“Plant Toxins” – When Misunderstanding Nutritional Science Results In Disordered Eating

"Plant Toxins" - When Misunderstanding Nutritional Science Results In Disordered Eating

The latest part in our Debunking Fad Diets & Pseudo-science series and up this time I am tackling the topic of “Plant Toxins”.

With the rise in popularity of dangerous extreme all meat/animal food fad diets such as “Carnivore”, we are now seeing a massive wave of misinformation and incorrect claims being made towards healthy plant-foods.

Something I have learned after years of being around the online diet industry is that bad advice is infectious and travels at a fast pace.

It only takes one or two promoters on social media to make an incorrect claim and it can almost become an ingrained cult dogmatic belief in some of these diet communities that can last decades.

“Plant toxins” has now become a generic buzzword which is used mostly by the carnivore and low carb diet communities as a way to denigrate consistently proven healthy whole plant-foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole-grains, legumes, healthy oils such as olive oil, medicinal herbs and so on.

Any scary chemical sounding nutritional factor from “anti-nutrients” such as phytic acid to even consistently proven healthy phyto-nutrients such as polyphenols are now universally being deemed as “plant-toxins” by many of the carnivore and anti-plant food fad diet promoters.

We have now reached the point where its just purposeful disinformation being churned out so that entrepreneurs can promote their carnivore fad diet or extreme all meat/animal food diet rhetoric.

In this article I am going to take a look at some of the most commonly demonized nutritional factors in the carnivore “diet” movement including the likes of phytic acid, tannins, goitrogens, lectins, phyto-estrogens and more.



1. Phytic Acid

Anti-Nutrients Explained Carnivore Diet Phytic Acid

“Anti-nutrients” such as phytic acid are probably one of the most banded about generic reasons used by the carnivore fad diet promoters for why humans should now stop eating all healthy plant-foods such as grains, nuts or seeds.

Of course this is based on a complete irrational fear and misunderstanding of the role that phytic acid can actually play in the human diet and its numerous potential therapeutic health benefits.

Foods which contain phytic acid include grains, nuts, seeds and legumes for example.

I covered phytic acid briefly in the previous carnivore diet debunked article I wrote.

However, given phytic acid is still a very popular nutritional factor with significant misinformation behind it, it has become essential to cover this topic again.

The published peer reviewed literatures searched showed that phytic acid, though an anti-nutrient, plays an indispensable role directly or indirectly in several disease conditions.

It exhibits antioxidant function, a property that qualifies it to possess multiple medicinal values like: anti-diabetic, anticancer, anti-inflammatory properties to mention a few.

Its chelating property affects the absorption and toxicities associated with essential and nonessential heavy metals, a scenario that could prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson diseases and other related diseases.

The medicinal values of phytic acid outweighed its negative impact. [1]

For healthy individuals following nutrient sufficient diets, phytic acid really isn’t of any significant concern as far as its “anti-nutritional factor” properties are concerned in my opinion.

Certainly not to the point of individuals needing to remove all healthy whole plant-foods from their diet.

Phytic acid also has a higher affinity for binding to the likes of free-iron and heavy metals than it does beneficial minerals.

Which for individuals now trying to follow extreme all meat/animal food fad diets such as carnivore, which would in theory have a potentially very excessive intake of highly absorbable heme-iron.

Couple that with a “diet” containing absolutely no chelative compounds from plant-foods its a complete recipe for disaster in my opinion.

Intake of “anti-nutrients” such as phytic acid might actually be of benefit to bind to free-iron and other metals such as copper, which are sometimes consumed in imbalanced quantities via excessive liver/organ meat intake on the Carnivore/Raw Primal style “diets”.

2. Tannins

Tannins Carnivore Keto Coffee

Tannins are another “anti-nutrient” which is commonly used by the carnivore and low carb diet proponents as reasoning why we should avoid eating even the likes of fruits.

I find this notion of having to militantly remove all healthy plant-foods from your diet due to the likes of “plant toxins such as tannins” hilarious because both tea and coffee drinking is hugely popular in both the carnivore and low carb/ketogenic diet communities.

Most of these carnivore and low carb diet proponents are that clueless to basic nutritional chemistry that they don’t realize that tea and coffee are amongst the richest dietary sources of tannins, about 10x+ more than any berries or fruit ever contains.

Yet they are completely happy to allow themselves cup after cup of “keto butter” coffees or drinking tea on a daily basis, all whilst telling their fans that one must remove all healthy whole plant-foods from their diet due to fearing these exact same nutritional compounds.

This is before we get back to the fact that much like phytic acid, tannins actually have some health benefits according to the research such as cardiovascular and cancer-fighting properties because of the antioxidant activity of tannins.

Long-term studies have generally not found significant changes in iron status from tannins, compared to single meal studies.

Again this where a degree of common sense and discretion needs to be applied.

If you are an individual with existing iron deficiency then consuming excessive amounts of high tannin foods and beverages such as coffee/tea should probably be avoided, especially close to meals.

Otherwise tannins generally speaking have potential benefits and are not a justifiable reason to start removing all healthy plant-foods such as fruits and vegetables from the diet.

3. Goitrogens

Goitrogen Foods Carnivore Diet Debunked

Goitrogens are another common nutritional compound that is now being used to scare individuals into believing that eating green vegetables will lead them to developing thyroid disorders.

Goitrogens are substances which can interfere with the normal function of the thyroid gland.

Foods which naturally contain goitrogens or possess goitrogenic activity include the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, turnips, sweet potatoes, cassava, lima beans, linseed, sorghum and soy foods.

For normal healthy individuals that don’t have iodine deficiency and/or hypothyroidism, goitrogens really aren’t the over-blown concern that they are often made out to be.

Cooking for example can significantly reduce and inactivate goitrogenic substances.

Pending you have sufficient dietary intake of Iodine (which of course many don’t) and you aren’t consuming excessive quantities of goitrogenic foods for example cruciferous greens in their raw state, goitrogens aren’t likely going to pose a huge concern in the context of a balanced diet pattern.

Like most of the other nutritional factors on our list, goitrogenic foods are not enough justification to generically start removing all healthy whole plant-foods from one’s diet.

4. Oxalates & “Oxalate Toxicity or Oxalate Poisoning..”

Oxalates Carnivore Diet Debunked Kidney Stones Spinach

Oxalates have become arguably one of the most popular “plant toxins” and are generically used as reasoning why humans should exclude all healthy plant-foods from the diet.

There is a now a significant amount of misinformation being promoted about dietary oxalate to the point its fast becoming the next dietary cholesterol “boogeyman” of nutritional villains.

Oxalates are now being incorrectly blamed from causing everything from autoimmune diseases to functional GI disorders such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).

Some of the most commonly consumed oxalate-rich foods include spinach, potatoes, chocolate, beets and nuts.

Are oxalates such a massive dietary concern when it comes to causing kidney stones that we need to stop eating the likes of healthy leafy greens such as spinach and other oxalate rich plant-foods completely?

Dietary oxalate may play a role in calcium oxalate kidney stone formation, however the relationship appears far from clear according to the data.

“Oxalate intake and spinach were not associated with risk in younger women.

These data do not implicate dietary oxalate as a major risk factor for nephrolithiasis.” [3]

Again much like goitrogens, this is where a degree of common sense needs applied.

If you have a history of kidney stones, then by all means it’s probably sensible dietary advice to restrict or avoid excessive intake of oxalate-rich foods.

But the irony here once again is that high meat/animal protein diets are also considered to be harmful dietary risk factor for individuals with Nephrolithiasis.

Available scientific evidence agrees on the harmful effects of high meat/animal protein intake and low calcium diets, whereas high content of fruits and vegetables associated with a balanced intake of low-fat dairy products carries the lowest risk for incident kidney stones. [4]

5. Phyto-Estrogens

Phyto-estrogens debunked

Next up on our list of misunderstood nutritional factors is phyto-estrogens.

There are many wild claims when it comes to phyto-estrogen rich foods such as Soy.

Some of these extreme claims include Soy foods being blamed for causing everything from gynocomastaia (man boobs) to “feminizing men”.

This couldn’t be further from the truth once again and “phyto-estrogens” are easy prey for manipulative fad diet promoters such as the carnivores with their anti-plant rhetoric and agendas.

Phyto-estrogens are weak mimicking pseudo-estrogenic compounds, which actually bind to receptor sites so that more harmful and stronger estrogens are not uptaken.

It is for this reason then that the research has found that phyto-estrogens actually have numerous potential health benefits from balancing hormones/anti-estrogenic activity, reducing menopause symptoms, increasing bone density and much more.

The irony here once again is that the carnivores and those trying to promote extreme all or high meat/animal food “diets” fear phyto-estrogenic compounds, which are hundreds of times weaker than the estrogens even naturally found in meat and animal foods.

Of which there is now research which implicates that dietary estrogen intake from animal foods might promote estrogen accumulation in humans and play a role in hormone-associated cancers.

“Consequently, dietary estrogen intake from meat might promote estrogen accumulation in the human body and could be related to the incidence of hormone-dependent cancers.” – [5]

Whilst the majority of the literature on phyto-estrogens has found that they may possess potential anti-cancer effect such as reducing risk of various cancers such as ovarian, prostate and others. – [6]

To expand upon and further debunk the claim that Soy-foods “may feminize men” due to the phyto-estrogen content by lowering levels of male reproductive hormones such as Testosterone and increasing Estrogen is not an evidence-based claim either.

A fairly recent updated meta-analysis published in 2021 concluded:

This updated and expanded meta-analysis indicates that regardless of dose and study duration, neither soy protein nor isoflavone exposure affects TT, FT, E2 or E1 levels in men. – [8]

It also makes me laugh when I see various diet promoters demonizing foods such as Soy for containing phyto-estrogens, then in the next breath they are recommending foods such as flaxseed or beans/legumes, which contain comparable or even higher quantities of phyto-estrogens.

Of course we rarely ever hear wild crazy claims about flaxseed or other legumes “feminizing men” or causing males to sporadically develop “man boobs” all of a sudden.

Overall, phyto-estrogens within the context of a balanced diet pattern are likely to have health benefits, rather than something you would want to militantly try to avoid.

Which would be next to impossible anyway, given the fact that all healthy plant-foods to some degree possess phyto-estrogenic activity.

To avoid phyto-estrogens completely you would need to remove all plant-foods from the diet, which wouldn’t be safe, nutritionally complete or healthy to begin with.

Not to mention the likely high dietary exposure of much stronger estrogens, if calories were to be replaced with nothing but meat and animal foods wouldn’t make any logical sense anyway.

6. Lectins

Lectins Carnivore Diet Debunked

Finally I am going to finish up the article on debunking “Plant Toxins” by addressing Lectins.

Lectins, or hemagglutinins are another “anti-nutrient” which has been the centre of numerous fad diet books and theories over the years.

These fad diet authors blame dietary lectins as being the cause of everything from obesity to autoimmune disorders.

Plant-foods with a high lectin content include raw legumes such as beans, peanuts, lentils, soybeans and peas.  Whole-grains such as wheat also contain lectin.

Much like goitrogens, high temperature cooking or soaking dried beans can inactivate the majority of lectins, making the above foods safe to eat for humans generally speaking.

Cooking, especially with wet high-heat methods like boiling or stewing, or soaking in water for several hours, can inactivate most lectins.[9]

Functional GI disorders such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) are complex, multi-factorial health conditions.

In my opinion I am not convinced in the slightest it is lectins or healthy whole plant-foods containing these foods such as legumes/beans or even whole-grains, which are causing the rise we are seeing in functional GI disorders and the likes of increased intestinal permeability aka “leaky gut syndrome”.

Most of these individuals are coming from a standard typical Western style inflammatory, highly processed refined grain rich diets, which are typically low in gastrointestinal supportive fibers and prebiotic fibers to feed the beneficial gut bacteria and maintain the gut microbiome.

The typical inflammatory highly processed Western diet pattern doesn’t contain much in the way of whole-foods such as legumes/beans, whole-grains or other dietary fiber rich foods to support digestive health.

Generally speaking dietary fiber rich foods such as legumes and whole-grains are very beneficial to support intestinal function and the balance of the gut flora.

The research has also found that it is dysbiosis which is one of the key “drivers” behind the pathophysiology of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).

It is the prebiotic fibers in the human diet which primarily maintain the gut flora.  Diet patterns with excessive meat/animal protein/fat and low fiber are often associated with conditionally increasing pathogenic strains of gut bacteria associated with colorectal cancer development.

Whereas consuming a diet rich in prebiotic fibers has been shown to increase beneficial strains of gut bacteria, which are linked with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer and other gut health benefits.

References

[1] Investigation of the medicinal significance of phytic acid as an indispensable anti-nutrient in diseases

[2] The Impact of Tannin Consumption on Iron Bioavailability and Status: A Narrative Review

[3] Oxalate intake and the risk for nephrolithiasis

[4] Risk of Kidney Stones: Influence of Dietary Factors, Dietary Patterns, and Vegetarian–Vegan Diets

[5] Does dietary estrogen intake from meat relate to the incidence of hormone-dependent cancers?

[6] Phytoestrogen intake and risk of ovarian cancer: a meta- analysis of 10 observational studies

[7] Phytoestrogens and risk of prostate cancer: a meta-analysis of observational studies

[8] Neither soy nor isoflavone intake affects male reproductive hormones: An expanded and updated meta-analysis of clinical studies

[9] Lectins – Harvard T.H Chan School Of Public Health

The information in this article has not been evaluated by the FDA and should not be used to diagnose, cure or treat any disease, implied or otherwise.

Always consult with a qualified healthcare professional before making any significant dietary or lifestyle changes including supplements and herbs.


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