The Paleo NP Podcast Episode #8: Is Paleo Plant Based & The Many Benefits of Vegetables
What's new this week
Paleo is a plant based diet
Why are fruits and vegetables so important?
Vegetables, red meat, and cancer risk
What is a serving of vegetables
How many servings of vegetables should you eat?
Antinutrients in vegetables
Juicing vs. whole vegetables
What conditions are vegetables protective against?
Resources mentioned in the episode:
What’s new this week
Hi everyone! I’m excited to get into this weeks topic, but first I’ve got some updates and something I’m into this week.
So updates first, I’ve got a couple of exciting things coming up. I will be accepting a couple of new clients for 1:1 coaching in the coming weeks - and I’ll put a link to that in the show notes, which as always you can find at marthaflorence.com/episode08. So if you have an autoimmune or chronic illness and are wanting to actually heal your body instead of throwing more medications at your health conditions or the side effects of your medication that you take for your health condition, let’s talk! I have clients that are dealing with conditions like high blood pressure, PCOS, thyroid issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer. And most of them have been able to decrease the amount of medications they are taking and some of them even tell me that they feel like they did before they were diagnosed with their condition! I absolutely love helping people get those results, because as I have said before, I think this is where the conventional medical model really fails patients.
So if you are interested in working together or you have questions, you can find a link to that in the show notes or there’s a “work with me” tab at the top of my website.
Also, I’ve got a new Facebook group going for people who are dealing with chronic and autoimmune issues. I’m going to be sharing tons of great content in there that I don’t share anywhere else, so there will be a link to that in the show notes if you want to join. And you don’t really need to have a chronic illness in order to join us, the information is pertinent to everyone in some way, so feel free to join even if you just want to improve your overall health. I’m kind of shifting my Facebook page more to this group because Facebook (which I really don’t love in the first place) never shows anything from those pages to anyone anymore, so I figured I’d start a group so people could actually see the information that they want to see!
And finally, something that I’m into this week...and this is really fitting for this week’s topic and I again, absolutely did not plan this this way on purpose, but I’m really loving parsnips. They are not a vegetable that I think I ever ate as a kid and I’m not even sure how I ended up buying them at the store a couple of weeks ago, but I was looking for some different more starchy vegetable options because the potato and sweet potato rotation, while delicious, is getting a little boring. Although I’ll never get tired of oven fries.
So, do yourself a favor and go get some parsnips. And then make Bare Root Girl’s mashed parsnips. I’ll link to the recipe in the show notes. Because they are amazing. YOu could also roast them or make fries out of them, but I think mashed is my favorite way to eat them. They’ve got tons of I think it’s vitamin C and selenium, which I know I’m not getting enough of either, so that’s probably why now my body is like, give me all the parsnips (or maybe it was the mayo that goes into the mashed parsnips…)
Cool, so getting into this week's topic which is all about vegetables!
Everyone knows that vegetables are an important part of your diet. But do we really understand why? Today I want to talk about some of the benefits of vegetables and help you to understand exactly WHY you should be eating them and how much you need to be eating (hint: it’s more than you think).
Paleo is a plant based diet
The first thing I want to start off with is talking about how vegetables fit into a Paleo diet. Paleo gets a bad rap for being an “all meat” diet, but it is definitely not that. When you look at actual ancestral diets, you find that they all have some things in common - they are high in plant matter, consist of moderate animal protein, and are extremely high in fiber (up to 150 or 200g per day).
From a practical standpoint, this makes sense. Traditional hunter-gatherer societies would not have a huge animal kill every day but they would be able to gather up whatever plants were around on a daily basis to make up a bulk of their diet and then they would supplement with meat as they had it.
I would actually argue that the Paleo diet has more in common with a vegetarian diet (and in some cases even a vegan diet) than you might think (especially since it gets portrayed in the media as a meat heavy diet). And, I will say that I personally do eat meat at almost every meal, but that doesn’t mean that meat is making up a majority of what I eat.
The Paleo diet, done right, encourages a high intake of a variety plant matter and preferably these plants are in season and found locally (though that is hard for me in Alaska because winter makes up more than half of our year...so I do what I can…).
The Paleo diet encourages animal welfare and emphasizes properly, sustainably, and humanely raised meat and other animal products. And, I’m probably going to get arrested by the vegan police for saying this - but you can actually still care about animals and still eat them. If you want a really good example of this, you should follow Five Mary’s Farm on Instagram. They produce AMAZING quality meat but the amount of care and attention that goes into raising those animals is phenomenal.
And as I mentioned related to the meat, but this does for other foods as well, the Paleo diet encourages sustainability - because if we don’t look after the land our food is produced on - we won’t have it for very long. Also, there is some talk about how the soy industry actually does more damage to the land than the cattle industry (and it’s not just a matter of greenhouse gases, it’s a matter of what soy farming does to the actual soil). I’ll link to an article about that from the World Wildlife Foundation in the show notes.
So most people who eat Paleo and live a Paleo lifestyle actually eat a TON of vegetables. In fact, most of us recommend that at least half of your plate be covered in non-starchy vegetables at each meal.
Now, I’ve never been a vegetarian, but my boyfriend’s step-mom is one and whenever we visit, I’m shocked at how few vegetables she eats. Vegan and vegetarian diets seem to emphasize more soy and grain based products than actual vegetables (and yes, I know there are exceptions to this, so if you are a vegetarian who eats a lot of actual vegetables, please don’t come after me for saying this).
And just look at the number of fake meat products in any grocery store. You can get fake cheese, fake hotdogs, fake lunch meat, fake bacon, pretty much any meat product comes in it’s vegetarian form...but those are all made from soy and grains...not vegetables. There are a few brands that make veggie burgers that are made out of actual vegetables, but that’s certainly not the norm.
So, Paleo is actually more about the vegetables, if done properly, than the meat. And I would say that it’s actually a plant based diets because plants should make up a majority of the food you are eating and be the base of every meal. I’m not big on food pyramids, but if I were to make one for the Paleo diet, plants would be at the base of it.
Why are fruits and vegetables important?
Which brings me to my next point of why we need to eat so many fruits and vegetables and can’t just live off of meat and coconut oil. First off I want to say that the ONE thing that pretty much every diet that has science to back it up (the Mediterranean diet is the first that comes to mind besides Paleo) agrees that vegetable intake is SO important. And almost every dietician or healthcare professional out there who gives advice to people about their diet probably agrees with this fact. It’s actually probably the only thing that we all agree on.
So why are they so important. Well, plants are full of phytochemicals so things like polyphenols, which are present in other foods, but they are much denser in fruits and vegetables, there are also vitamins, and minerals. There’s fiber which is so important for the health of our digestive tract and helps with detoxification by the liver as we talked about a few episodes ago. And they have so much to offer our bodies.
Also, you can’t actually get phytochemicals from animal foods. So while you won’t die if you don’t eat vegetables, or at least there isn’t any science that proves that yet, you certainly will not be healthy.
If you look at hunter gatherers, they eat anywhere from 100 to 200 different varieties of plants on a regular basis. They tend to have about 35% of their calories coming from plant based foods - at least when you look at the average - not the extremes like the Inuit who tend to eat fewer plants. And when you look at what that means in terms of volume on an actual plate, because plant based foods tend to be less calorie dense than foods that come from animal sources, it works out to about ⅔ - ¾ of your plate is made up of vegetables and fruit.
Also, when Loren Cordain first wrote about the Paleo diet, he really thought that fruit should be used as a treat and not something that should be eaten regularly and he put a lot of the higher sugar fruits on a “no” list. Personally, I don’t think that any fruit should be on a “no” list, but I think it’s really important to understand that fructose can cause problems.
Excessive fructose has been linked to obesity, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and increased cancer risk. There is some science that is starting to show that there are some subtleties that make a difference, so not just high fructose consumption on it’s own, but also in the presence of a hypercaloric diet which exaggerates the effect of high fructose.
And we are starting to understand that high carb and high fructose can also be a problem. So there are still a lot of unanswered questions, but there IS a link to excessive fructose consumption and some serious health problems. And we are starting to understand how fructose is doing this at a molecular diet.
There is also evidence that shows that fructose in a whole food form, so fructose that you get from eating a whole apple, is not as problematic as high-fructose corn syrup sweetened junk food, or even drinking fruit juice. And I think that comes down to the understand of the understanding of how fructose is metabolized in the presence of different vitamins.
Vitamin D deficiency might exacerbate the bad things that fructose does in the body. But if you look at the historical consumption of fructose it was around 20g per day mostly from fruit, which works out to about 2 apples but it works out to almost 8 cups of berries - so that’s actually a ton of fruit to be eating in a day. And then if you look at other science that has made categories of different amounts of fructose consumption and health problems, staying below 40g per day seems to all of a sudden not have the increased risk of something like obesity. So 50g per day seems to be the the limit where you start to see health problems.
So 50g of fructose is 5 apples (which is one of the highest fructose contents fruits) or 30 cups of berries - so that’s A LOT of fruit. So as we start to talk about this being a nutrient that we need in moderation, because we do need it in small amounts, there are benefits from it - like it has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity at low levels, it can help replenish glycogen stores after exercise (remember from the metabolic syndrome episode that glycogen is the way your body stores glucose in your liver for use when you really need it).
So if we are eating within a Paleo template, is this even a problem for us? And the answer is that it can be. I mean, it can be surprisingly easy to do a “junky” version of the Paleo diet where we are eating a ton of fruit and Paleo desserts - so your fructose consumption can get quite high and still be operating within a Paleo template (although this is certainly not the norm, I mean I know that I can’t eat 30 cups of berries in a day). So something that we need to be aware of is that in moderation this is an absolutely safe and beneficial nutrient to be consuming, but once you hit that 40-50g range you need to be aware that it’s no longer beneficial.
So then let’s look at vegetables, which actually have a higher concentration of phytochemicals than fruits so you are getting more antioxidants, tons of minerals, and vitamins, you tend to get more fiber which is important for regulating digestion. So limiting fruit and focusing on vegetable consumption is really really important.
And know that the more vegetables that you eat the lower your risk of almost everything is. And there’s this magic thing that happens at 5 servings of veggies per day - so a serving is typically a cup, or 2 cups if you are talking about leafy greens - that’s the point where you start to see lower rates of cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and more. So the higher your vegetable intake is the lower your disease risk is.
So there is a study that was done by the Cornell Food lab that looked at the perception of a meal that had a vegetable as a side dish vs. the exact same meal with something like a dinner roll as the side. And the really interesting thing with this was that the COOK of the meal with the vegetable side was actually viewed as being almost heroic. So it wasn’t just the view of the meal that was different, but the person who was cooking it was viewed as being altruistic and responsible - so just a really positive view even from the kids. So adding vegetables to your meal is actually going to improve your families perception of the job that you are doing.
So this is amazing. As we talk about putting extra effort into improving our our vegetable consumption and helping our families eat more vegetables, this study shows that we actually get more bang for our buck for going through that effort and it it’s going to pay off in more than just the health of our families but also in how they feel nurtured and cared for by us.
For me I try and have at least two vegetables with every meal. Most often that’s a starchy and a non-starchy vegetable, and sometimes there are more vegetables in a dish, but typically I’ll make a starchy vegetable like potatoes or sweet potatoes and then some other kind of non-starchy vegetable. Now I don’t have kids, so there might be some more work that needs to go into figuring out what your kids will eat, but giving them a choice can also be helpful. And then once you figure out what they will and won’t eat you can narrow down your options at dinner.
But the starchy vegetable takes the place of the grain (or sometimes we have rice, but not more than a few times a month at this point) and then the addition of another vegetable side - usually roasted broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Lately I’ve been doing sautéed cabbage because it’s easy. Or I’ll make a veggie side with several different veggies, so like bell peppers and zucchini sautéed together.
And my favorite way to get vegetables in at breakfast is to take whatever I’m eating for breakfast and just put it over the top of arugula or spinach and that gets me at least one serving at breakfast.
It’s also important to try and get a little bit of variety - which is easiest if you shop seasonal vegetables at the Farmer’s Market or choose what’s on sale at the store. We definitely have our staple veggies, which are broccoli and Brussels sprouts, but I try really hard to rotate out some other choices in order to get good variety. But I would say that eating the same vegetables over and over again is far better than not eating them because you can’t find enough vegetables you like to get some variety.
Another way to make sure that you are getting the nutrients form a variety of vegetables is to use something like Dr. Cowan’s Garden vegetable powders which I talked about a couple of weeks ago because you can sprinkle those on tons of things and get the benefit of variety, but you don’t actually have to eat the variety, so sprinkle your roasted Brussels sprouts or broccoli with veggie powder and you’ve doubled your vegetable servings and nutritional power. But as I said when I talked about these before - this DOES NOT give you the right to skip your whole vegetables.
Eating vegetables decreases your risk of cancer
One of my absolute favorite arguments refuting the study that shows that meat causes cancer (it was a big deal on the internet a year or two ago) is looking at the consumption of meat in context with vegetable consumption.
There is a link between heme (a component of hemoglobin in your blood that is responsible for the binding of oxygen, and it’s what makes red meat red) and cancer. So the heme is metabolized by the cells that line our intestines into a toxic carcinogenic compound. So when we eat red meat, the heme in it is converted into compounds that cause cancer.
EXCEPT when chlorophyll is also present in the digestive tract.
So structurally, chlorophyll is almost identical to heme (it’s the substance in plants that make them green and is responsible for plants being able to convert sunlight into energy), except that it has magnesium at the center instead of iron at the center like heme does. And if chlorophyll is also present, instead of heme being metabolized into toxic compounds that cause cancer, it’s metabolized into completely harmless compounds.
So because the link between meat and cancer is all tied into the protein in the meat (so the quality of the meat actually doesn’t matter in this case, which was an argument that a lot of Paleo people made - that the study looked at conventionally raised meat not grass-fed, but in this case that doesn’t matter).
There’s also a link between L-carnitine and cancer, and it turns out that the bacteria that love to eat grains in digestive tract are responsible for the conversion of L-carnitine into carcinogenic compounds so if you aren’t eating grains and you are eating a lot of vegetables and your gut bacteria reflects that, you’re in good shape here.
So it is really hard to argue with the importance of vegetable consumption.
And they are important in cancer prevention even outside of the idea that they prevent red meat from causing cancer because they contain so many beneficial nutrients that benefit your immune system. And remember that cancer is actually a failure of your immune system, though not in the same way that an autoimmune disease is. So in cancer the cells whose job it is to look for cells that are rapidly dividing when they shouldn’t be and kill them, aren’t doing their job.
So high vegetable consumption is so important for your immune system, and cancer prevention.
What is a serving of vegetables?
So the average American eats fewer than 2 servings of vegetables per day, and I think that it was the USDA that declared that corn and ketchup are vegetables in the last few years. I hate to bust your bubble, but those are not vegetables. Sorry!
Anyway, Americans are eating an insanely low number of vegetables each day and that needs to change.
I’m not always good about eating vegetables at every meal - so sometimes I’ll have a snack that doesn’t have any or eat leftover meat and starch, but I try and make sure to balance that out in other meals. So I shoot for 8 or more servings of vegetables a day, and this sounds like a lot, but something like a salad would be around 5 servings depending on how big it is.
But what actually constitutes a serving. According to the USDA it’s 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables or 2 cups of leafy greens like lettuce or spinach. There are a few exceptions to this - so if it’s a starchy vegetable (like a sweet potato) ½ cup is a serving.
How many servings should you eat?
As I mentioned earlier, 5 servings per day is the limit where you really start to see the benefits of eating them, so that might be 2 cups of vegetables at lunch and 3 cups at dinner.
We also know that the higher your vegetable consumption is, the greater the benefits, so there doesn’t seem to be an upper limit on this. There probably is, but we don’t know what that is.
And I would actually say that if you are suffering from any sort of autoimmune or chronic health condition, you should be eating more than 5 cups per day, probably even at least 8 or 9 servings in order to really maximize the benefits. And this is something that I work pretty closely with my patients on because it’s so important.
Vegetables are some of the main sources of many of the nutrients that you cells need to function properly and for them to make energy. And if you don’t give them enough of what they need, they are going to stop being efficient at their job and you’ll eventually get sick. So, eating more vegetables is probably the easiest way to do that. I know it doesn’t sound easy, but it’s easier than getting sick.
And it’s important to remember that there are tons of nutrients in vegetables that we don’t really know what they do, so we can’t specifically say that you need to eat x, y, or z vegetable if you have whatever health condition or in order to get whatever health benefit, but what we do know is that you are healthier if you eat more vegetables.
This makes it hard to put a solid range on the number of servings too, but I would say that 5 is absolutely the minimum. And really, eat as many of them as possible. It’s unlikely that you be able to eat too many - I think the studies have shown that up to 20 servings to be beneficial but there’s no data beyond that.
And while you might be completely overwhelmed at the idea of eating 5 or 9 servings of vegetables a day, it’s a process. I certainly didn’t wake up one day and go from eating three servings to eating 9. And I also think it’s important to understand that while the major benefits come from eating 5+ servings of vegetables daily, a little is still better than nothing. I mean, just ⅕ of a serving of leafy green vegetables is associated with a 13% decrease in your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. That’s like ⅓ of a cup of leafy greens, which is pretty much nothing.
Antinutrients in vegetables
One other thing that I hear a fair amount are questions about the anti-nutrients in vegetables. So vegetables have phytates and oxalates in them. And those are anti-nutrients because they bind important minerals, like calcium and iron, so they are not available for your body to use, and especially when we look at vegetables as a dominant source of minerals you want those minerals to be available to your body.
One of the jobs of the bacteria in our gut is to liberate the minerals from the antinutrients so our body can absorb it. So having a healthy gut microbiome and a healthy digestive tract actually means that we are able to absorb those nutrients and what happens with these is that they are pretty tightly bound, but once they are bound in the say leaf of spinach, they are bound and not available to us. So they aren’t leaching minerals from our body and they aren’t binding up the minerals from the other food that we might be eating at the same time.
There’s this misconception that if we are eating foods that have antinutrients in them that we are leaching minerals from our body, but that is absolutely not the case.
Juicing vs. whole vegetables
So you might be thinking that it’s going to be so easy to get your 9 servings of vegetables per day because you’ll just juice a whole bunch of them with some fruit and get it all in one giant glass, but that’s NOT actually a good way to go about it.
Putting your vegetables in a smoothie is perfectly acceptable because you are putting the whole vegetable in there and blending it up, but juicing is just extracting the juice and leaving a lot of fiber and other nutrients on the table.
So many of the nutrients that we need from vegetables are actually bound to the fiber so when we juice you’ve liberate the sugar and gotten rid of the fiber so it’s hitting your bloodstream so much faster because the fiber is what slows down that process. And so it becomes a much higher sugar product and the fiber is so important for feeding your gut bacteria so you’re leaving something that’s super important behind.
And tons of the phytonutrients are bound to the fiber so you are not only harming your gut bacteria by not giving them the fiber they need, but you are also missing out on tons of nutrients that are important for you body. So it’s ALWAYS important to eat the whole vegetable.
What conditions are vegetables protective against?
As I said before, the benefits of vegetables are massive. They are protective against almost every chronic disease that affects our modern society.
Vegetables supply critical nutrients for proper immune function and boosting gut health when helps to protect against autoimmune disease. High vegetable intake has been linked with a decrease in inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis.
Vegetables have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system - because they have potassium, calcium, and magnesium they promote healthy blood pressure. Their fiber content helps to control cholesterol levels. And one study found that in women the risk of dying was decreased by 38% amongst those who were consuming the most vegetables.
We’ve already discussed how vegetables are protective against cancer.
They can help reduce your risk of diabetes because of the micronutrient content as well as the fiber content. They protect against osteoporosis because they supply calcium (no, you do not need milk for calcium), magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamin K. Berry consumption has been linked to higher bone density.
So you can see that vegetables are an incredibly important part of a healthy diet. They are rich in vitamins and minerals, they have plenty of fiber to support a healthy gut, and they are full of phytochemicals which have many benefits, a lot of which we don’t even know about yet!
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for you this week. I hope all of this has been helpful for you and you’re excited to go out and try some new vegetables! As always, if you are enjoying this show, I’d love it if you’d leave a rating and review on iTunes so that other people can find the show too. See you next week!