What would you think if I told you to stop eating broccoli, and kale because they’re bad for you?
I imagine you’d find yourself thinking, “this lady doesn’t know anything”, or maybe, “awesome, I don’t have to eat vegetables”, or perhaps even, “she’s had me do weirder things before and they worked out”. Regardless, I feel for most it’s a bit of a surprise to hear that cutting out vegetables may be an expert opinion on achieving better health.
I’m here to offer up that in the vein of “one diet does not fit all”, not all veggies are good for everyone. And some of the worst culprits are universally considered some of the healthiest veggies.
Let me share why I think this is important. A fairly common progression for anyone seeking to take better care of their health is to start with more fruits and veggies. These days I see more and more people reflexively start green juice fasts to “reset” after a holiday food binge or “get clean” just before a wedding or reunion. Perhaps by the end of this article you might see why I wonder if it’s the best idea.
When Good Veggies Go Bad
I want to take a moment and briefly explore what I see in practice and why otherwise nutritious and healthful vegetables can be bad for some of us. Let’s think about plants and what they have going for them in regards to survival. Plants, like animals, really don’t want to get eaten. They would prefer to survive, grow, maybe stretch a bit, live a good life and reproduce. Plants have adapted and developed various rather complex means of defense including a variety of chemical constituents which make them distasteful, and to various degrees, toxic to predators. We could think of these constituents as natural pesticides. Salicylates are a good example.
Like the plants, we’ve adapted too, so a healthy person with a well-functioning digestive tract shouldn’t have any issue at all with the salicylates found in many fruits, veggies and herbs, but for others, salicylates can cause a host of complaints. Asthma, headaches, joint pain, anxiety, and urinary issues are all potential problems associated with the inability to handle salicylates. (Specifically, in ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders we can also find enzyme defects in the sulfation pathways that can interfere with the ability to process salicylate foods.)
Let’s take a look at some other foods and another mechanism. Garlic, chickpeas, avocado and apples are all super healthy foods, right? Again, for most of us, they are. However, if you have ongoing issues with irritable bowel, gas/bloat, or diarrhea, you may not be able to process the specific sugar chain-lengths contained in these otherwise healthy foods. These foods are referred to as high FODMAP foods and can wreak havoc on a susceptible GI tract.
- Oligosaccharides (eg. Fructans and Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS))
- Disaccharides (eg. Lactose)
- Monosaccharides (eg. excess Fructose)
- Polyols (e.g. Sorbitol, Mannitol, Maltitol, Xylitol and Isomalt)
Now for some different groups of veggies and yet another mechanism. The Brassicaceae and Allium families, some of my all time favorite foods, are recognized for helping us metabolize harmful estrogens, prevent cancer and detoxify. These foods garner some of the greatest respect for their healthful properties with broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, garlic and onion topping the list. Again, while they are wonderful for most of us, if you have a genetic issue that diminishes your ability to process the sulfur content of these foods, you could experience significant brain fog, fatigue, depression, chemical sensitivity or even fibromyalgia type symptoms from consuming them regularly.
We’ve only briefly touched salicylates, FODMAPs, and sulfur but there are several more constituents whose potential for negative effects are well characterized… histamine, tyramine, oxalates, glutamate… the list goes on. All found in different foods; all causing different physical signs and symptoms, but I won’t bore you here.
It’s About You.
My point is not to overwhelm you, but to continue to encourage you to respect your uniqueness and find what works for you. Hopefully, you can clearly see that the “one size fits all” diet can’t work for all of us. The “take-home” is that we all need to really think about how food is affecting us. Uniquely, vegetables have usually been given a pass because, “how could they be bad for us?” Now we know we need to pay closer attention.
Case Example: A client of mine with a beautiful diet, excellent exercise routine and essentially no health complaints received her 23andMe results that indicated she doesn’t process sulfur well. For an image I usually explain that while many people have an 8-lane highway to process the sulfur in their body, she only has 2 or 3 lanes. Too many sulfur “cars” on the highway can cause a back up, and potentially, symptoms. It gets more complex when describing what symptoms and why but I think you get the picture. She’s young and healthy and doesn’t have any great health complaints but when she decreased her sulfur containing foods in her diet, she soon found that she no longer smelled the morning after a cocktail party. I guess it had really bothered her because she was ecstatic. This may seem an issue of vanity but in my mind, it reflects her body’s ability to process acetaldehyde (alcohol metabolite) much more efficiently. Her deep love for beans and garlic and broccoli (sulfur foods) was indirectly causing a back up of acetaldehyde by way of depleting essential nutrients necessary for its breakdown. She didn’t recognize how significant this was, but acetaldehyde is perhaps 30 times more toxic than alcohol. Simply put, her body has unique needs that we needed to appreciate. The seemingly narrow aesthetic benefit of better body odor reflects a huge change that will actually greatly improve her health, now and across her lifetime.
How to Identify Your Needs
Chronic, unresolved health complaint? Maybe you need to investigate. Brain fog and fatigue, but on a stellar high vegetable diet? Investigate. Trying to get an extra serving of fruit in each day but suffering gas and bloat? Investigate. Anything? Investigate. Play with your food and pay attention to what your body is telling you. There are some common reasons why someone doesn’t tolerate these healthy foods:
- Gut infection, gut dysbiosis (altered gut flora), or SIBO (small intestine bacteria overgrowth), leaky gut
- Too many years of poor quality, low nutrient foods.
- Genetic predisposition to inefficient metabolism of certain food constituents.
- Stress: an over active stress response will wear away at the digestive lining and create an imbalance. Foods that were once tolerated may no longer work for your system.
Before you dump your green smoothie or skip the garden salad, I’ll say that the majority of people will feel much better and prevent the onset of many chronic health issues by adding more plant-based foods to their diet. But don’t give them a universal pass if you’re trying to figure out why you feel the way you do. Here’s a plan to start making sense of it for yourself.
- Metabolic CHARGE Journal (and How to Use)- track food intake and associated symptoms… very important, essential step.
- Genetic testing with 23andMe – find common genetic mutations that affect metabolism of specific nutrients.
- Digestive Stool Analysis – Assess digestive function from top to bottom
- IgG/IgA Food Panels – Assess food-related immune function
- Organic Acids Test – Nutritional and Metabolic function profile
- Adrenal Stress Testing – Assess the function of your stress response
You certainly don’t need all of these tests and there are others to consider… it always depends on you and your health. But each test provide an additional area to focus in the journey to health.
Before I go, I need to clarify that “Health is to be enjoyed.” You SHOULD NOT have to micromanage your diet. Every well functioning system should be able to eat and enjoy a wide variety of foods. BUT, it’s often necessary to make diet change in the short term for long term health. The goal with everyone is to feel better first and then add back in the foods they love.