope onto our plant friends.
So I’m about to risk it all and suggest to you, that the human and plant dynamic is a one-way street. We’ve shuttled them into the spotlight, and we’re suffering for it. Because in reality, these are foreign invaders that don’t play nice once they’ve reached our system.
To label plants as a poor source of nutrition would be doing them a disservice. It goes much further than that. Plant foods are agents of nutrient deficiencies, systemic inflammation, gut dysbiosis, and metabolic dysfunction. The extra heap of salad is decidedly going to play a net negative role in your quest for a better body.
To place the argument against veggies in the simplest of terms, they’ve evolved along a completely separate chain to animals and humans. As a result, eating plants doesn’t make for a smooth transfer of nutrition. Conversion rates are terrible, hence why you can be iron deficient despite putting down a plate of spinach every day. So many macros and micros get lost in transition.
Compared to the bioavailability of animal products, it’s not remotely close. Here, the cellular structures are far more similar, to the point where nutrients can get slotted straight in. Look at the comparison of digestible protein content of various meats and plants.
Getting your nutritional requirements is far easier on a meat-based diet, while being excessively complicated on a plant-powered one. But unfortunately, people are eager to push the idea that the veggies are there on the plate to get the vitamins and minerals in.
If you left it at that, it wouldn’t be too bad. If you’re a vegetarian, it would be an inconvenience getting your RDAs in. You’d need to add a few supplements to round things off, while being quite strategic with your food selection. But you’d get there in the end.
And if you added some meat along with the greens, potentially even red meat, then your bases would be pretty much covered. A few decent carbs sources could provide the fuel you need to get through your workouts and stay in the business of muscle gain.
Unfortunately, there’s more dirt to raise in the case against plants. We’re eating foods that are structurally incompatible with our biochemistry, so complications should be expected. First and foremost, come the seed oils. Processed and extracted from nuts and grains, and a superpowered weapon of inflammation. They place the body in fat gaining mode, while driving up insulin resistance. Seed oils are also highly unstable, and prone to oxidation, making them potent carcinogens and a chief cause of atherosclerosis. And yet, somehow, they’ve risen to become the world’s dominant fat source. By the virtue of not being an animal fat.
You can read my previous article for more detail.
Then there’s the more murky world of plant toxins. Built on the premise that so many can’t grasp, because it goes against the friendship between plants and humans. They’re not that keen about gifting their nutrients over to us. Even if it’s for our noble intention of living a fulfilled life and stopping global warming. Plants are generally pretty opposed to getting cut up and eaten. So they have painful ways of defending themselves against foreign adversaries, and we’re skipping the talk about nettles.
The same is true for any species. The survival of the species is hardcoded into their DNA. This puts plants in a direct confrontation with us, now we’ve risen to become their main predator in the 21st century. But animals, on the other hand, have next to no toxins. There’s a key reason for that, which explains why plants cause so much damage. A deer can run away, even if it’s not a foolproof plan of action. That’s their defence mechanism. In the meantime, you can leisurely stroll up to a cornstalk, and it’ll just have to sit there and accept the inevitable. So it has other ways, and these are usually going to be felt after it gets pulled into the predator’s digestion.
If the plant is unable to protect its seeds by dripping down poison from its leaves, then it’ll do so by dissuading the predator from trying again in the future. There are literally thousands of unique plant toxins out there, but we’ll simply focus on the main foreign invaders.
We’re going to take the toxicity tour across the plant family.
These guys are found all across the plant kingdom, but in particular the starchy kinds. Lectins bind to carbohydrates, and essentially look to mess you up once they enter the digestion. The end-goal is to put the predator in paralysis. And while you’re unlikely to lose control of your limbs after a big bowl of pasta, there are a host of unsavoury side-effects to strap in for. The biggest amongst them is a case of leaky gut.
Gluten for instance, makes a beeline for the stomach lining, a delicate layer of cells that effectively acts as the barrier between the outside world and your inside. Once gluten manages to grab a perch on that cell wall, it activates the secretion of zonulin, which pries the wall open. The critical barrier is now compromised, and foods can pass undigested into the bloodstream. This can open you up for all sorts of problems, and at the bare minimum, the body gets gifted a big dose of inflammation. The biggest driver of rapid ageing and chronic disease.
Lectins can also bind to insulin receptors, creating insulin resistance which is its own beast when it comes to chronic disease. They are small enough to pass through the blood-brain barrier, causing mental fog and dopamine deficiencies. But the worst of it, is that they’re highly resistant to cooking and digestion. So when you eat foods high in lectins, there’s going to be no getting past the myriad of consequences.
This is where spinach gets to show to its true colours. Along with the likes of kale and almonds, it’s loaded with oxalates. These are long, sharp shards that tend to get stuck in your body. We can excrete oxalates, but there’s a cap on how much we can manage each day. On a carnivore diet, that’s not a problem. Sources of oxalates are easily managed. But if you add in copious amounts of life-giving salad? That’s way more than the body can cope with. So oxalates make their home in various locales, like your brain and even your nether regions.
When you see how these oxalates appear under the microscope, you’ll see the problem. These things are built to create chaos. DNA damage, tears in the gut lining, and steady doses of systemic inflammation from wrecking the place. Oxalates also bind to calcium, decreasing its absorption and potentially causing a deficiency.
So if you eat healthy, there’s a good chance you’ve stacked up a mountain of oxalates, just dotted around your insides. Fortunately, it’s fixable. Cut out the foods that contain oxalates, and sit back to let the body gradually get rid of existing oxalate stores. It could take a while, but you’ll be feeling the benefits of oxalate withdrawal much sooner.
If you like having a functioning thyroid, then you may want to sidestep this one. Unfortunately, goitrogens, which cause goiter or thyroid swelling, occupy a wide range of species in the plant kingdom. They’re highly toxic, and in fact too toxic for the plants that store them. So they lie dormant till the plant starts getting chewed apart. It gets combined with a myrosinase enzyme, and the toxin bomb goes off.
Sulforaphane, a much-coveted super ingredient in broccoli, is an example of a goitrogen. And it does much more than crush the thyroid. It’s a natural pesticide. When it’s activated, it explodes to cause free radical damage that tears apart your cell structures.
This is essentially what sparks the antioxidative reaction from the body, which people have taken to be a sign of broccoli having healing powers. Except it’s broccoli that threw the brick in the first place, and all you’re achieving is depleting your glutathione stores, the body’s own antioxidant.
The defenders of the vegan faith may point out the physique of our distant cousin, the gorilla. He’s undeniably huge, would beat any human comfortably in a wrestling match, and pretty much relies on a diet of fiber to get there.
Who needs protein when you can look like that while munching on leaves? It turns out there’s a slight problem with the gorilla comparison. They don’t have the six-packs we’re all after, with good reason. Their guts are far bigger than ours, which allows them to ferment fiber across the length of their colon. Humans did start off with larger guts, but across our path to the top of the food chain, we traded that off for larger brains.
So our bellies got smaller, and more acidic. An evolutionary design that appears to support more nutrient-dense foods that don’t take up as much space. Fatty meat, for instance.
But that hasn’t stopped fiber from getting plastered across every cereal box for the last half-century.
Nature’s tonic for rampant hunger and the inability to get the job done when sitting on the throne. It’s the favourite tool of dieticians in their quest to quell blood sugar spikes and beat diabetes. But does it really help either of these ailments? Fiber has little effect on blood sugar, and symptoms of constipation have improved in subjects on zero fiber diets. The thing is, much of fiber is indigestible. Which means it’ll do about as much to curb hunger as you could expect from a mouthful of sawdust. Any fix is temporary. The stomach gets filled, but hunger returns with a vengeance once the body realises that no nutritions are coming in.
And while those lumps of indigestible fiber provide no benefits, they still have to complete the passage through the digestive tract and out. In the best-case scenario, they get through without causing a fuss. But if your luck is out, fiber scratches and claws its way past the gut lining, and blocks the absorption of valuable nutrients. It’s another case of a net negative.
Then there’s the case of its prebiotic potential, where the digestible fiber can lead to the production of short-chain fatty acids to feed the gut bacteria. Since it’s well established that these bacteria are intricately linked with mood and inflammation, it might look like an obvious route for better biology. Except we can’t choose which of the bacteria gets fed. For all our best intentions, a high fiber diet could create flare-ups and gut dysbiosis.
In the meantime, there’s an obvious alternative to fiber to provide the gut with fuel. BHB ketones, the main fuel source in a low carbohydrate, high-fat diet. Beta hydroxy Butyrate (BHB) provides the gut with a constant supply of butyrate, far greater than the amount created by a few grams of fiber. Despite what you may be picking up, salads are not essential ingredients in a healthy, thriving diet.
Are Plants Worth The Trouble?
There’s plenty more to worry about beyond these four toxins. Nutrient-blocking phytic acid, DNA-wrecking polyphenols, and hormone-disrupting phytoestrogens, the list goes on for a while. And the effects can be subtle. You don’t need to be breaking out in a rash in order to be suffering from plant toxins. The only way of knowing for sure, is by taking them out completely, and then trying to reintegrate one plant group at a time.
But there’s also nothing stopping you from living an optimal healthy lifestyle without any vegetables in tow. Humans are facultative carnivores. Our biochemistry is honed in to get the best out animal meat, and can adjust itself enough to survive on plant foods. One of them allows for thriving, the other lets you get by with side effects.
So it’s a question of which lifestyle you’re after. There’s a middle ground where you eat both, but it’s a delicate balance. Some plant foods will always cause problems, others can be dose-dependent. In any case it’s best to moderate them, and be wary of adding too many random ingredients in your lunchtime salad.
Plants aren’t your friends, and they’ll be more than happy to wreck your day.