Are Vegetables Doing More Harm Than Good To Our Health?

By Nicole Dominique··  8 min read
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We’ve all heard about the many benefits of eating our veggies, but is it possible that too much could actually cause more harm than good?

Recently, a plant-based meal delivery company known as Daily Harvest (which is backed by huge celebrities like Serena Williams and Gwyneth Paltrow) made major headlines. One of their items was discontinued days after multiple customers reported falling ill and getting hospitalized. Several of the customers reported liver issues and gallbladder damage. The item in question is Daily Harvest’s French Lentil + Leek Crumbles – it’s a serving of lentils, mushrooms, butternut squash, seeds, flour, and other seasonings. 

To most people, this may sound completely harmless and even “healthy.” But in my opinion, the real harm is ignoring the health risks associated with the lack of knowledge surrounding the over-consumption of these products. And it’s no question that the consumption of greens and fruits is steadily increasing. The market size for fruits and vegetables in 2022 is $5.7 billion and is expected to increase 11.4% this year. Perhaps the surge in popularity and trendiness of veganism and vegetarianism is what caused many people to overlook the consequences that some Daily Harvest customers recently faced.

We all know that a balanced diet is incredibly important. A diet focused solely on consuming mostly fruits and vegetables naturally excludes a good amount of fat, protein, and iron found in animal products. But besides deficiencies being a concern for plant-based diets, I do think there is another thing that we need to be aware of – antinutrients. Just as its name suggests, antinutrients are compounds (synthetic or natural) that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. It’s kind of interesting that this knowledge isn’t taught to us in our health classes growing up. If yours did, you’re lucky. But like most people, I was told to eat my vegetables because they were “nutritious” and thus would help me “grow big and strong,” but never was I warned about eating too much. And a lot of people may be wondering: is that even possible? Could there be such a thing as eating too many vegetables? 

Antinutrients are compounds (synthetic or natural) that interfere with the absorption of nutrients.

One of my favorite quotes is coined by the father of toxicology himself, Paracelsus. He says the following about toxicity: “What is there that is not poison? All things are poison and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.” I think about this principle often since it could be applied to many things. The dose makes the poison. And of course, vegetables are not exempt from this. I believe it’s time to highlight some of the cons of plant-based diets instead of only talking about the benefits. Let’s go over some of the cons.

Beware of Oxalates

Sally Norton was a vegetarian for many years and faced numerous health problems. She was able to heal her body once she turned her diet around. 

“My health problems were once mysterious,” said Norton. “The solution was wildly unexpected and in stark contrast to common wisdom. But things are not always as we have been led to believe. Current preconceptions about wholesome eating make the oxalate story puzzling, radical, and, to people who value scientific inquiry, super interesting.”

Like Norton, my diet consisted of mostly vegetables and fruit for years. I never really felt great on it, and now that I think about it, I felt better once I started to incorporate more meat and less of the produce that was high in oxalates. Some examples of such foods are spinach, almonds, rhubarb, yams, and potatoes. Oxalates are often classified as “antinutrients,” compounds that are found in many fruits and vegetables. The purpose of these compounds is to protect the plant from diseases or predators. They also bind to calcium, which not only causes deficiencies, but creates calcium oxalate crystals as well. Your body naturally gets rid of oxalates, but when levels are too high, oxalates will bind with calcium in the kidney to form kidney stones and crystals. 

It’s important to note that the body doesn’t have a way to disarm oxalates – no matter what, they must be excreted. This means if you’re drinking spinach juice in the morning, eating almond flour pancakes topped with berries for lunch, and having a steak and sweet potato for dinner, then you may be at risk for getting kidney stones. But besides the possibility of stones, a diet high in oxalates can also cause leaky gut and other GI diseases due to the crystals corroding the stomach lining.  

Wait, there’s more: oxalates are also stored in other areas of the body, causing muscle or joint pain and inflammation. You get the idea. Fruits and vegetables have many benefits, but eating too much of them will only lead to more discomfort. Luckily, you can avoid kidney stones, GI issues, and inflammation by supplementing with vitamins and minerals and limiting oxalate consumption. 

Lectin Blocks Nutrients

Lectin is found in all plants, but whole grains and raw legumes like lentils, beans, peas, kidney beans, and soybeans contain the highest amounts. A lectin is a type of protein that binds to carbohydrates. Like oxalates, lectins have mechanisms that protect the plant it’s naturally found in. Lectins play a role in interfering with the digestive system of insects and decrease their ability to absorb nutrients. Humans are not immune to this, and lectin is known to absorb some of the most important nutrients like zinc, iron, phosphorus, and calcium. 

Lectins interfere with the digestive system of insects and decrease their ability to absorb nutrients.

Some of the negative side effects of consuming raw or undercooked foods containing high amounts of lectin are nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, and diarrhea. Lectins also bind to the digestive tract, which may explain all of the gastrointestinal issues reported by customers who had Lentil + Leek Crumble. Lectins actually bind to cells for extended periods of time, possibly causing inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. The bottom line? Don’t have too many legumes and when you do, make sure to cook them properly. 

Pesticides Can Make You Sick

The watchdog group, Environmental Working Group, analyzes data from the Dept. of Agriculture to compile a list of the “Dirty Dozen” – the 12 conventionally grown produce items that contain the highest amount of pesticide residue. Spinach is ranked as the second highest, and kale is ranked third. In 2019, 92% of the tested kale – after washing – still had residue from at least two pesticides (some had as many as 18!). About 60% of the tested kale contained Dacthal, a possible human carcinogen. 

Other produce listed on the Dirty Dozen includes strawberries, nectarines, peaches, apples, grapes, bell peppers, cherries, pears, celery, and tomatoes.

According to Californians for Pesticide Reform, “Pesticides can cause short-term adverse health effects, called acute effects, as well as chronic adverse effects that can occur months or years after exposure. Examples of acute health effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea and death. Examples of known chronic effects are cancers, birth defects, reproductive harm, immunotoxicity, neurological and developmental toxicity, and disruption of the endocrine system.”

Buying organic or from local farmers, where you can learn about their growing methods, can reduce your consumption of pesticides.

Phytoestrogens Can Mess with Hormones

Phytoestrogens are compounds found in vegetables like soybeans, flax seeds, oats, barley, beans, wheat, and more. Phytoestrogen is a known endocrine disruptor, meaning it can disrupt the normal hormonal functions in the body. While more articles describe this compound as being a weak mimic, they don’t take into account the cumulative consumption of products containing soy for extended periods of time. Other studies show that high exposure to phytoestrogens can lower testosterone levels in males, and it’s been reported that phytoestrogens can have adverse effects on children who are still developing due to their hormone-sensitive organs. So regardless of all of the news saying that phytoestrogens are mostly harmless, we should all continue to stay wary of their effects and other products that contain soy.

High exposure to phytoestrogens can lower testosterone levels in males.

Too Much Fiber Is Not a Good Thing 

Fiber aids in digestion, but believe it or not, you can have too much fiber. Besides being found in many fruits and veggies, many products are now fortified with fiber. Some people may experience uncomfortable side effects with an intake of 40-70g of daily fiber. Some of these side effects include gas, bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and dehydration. Eating too much can also cause deficiencies in some people since fiber binds to calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. The best way to avoid these side effects is to limit the consumption of fiber and by drinking more fluids. Unlike lectin and oxalates, fiber isn’t too much of a concern, but it’s still important for people to not exceed the recommended amount.

Closing Thoughts

There are more antinutrients that aren’t listed in this article, like phytates, tannins, and goitrogens. For the most part, they all do the same thing: they inhibit the absorption of minerals and vitamins in the body which can cause deficiencies in people who have an unbalanced diet. Of course, the other concern lies in the side effects of having a high-oxalate diet. Scroll TikTok and you'll see trendy ingredients and snacks that are incredibly rich in oxalates like spinach, almonds, and soy. Because these concerns aren't talked about nearly enough, it’s important that we all educate each other on this subject and remember that a balanced diet should always be the focus.

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