Ironically the answers is no!
I bet you have not thought about this or heard of that but recent research shows that eating too much vegetables and antioxidant supplements is actually harmful. There are several reasons for this. I want to keep this article easy to read and short. For more information please visit the article “Toxic Chemical in Fruits and Vegetables Are What Give Them Their Health Benefits” in ScientificAmerican. It is a subscription only magazine so in case you have no subscription I summarize the main points for you.
Let’s start with the title, which is misleading.
The title lets you see half the truth! Indeed, eating fruits and vegetables is good for you because they contain toxic chemicals that change your cells by creating antioxidants in response. All true! BUT and this is a big “but” coming later in the article: eating fruits and vegetables without any break actually reduces your body’s ability to create antioxidants. Instead free radical elements start running free, causing damage: “free radicals disrupt and sometimes kill neurons… the antioxidants story is not quite so simple” says Mark P. Mattson, chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging and professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
So what is the problem?
Plants and fruits create toxins (pesticides actually) to protect themselves from predators. “The plants produce chemicals that act on neurons called sensilla in the bugs’ mouthparts, which are similar to the taste bud cells in the human tongue. Signals from those cells are transmitted to the brain, which then decides whether or not to eat the plant.” When we eat these fruits and vegetables, the same toxins enter our bodies causing a reaction even if we cannot taste them. Because vegetarians or vegans eat so much fruit and vegetables, the toxins keep on coming. Eating some of these chemicals stress cells mildly and this stress causes them to go through complex metabolic changes with the outcome of releasing antioxidants to clear the toxins (free radicals) from the body. But cells can only do so much! This cell reaction to toxins in fruits and vegetables is called the hormesis (not homeopathy!). A little stress is good. Too much or for prolonged periods stress is bad.
In particular they studied the effect of fruit and vegetable toxins on neurons (brain cells). “Too much stimulation of the receptors can damage or destroy neurons” so being a vegetarian or vegan causes nerve damage in the brain. “More moderate activation of these receptors, however, turns on a chemical pathway in neurons that plays a critical role in learning and memory and in protecting neurons” meaning that if we incorporate fruits and vegetables into our diet but not always and mix in other foods we benefit! “Such discoveries began to raise the question of whether low levels of plant neurotoxins in fruits and vegetables might yield beneficial health effects by inducing similar mild stresses in brain cells.” So too much of a good thing may not be good but little is definitely good!
The bitter taste of many plants tells us not to eat too much of the bad-tasting leaves, roots and fruits or to simply avoid them entirely. There seems to be some innate justification for children not wanting to eat their broccoli after all. For insects, the noxious chemicals help to drive them off, but for us they serve as a warning to limit our intake.
I am sure children will love to hear this. It is also important to mention that those of you who are super-taster–like me–taste bitter taste in more foods than those without such super-tasting ability. After reading this article I now understand that being a super-taster and not being able to stomach Brussels Sprouts and beer among other things may be a good thing!
The effect of these plants on our nervous system can be graphed by an up-side-down U shaped graph (called the biphasic response curve) that shows the threshold at which point the benefit of consuming such toxins in fruits and vegetables turns from good to bad. An example is brought up in the paper that I find very intriguing.
Eating too many Brazil nuts can poison the liver and lungs because of the presence of the trace element selenium. Yet eating just a few supplies an essential nutrient that is incorporated into an enzyme that may help protect against heart disease and cancer.
Because of this “limit” in the particular toxin level’s benefit, the brain’s biochemical processes by hormetic stress dictates when antioxidants are available for brain cells to help and when they are not. Too much stress and antioxidants are no longer made. Some well-known antioxidant vegetables—such as garlic—also increase electrical activity in the brain by leading calcium into the cells. This is further proof that food is medicine. But garlic or any other fruits and vegetables do not visit our brain to open cells or kill free radicals. They merely call on enzymes to work for us. Because our bodies have these natural processes, two important functions may not work for us if we eat too much of these toxins.
Eating too much vegetables and fruits, and eating them all the time, means the cells do not have enough break to recoup their reserve to release enzymes and the toxins negatively affect neurons, often destroying them. Furthermore, taking antioxidant supplements work against the natural system our bodies have evolved to protect us and they prevent the natural process of antioxidant release. Taking antioxidants weakens our immune system.
What does this mean to you?
- if you are a vegetarian but are able to take a day off from your vegetables every now and then and switch to other acceptable non-vegetable food, please do! It will strengthen your immune system and improve your health!
- if you are a vegan, you have some serious thinking to do. I truly honor all faith and support the goal of saving animals by eating only vegetable matter. I can relate to that. But this puts your health at risk. At least give this a thorough thought and make an informed decision that knowingly you are sacrificing your health for the sake of animals. If that is your decision, at least you made that decision with full knowledge!
- Should you continue to take your antioxidant supplements? Absolutely not! They clearly interfere with your body’s natural system for protection; let your body do the work for you!
Your comments are welcomed as always!
Mark P. Mattson Toxic Chemicals in Fruits and Vegetables Are What Give Them Their Health Benefits ScientificAmerican Jun 16, 2015
Just finished the Sci Am article. I’m not an expert on nutritional science, but Dr. Mattson does appear to provide a possible clue as to why antioxidant consumption generally seems to correlate with positive health outcomes, but fails every test regarding direct effects on the body.
But as to plant toxins endangering vegetarians and vegans, especially their brains . . . are there any studies indicating this? In general, longevity studies show that veggies live a little bit longer on average, all else the same (e.g., http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/526S.long). The correlations aren’t always strong, they vary from study to study — but no credible study that I’ve come across shows that veggies live shorter lives, or experience greater brain disease such as dementia.
Next question — wouldn’t plant toxins be present in just about ALL FOODS??? What food ultimately doesn’t come from a plant subject to insect attack? OK, fish and shellfish live mostly on algae and insects, so perhaps they are exempt. But all land animals eat a whole lot of plant food over the course of their lives; for the most part, animals raised for meat production are vegetarians, they hardly even eat insects. So given that a hamburger is in effect a very dense reduction of corn, wheat, grass and other vegetation, why wouldn’t meat also be a source of plant toxins?
Again, I’m not a scientist . . . but I am going to guess that all of these questions lack definitive empirical resolution at this time. Even the Sci Am article pretty much describes preliminary research (albeit very interesting and promising research), and not something verified by meta-studies. I’m going to further guess that for both veggies and carnivores, the golden rule is to eat a wide variety of stuff, don’t make any particular food the mainstay of your daily caloric intake.
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Very true Jim. I think the important thing to note here is that animals who have developed as vegetarians, such as cows and similar, have different digestive systems and even different teeth from animals that are purely meat eaters and from those that are to eat both types of foods.
To take a silly example, feeding a lion with lettuce will make for a very weak and possibly short lived lion or feeding a cow fish would do the same. It is not that they cannot digest those foods. They can. But the bacteria in their bodies that convert all that food into energy for them for cellular use are the wrong kinds. The bacterial flora may not survive.
It is very easy to think in terms of what tastes right for our preference as opposed to what the flora of bacteria inside us can turn into energy for us and what our cells can do with that kind of energy.
Humans have flora and teeth to eat both types of energy. Eating only one type kills off the other types of bacteria. I have no idea if there is research on this or not but as a scientist myself, it is very logical for me to see that being a vegetarian or vegan who only eats veggies will end up with a weaker immune system than those having a well-balanced flora. This is just purely based on logic.
It is interesting to note that I found vegans with high cholesterol, which would be unheard of if a human was meant to be vegan. And of course a vegan eats nothing that could create cholesterol that would cause trouble. The fact the it is possible at all shows you that the body’s immune system is confused and in trouble.
I hope this explanation helps. 🙂
OK, thank you. I think that logic is wonderful, and I agree that the overall “microbiome” and its response to diet is a very important topic. However, empirical data is also very nice. And right now, I don’t believe that we have any empirical data regarding any negative effects on the life spans and states of health of vegetarians and vegans from over-consumption of plant toxins. Not even indirectly suggesting it. However, perhaps the topic is a new one, and studies of this nature are yet to come. If so, then . . . we shall see.
One important line in Mattson’s article regards sleep. He indicates that the normal human sleep cycle may be sufficient for cells to complete their recovery and strengthening process following “insult” during the day from consumed plant toxins. If you are worried that vegans are experiencing more cell stress than carni / omnivores from plant toxins, the best practical advice to veg-heads might be this: make sure to get a good nights sleep !!
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May be so. I do have (or did I should say since they passed away at a young age) some vegan friends. Apparently there may be a connection to not living so long in our American stressed environment as a vegan. Elsewhere it may be different.
In terms of empirical studies: they may exist. I never looked; it is not much of interest at this point to me. But one thing is clear: vegans who are also migraineurs remain so since migraineurs have a metabolic disorder sensitivity. They are glucose sensitive and it takes animal non-carb protein to reduce the glucose effect. This is researched by me already and is true. I have over 1700 subjects on my protocol from whom a handful are vegan and about 40% vegetarian. They have the hardest time to get out of the glucose trap.
Great article, Angela. This certainly explains a number of empirical observations I’ve been gathering over the years. Thanks for summarizing the Scientific American article. (One of these days, I’ll have to get a subscription.)
“Everything in moderation” still seems to be a great maxim to live by..
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True for all except for 2 things realspiritik: sugar and sugar substitutes. ZERO is the amount of preferred moderation of these! ❤
I try to eat a balance of different foods. However since I have a sweet-tooth I am trying to eat more veggies and fruits. The other bad thing about veggies is that they cause gas! Ugh!! Also I have stomach problems. My digestion is poor and whatever I eat stays stuck in my colon which is extremely painful. Several times I’ve had to go to the E.R. Once I had a CT Scan which showed my colon was filled with waste. Now I take herbal supplements so I can go to the bathroom. In addition to my tummy troubles I have high blood pressure so I do my best to avoid salt. Salt gives me headaches. Between my stomach and the hypertension I can’t even begin to tell you how much time I’ve lost from my job and spent in the hospital. Green tea and ginger tea do seem to calm my troubled gut so I’m sticking with that.
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DeBorah, I think your basic problem is not drinking enough water and not taking enough salt to hold the water inside your cells. Nutrition is not able to get inside of your cells without salt.
Salt breaks up in the body into positively and negatively charges ions (Na+ and Cl-), one inside the cell the other outside, ensuring that cells have voltage to open their voltage gated pumps and channels. Without those channels being able to open, your cells get packed with toxins.
What you are describing to me is a classic case of not drinking enough water because you have to run to the toilet too much if you drink, which is caused by not eating enough salt.
This causes basic digestion problems. Carbs in fruits and veggies cause further problem by removing water from the inside of the cell and glucose holding onto it causing swelling and edema (not salt but glucose does that!) and glucose also kicks sodium out of the cells.
“…serum Na+ falls by 1.4 mM for every 100-mg/dL increase in glucose, due to glucose-induced H2O efflux from cells” page 4 from the 18th edition of the Harrison’s Manual of Medicine
So if you are a sweet tooth and have stuck stool in your intestines that is a sign that you are low in water and low in salt. High BP is caused by sugar so I suspect you eat more sweets than fruits!!! High BP is not caused by salt–that is old thinking that was medically disproved a few years back but for some reason many old doctor-minds are still stuck in that mode! Low salt actually increases triglycerides, the worst of the bad cholesterol. Both ginger and all teas are diuretic.. so you further dehydrate…
I do not know you in person but from what you just wrote I can see half your medical conditions are caused by your diet… Please feel free to send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to discuss this in private.
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Great info! It confirms what I’m trying to do: Eat a variety of stuff, and not too much from everything.
Re kids: It would be a good thing if parents (and other people deeming it a good thing to impose their stuff on the little ones) to listen more to their children and appreciate their wisdom. (Um….remember what I call “primal knowledge”?)
Question: Should I dump green tea extract into the garbage bin now?
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True as said Roald! Basically modern society is overriding primal knowledge–hence the stock marker crash that took risk out of sight, hence obesity that sees sugar as good because it is sweet but in fact is a trap of poison… many to list… Glad I am a super taster.. bitter never gets past me. And I sure have increased my meats now to give break to veggies. By the way the article also suggests that fasting every now and then is a good thing for the immune system–so here we come with primal, cultural and faith-based old wive’s tails actually have a medically explainable reason! Alas a day without fluids is not a migraine free proposition but a day of milk and water is good enough for my kind of fasting… It will come. 🙂
As for green tea… yeah.. black trash bag is perfect!