Today, the conventional image of health looks like a slim, narrow-hipped woman leaving a health-food store with bags filled to the brim of colorful vegetables and “plant-based” meats. She just finished yoga class before arriving at the store so she made sure to stop at the prepared food section to pick up a salad topped with a wide variety of nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Just a century ago, however, a health-conscious woman like this didn’t exist. She couldn't have. Because nowhere in the world would she have been able to so easily access groceries shipped from thousands of miles away or foods processed in massive facilities. She couldn’t have shopped for large containers of oat milk and vegetable oil or perfectly uniform fruits and vegetables.
At no point in history have such a large variety of plant foods been so readily available every single day of the year.
But just because plant-eating, climate-concerned Becky is less overweight and seemingly more healthy than the average American, doesn’t mean she’s the poster child of health. Because her diet, while more nutrient-dense than the average American, is too filled with dangerous toxins - just not the ones manufactured in industrial food processing facilities.
Plant toxins (lectins, oxalates, phytic acid, tannins, etc) are nature’s pesticides and an integral part of how plants protect themselves from being eaten. When consumed by humans, some can kill us while others can be relatively harmless. But they can also bioaccumulate - slowly destroying our cells and potentially leading to all sorts of chronic health problems including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, neurological conditions and kidney stones (to name just a few).
Personally, I love plants. I love to be among them, smell them and even eat them (preferably accompanying a nice steak). And I appreciate that when processed and used correctly, plants have an incredible ability to provide medicine and help heal. But I also have noticed a big improvement in my own health by greatly limiting them in my diet and while studying why that is, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s worth removing the rainbow-filled bowl of plant diversity from the pedestal we’ve placed it on.
The reality is that plant-foods have the potential to be extremely harmful to our health and understanding how to avoid their worst effects can help us create a more positive relationship with them.
Here are some considerations:
A lot of pre-industrial cultures had the collective knowledge, time and resources to properly process foods to help alleviate many of the toxins present in plants. Using methods like fermentation, soaking, and sprouting, they were able to maximize the nutrients in plant foods while also decreasing the toxicity of them. The book Eat Like a Human is an invaluable resource that lays out the history and processes behind these methods.
Seasonality and locality are no longer the limit of vegetable and grain access as industrial food production and grocery stores are able to make them available year-round. Consider eating as seasonally and locally as possible - this will give the body time to detox while naturally limiting the amount of plant foods (and therefore toxins) that we consume.
Modern agricultural practices have selectively bred for species that look attractive in grocery stores but lack the same nutritional value as their predecessors. Additionally, they are often sprayed with anti-microbial chemicals that when consumed, destroy the bacteria that our body needs to be able to break down toxins. Buying from a farm directly and getting to know their growing practices is a solid way to avoid some of those issues.
An overwhelming majority of Americans suffer from poor gut health, meaning that plant toxins can more easily permeate the gut lining, enter the bloodstream and travel to vulnerable areas of the body. A healthy gut, on the other hand, can easily handle small amounts of plant toxins without a problem.
Some plant toxins can bind to minerals in animal foods (for example, oxalates bind to the calcium in dairy products), which can help to reduce their absorption in the body. The trend of replacing dairy products with vegan alternatives has resulted in increased plant toxin absorption for many people.
Lastly, the so-called plant “super-foods” are often the highest in oxalates, leaving some of the most health-conscious among us with odd health issues. Some of the worst culprits, for example, are beets, sweet potatoes, almonds, cashews, chocolate, turmeric and green tea.
If you’re someone who has relied heavily on plant-foods for nutrition, you may want to consider slowly eliminating them from your diet for awhile before adding them back following some of the guidelines above. If you’re worried about missing out on nutrients, just know that there is nothing nutritionally in plants that you cannot get from an animal when you eat it in its entirety - including the bones, connective tissue, and organs. Seasonal fruits, honey, and some of the less toxic vegetables (avocado, cucumber, squash, carrots) can also be pretty safe for most people while healing.
Best of luck on your journey,
(Graphics by Eros Dervishi)