Thursday, January 27, 2011

Vegetables Are Nutritionally Useless? Try Again Zoe.

Zoe Harcombe, a Cambridge graduate currently studying for a PhD in nutrition, wrote a piece for Mail Online  in which she claims that vegetables and fruits are nutritionally useless.  I consider it worthwhile to examine her “argument” carefully. Here we go:

“People are convinced that fruit and vegetables are a particularly good source of vitamins and minerals.

“For a long time, I too was a believer. I was a vegetarian for 20 years. It is only after nearly two decades of my own research — I am a Cambridge graduate and currently studying for a PhD in nutrition —that I have changed my views.”

Nice stab at an appeal to your own authority. It does not matter to me whether you graduated from Cambridge or taught yourself, and I don’t care about PhDs either, only care whether you use facts and logic properly. I was also a vegetarian for many years, no longer, but being a vegetarian doesn’t make you knowledgable about nutrition or vegetables either.

“The message that fruit and veg are pretty useless, nutritionally, gradually dawned on me.”

Zoe, you can’t rationally talk about the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables generically, because they—particularly vegetables—vary too much in nutrient content.  Its like saying that motorized vehicles are “pretty useless” for traveling to the moon—which motorized vehicles are you talking about?  There's a vast difference in nutrient density between zucchini and collards. Think, Zoe, think.

“The facts are these. There are 13 vitamins and fruit is good for one of them, vitamin C.

“Vegetables offer some vitamins — vitamin C and the vegetable form of the fat-soluble vitamins A and vitamin K1 — but your body will be able to absorb these only if you add some fat, such as butter or olive oil.

“The useful forms of A and K — ­retinol and K2 respectively — are found only in animal foods. As for minerals, there are 16 and fruit is good for one of them, potassium, which is not a substance we are often short of, as it is found in water.”

Whoa….hold on Zoe. The you just said that fruit is "pretty useless," then you say it is good for vitamin C. You can’t have it both ways, both useless and useful. Then, the fact that you need to have some fat with vegetables to absorb carotenoids and K1 does not make vegetables useless. This is like saying that autos are useless because you have to fill them with gasoline to make them work.  Perhaps you forgot that you also have to consume fat with retinol and K2 as well, putting them in that respect on par with K1 and carotenoids.

Next, you state that carotenes and vitamin K2 are the useful form of the A and the K complex, implying that K1 is not useful, which is simply wrong. We need K1 for normal blood clotting function. Moreover, it appears that vitamin K1 can protect arterial elasticity . As for carotenes, perhaps you consider them useless, but I don’t feel so certain, since humans accumulate carotenes in various tissues, they appear associated across species with longevity,  we have evidence that they provide photoprotection, and may have roles in fertility and breast health.

“Vegetables can be OK for iron and calcium but the vitamins and minerals in animal foods (meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) beat those in fruit and vegetables hands down. There is far more vitamin A in liver than in an apple, for instance.”

Again you contradict yourself, after saying vegetables are “pretty useless, nutritionally” you admit that they contain iron and calcium. Then you set up a straw man argument by comparing apples, which contain no vitamin A, to liver, which does contain vitamin A. Since you assert that meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products beat “fruit and vegetables hands down,” let’s compare collards and beef sirloin on a gram for gram basis, first for vitamins:

Click for larger version


• Collards excel in folate (10:1), vitamin C, provitamin A (as carotenoids) , vitamin K1 (400:1), and vitamin E (almost 2:1).
• Beef excels in B1 (1.5:1), B2 (1.2:1), B3 (12:1), B5 (2.4:1), choline (~3:1), B6 (~4:1), and B12.
• Of 12 vitamins, collards excels in 5, beef sirloin in 7.
• Where collards excel, they do so by greater margins than by where sirloin excels.

Consider that the beef supplies nearly 10 times the caloric value of the collards, which means the nutrient density of collards relative to caloric content far exceeds that of beef. Thus, looking at vitamins, I find it hard to dismiss “vegetables” as nutritionally useless. Collards provide far more folate, vitamin C, K1, and E than beef, as well as carotenoids which may or may not have vitamin A value depending on the genetic constitution of the consumer, but which in any case may have functions in photoprotection and fertility. Although we absorb only about 10% of K1 in vegetables if consumed with fat, discounting the K1 in collards by 90% they still deliver amost 30 times more K1 than beef sirloin.

Now for minerals:
Click for larger version


• Collards excel in calcium (8:1) and manganese (44:1).
• Beef clearly excels in iron (1.5:1), phosphorus (almost 7:1), potassium (about 2:1), zinc (20:1), copper (>2:1), and selenium (60:1).
• The value for magnesium is not significantly different (beef:collards = 1.1:1)

Thus, collards equal or exceed beef sirloin as a source of calcium, magnesium, and manganese, while beef provides more iron, etc. Again, I don’t see how one can say that “vegetables” are nutritionally useless compared to animal products until you specify which vegetables and which animal products you want to compare.

If you compare kale and beef sirloin on a calorie for calorie basis, you find something even more remarkable:
Click on image for larger version

So kcalorie for kcalorie kale provides:

• 93 times more calcium

• twice as much iron

• 3.75 times as much magnesium

• five times as much potassium,

• 2486 more units of provitamin A activity (mostly in humans not forming A, but used as carotenoids)

• 2.4 times as much thiamin

• 44 times as much vitamin E

• almost ten times as much folate

• and 86 mg more vitamin C.

If that makes kale nutritionally useless, I don’t know what would make it useful.

If I compared these greens to eggs, milk, liver, or any other animal product, the results would be different.  I'm not claiming that vegetables are superior to animal products, only argue against the headline grabbing claim that vegetables are "pretty useless." 

Comparing apples to liver for vitamin A content makes you, Zoe, look like the inverse of the vegetarians who attack animal products for not supplying fiber and carbohydrates.  Apples aren't useless because they don't provide retinol, and liver isn't useless because it doesn't have fiber or much vitamin C.   Jets aren't useless because you can't drive them on highways, and cars aren't useless because they don't fly. 

“But surely, people ask, even if there is no evidence that increasing our intake of fruit and vegetables will help prevent disease, they remain good things to eat?

“I don’t think so. If people try to add five portions of fruit and veg — let alone eight — a day to their diet, it can be counterproductive. Fruit contains high levels of fructose, or fruit sugar.

“Among dieticians, fructose is known as ‘the fattening carbohydrate’. It is not metabolised by the body in the same way as glucose, which enters the bloodstream and has a chance to be used for energy before it heads to the liver.

“Fructose goes straight to the liver and is stored as fat. Very few people understand or want to believe this biochemical fact.”

Here’s another straw man. One can easily eat 5 portions of vegetables daily (2.5 cups cooked) and avoid your dreaded fructose. Further, the statement “Fructose goes straight to the liver and is stored as fat” is out of context, namely the context of energy expenditure. It will only be stored as fat if that fat is not needed for use as energy.

“Another argument that is often put forward by dieticians on behalf of fruit and vegetables is that they are ‘a source of antioxidants’.”

Funny, just above you are quoting dieticians as the supreme source of knowledge on the metabolism of fructose, but now you put them downs as stupid for believing in plant foods as sources of antioxidants.

Tell us more:

“The biggest tragedy of all is the lost opportunity from this misguided five-a-day campaign.

“If only we had hand-picked the five foodstuffs that are actually most nutritious and spent what the Department of Health has spent on promoting fruit and vegetables over the past 20 years on recommending them, we could have made an ­enormous difference to the health and weight of our nation.

“If you ask me, these foodstuffs are liver (good for all vitamins and packed with minerals), sardines (for vitamin D and calcium), eggs (all-round super-food with vitamins A, B, D, E and K, iron, zinc, calcium and more), sunflower seeds (magnesium, vitamin E and zinc) and dark-green vegetables such as broccoli or spinach (for vitamins C, K and iron).”

WHAT? Zoe, you started this article telling us that vegetables aren’t good sources of vitamins or minerals, and said that K1 in vegetables is useless, and then you even implied that they aren't even "good to eat," but now you tell us we should eat dark-green vegetables of vitamins C, K(1), and iron? Give me a break. You clearly attacked “vegetables” just to grab a headline.

You haven't given me a very good impression of Cambridge graduates or whatever PhD (piled high and dry?) program you're completing.  Try again Zoe.

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Toban said...

Not useless, but not essential either—consider the Inuit.

Her top 5 foods were great, except for sunflower seeds.

All in all, this is a nice change from the lipid hypothesis. Her message is pro-animal foods and hence much more paleo friendly than the status quo in nutrition science.

Don said...


perhaps not essential. Its hard to estimate the importance of plant foods consumed by Inuit and other largely carnivorous human tribes. And whether essential or not may depend on whether eating wild and grass-finished animal products, or conventional. The meats and fats eaten by Inuit have unique nutritional characteristics not found in modern conventional meats and fats. For example, whale blubber is a great source of vitamin C; caribou guts and fats contain lots of carotenes; and so on. If you eat meat raised entirely on greens, you might not need greens yourself; but if you don't, I think we may have an open question.

malpaz said...

collards and kale, two of my favorite veggies...waiting on a good frost so i can pick my collards and get to eating them!!

Todd Hargrove said...

Interesting link on what Zoe actually eats:

Todd Hargrove said...

Interesting link on what Zoe actually eats:

Al said...

Don, the following is asked, not by way of being argumentative, but rather because
I value your comments.

In your recent posts, you pointed out that conventional feedlot beef is NOT full of toxins. Are you now saying that it may be badly lacking in water-soluble vitamins and minerals? And yes, I do understand that all forage-grass is not equally rich in nutrients.... but unless we buy our own steers direct from a known rancher, we have no control over the grass they eat.

with regard to Vitamin C, I've seen the claim that, absent the glucose which preferentially binds to Vitamin receptor sites, we don't need a strong concentration of Vit C to fulfill our needs. One wonders if this is generally true of all water solubles.

Dominic DiCarlo said...

Poor Zoe - first she gets attacked by that unidentifiable carb-sane lady's blog and now this.

Don, you sound a lot like me. My wife complains that no one wants to come over to the house because every time someone says something I immediately attack every sentence that comes out of that person's mouth - it is not fun;my wife forbids me to discuss religion, politics, and nutrition at the dinner table She censors me because of my obsessive need to engage in critical thinking,

Anyways, I think Zoe's argument was not well presented but it is dumbed down for the general public. Perhaps for you she would have to present a turgid tome, that few people would want to read, to get across the idea that fruits and vegetables, on the whole, are an inferior source of nutrition compared to animal products or, as Toban says, "not essential".

Your approach to her is like if a professor were correcting a term paper and only paying attention to grammar (her choice of the word "useless" is unfortunate) and ignoring the content.

Zoe should have used these words from Dr. Jonny Bowden (Living Low Carb, revised edition, 2010, pp. 96-97 ) " The fact is ... there is no physiological need for carbohydrates in the human diet." He goes on to explain that "the fact that there is no dietary need for carbohydrates simply means that we can survive without them."

Matthew said...


I understand your angle and love the blog, but i think this is a bit of a staw man. The mail is a very dumbed-down mainstream paper in the uk (prime low fat, healthy whole grain, wave your pink mini dumbells around on a bosu ball territory), I'm pretty sure that whatever zoe had submitted would have been heavily edited and sensationalised to fit the editorial theme of the paper. Personally I'm just pretty pleased to see this viewpoint in this type of outlet (i.e. eat some damn meat and fat) - its not rationally argued science, but I don't think you would ever see a piece like that published in the mail

Ed said...

Don, good post.

Are the nutrient values for vegetables "net"?

Do they account for being bound up in oxalates, cellulose, or other inhibitors of absorption? I know you focused more on dark green veggies, not sure their phytate content.


Chris said...

Good article.
I would have never learned critical thinking if not for studying nutrition.

Liss said...

I found Zoe's article refreshing in perspective and a big relief for me personally.

I adore vegetables and most fruit, but in the last five years I've learned I cannot eat gluten, dairy, nightshades and FODMAP foods. Does this disappoint me? Of course! But when I eat strict primal/paleo and avoid the foods that irritate my gut, I feel well and happy. When I stray I feel lousy.

This is the list of veggies I can safely eat: bok choy, butter lettuce, celery, spinach and a small amount of pumpkin. I also put olives and cacao in this category.

For safe fruit: citrus and a small amount of avocado. When feeling like risking a little fodmap irritation I will eat a small portion of banana or berries.

I'm happy for people who can eat the full variety of fruits and veggies, but I do wish there was more acknowledgement (such as in Zoe's article) that they are not essential and that, for some people, they offer more harm than help.

Lest you think I'm an orthorexic nut I already have 2 autoimmune disorders caused by my years of gluten consumption. My mom got MS (probably in part due to her own gluten intolerance) and I'm desperately trying to avoid that disease. Even if I were nonchalant enough to ignore the social embarrassment of my GI tract noisily not digesting my meals, I really don't dare ignore my gut reacting badly to a food.

I realize I'm in a small minority, but in case there are others out there like me feeling judged harshly for not eating more produce, I thought I should speak up. I enjoy your blog and appreciate the efforts you make to share your knowledge with others.

David Csonka said...

Don't hold back Don! :D

Re: the Inuit, I think they are a great example of what is possible for the human species, but I don't think it is appropriate to extrapolate their diet (specifically adapted to their geographic circumstances) to the rest of the [human] species.

You would first have to convince people to chew on the cud filled intestines of caribou, right?

We seem fond of pointing at the Inuit as examples of carnivorous humans, but I doubt many of us would be willing to stomach the kinds of animal parts they have to eat in order to obtain all of their necessary nutrition.

Fiddlehead said...

@Toban- Melissa from Hunt Gather Love did a post about a book called "Plants That We Eat" written by Anore Jones who lived with the Inupiat for 19 years. She collected information about their traditional food ways.

They indeed valued plant foods. We also know that wild berries, greens and roots are even more nutrient dense than our modern fruit and veg.

It is a myth that the Inuit did not eat plants.

Fiddlehead said...

I really enjoyed this post. I am tired of extremism in the paleo community, or any community for that matter! As followers of what I would call an animal based diet, we are not admitting defeat if we accept that plants are nutritionally worthy too.

I would become a vegan if I wanted to be extremist and nearly religious in my beliefs about food!

I think this author's argument could have been much stronger if she stayed away from ridiculous comments like the apple and liver comparison that you point out. I think her intention and over all point was valid but not well expressed. We see people stuff themselves with nothing but veggies and grains and eschew meat and fat because "all the nutrients we need are in veggies". I believe she was reacting to this modern phenomenon and rightly so. It's always nice to see animal foods promoted as the health foods they are.

However, she does contradict herself and begins with extreme statements. This seems to be de rigueur in nutritional writings and it's getting old. I want to see facts and reason.

Don said...


Thanks for that link. Zoe's article gave the impression that she favors a diet based on her top five foods and has for appears this isn't the case. I suggest everyone read that blog reporting her high-carb, whole grain based dietary habits which she did not dispute.


I am simply saying that beef steak is not a complete food, that it is low in some important nutrients (C, folate, A, E, K1) and some probably important nutrients (carotenes).

While true that eating less carbohydrate may reduce needs for C, steak provides no C at all. Low carb does not eliminate the need for C. This does not apply to other water soluble nutrients.


I disagree. All I ask is a bit more precision. Simply eliminated terms like "useless" and discuss the differences in nutritional content of various vegetables. Besides, as Carb Sanity points out, she doesn't walk her talk. Zoe certainly does not eat as if she believes that carbs, fiber, fruits, vegetables, or grains are not essential. Could cognitive dissonance be part of her self-contradictions?


Any person presenting herself as a nutrition expert has an obligation to present facts straight or suffer the criticism that will come otherwise.


The nutrient values are what is available in the cooked vegetable. Actually, values would be higher if properly cooked, but I used the USDA database which only offered boiled and drained collards, which means a bunch of nutrients were poured off with the water in which the greens were boiled. If they were cooked in fat and no liquid removed (saute), the values would be significantly higher. Net absorption values would be lower for fat soluble nutrients, as I pointed out with K1. For minerals, collards and other cabbage family vegetables show delivery superior to animal products. Example, calcium from dairy is absorbed at about 30% rate, but from collards it is 50%, primarily because collards contain far less phosphorus which competes for calcium absorption in dairy.


The funny thing is that you couldn't tolerate the diet that Zoe apparently eats (according to Carb Sanity). Her talk and walk apparently don't match.


I totally agree. So many point to the Inuit as proof that no-carb works fine, but few if any of these people eats like Inuit or knows the unique features of Inuit animal foods.


Yes, I have blogged about this also, and forgot to mention it in response to Toban. So many people claim the Inuit were completely carnivorous, but the Inuit themselves didn't claim or act so.

In fact, none of the animals we think are completely carnivorous, such as cats, are in fact so.

Don said...


I wrote something that might mislead:

"While true that eating less carbohydrate may reduce needs for C, steak provides no C at all. Low carb does not eliminate the need for C. This does not apply to other water soluble nutrients."

The last two sentences combined might suggest that low carb eliminates the need for "other water soluble nutrients" but I did not intend that. I meant, eating low carb does not appear to reduce the need for other water soluble nutrients e.g. B-complex.

Greens properly prepared can supply more B2, folate, C, K1, E, calcium, and manganese than meat.

I think that although it is true we don't need dietary carbohydrate, we can say we don't need plant food at all yet. I don't know of any traditional human tribe that eats no plant foods at all. We might not need them for carbs or fiber, but we might need them for other micronutrients, depending on what kinds of animal products we eat (e.g. meat, liver, blubber, etc.). Modern animal foods don't replicate an Inuit or northern temperate hunter diet.

By the way, despite having animal based diets, north Canadian natives (including Inuit) used some 680 species of plant foods including 125 species each of roots and greens, and 145 species of fruits/berries.

Grok said...

Awesome Don! That article got under my skin too.

Thanks for doing the hard work for my lazy butt :) Now I can just link to your post here.

H. said...

Don, I appreciate your underlining the necessity for some plant food. Dr. Richard Bernstein and Dr. Kurt Harris both recommend eating a variety of vegetables.

Thank you for the FAO link to the book. I will very much enjoy reading that.

If it fits in the scope of your blog, would you consider writing a post on growing edible perennials? Many can be grown in containers, which is handy for those who don't have a patch of earth, or who cannot physically dig in the ground, weed, and such. Perennial herbs are very easy to care for, and some vegetables, such as leeks, are in the same easy-care category.

This company has some things that are hard to find. There is good reference information on the site, too:

All the best to you.

Nastia said...

The thing is, many of us don't have access to high quality organ meats that provide the vitamins and minerals that a sirloin doesn't have. We are not Inuit and therefore there is no reason to dismiss vegetables when they are often the cheaper and more reliable source of the nutrients the Inuit were getting from their animals' organs.

Nastia of

For me it's cheaper to walk to a store and buy kale than hunt for a hormone-free liver (pun not intended).

pfw said...

"While true that eating less carbohydrate may reduce needs for C, steak provides no C at all. Low carb does not eliminate the need for C. This does not apply to other water soluble nutrients"

Curious about this one. If eating steak doesn't provide C, and C is still essentially, why didn't I get scurvy eating basically steak/hamburger for a year?

I hear this assertion all the time, but it doesn't seem to jive with my experience nor that of other people eating meat only diets for extended periods of time.

Don said...


I should have said, USDA data lists steak as having no vitamin C. Individual items may vary. If you didn't get scurvy, it suggests that what you ate provided enough C for you for that year. I say for you, because nutrient needs vary from person to person, in the population distributed on a Bell Curve. You may be one who requires very little C; or you may have had meat with more C than the items tested by the USDA. Some people do get scurvy on low carb diets:

and its not caused by eating vegetables as suggested by some ZC people, otherwise all vegetable eaters would have scurvy, which isn't the case.

pfw said...

Well, I should point out that the ketogenic diet prescribed for epilepsy is not typically a meat-only diet. The paper doesn't mention what the girl was eating, but an epilepsy diet usually makes up its fat calories by adding oil/cream/butter rather than fatty meat. I'm not sure that it is a valid analogue for meat only, and the paper even notes that it is a rare complication.

I realize that you're talking about "low-carb", which is a broad bucket, and one probably could create a scurvy-causing diet that fit in "low carb". I think the more interesting question is if one can create a "low C" diet and still live on it - and to date, the closest thing appears to be all-meat. Your response would suggest that you don't believe this is possible, and I respect that belief. It's just that the standard prediction for a guy eating nothing but meat would be scurvy; I didn't get it, and neither do any of the other long term meat only folks prowling around the web. So there is something missing from the narrative here.

It would be very interesting to see what the blood levels of vitamin C are in a long-term meat eater. Obviously they'd be low, but if they approximated that of the girl in your study without symptoms of scurvy, I think it would raise a very interesting question.

Don said...


"I think the more interesting question is if one can create a "low C" diet and still live on it - and to date, the closest thing appears to be all-meat. Your response would suggest that you don't believe this is possible, and I respect that belief."

First, I did not say that I don't believe it is possible. I believe that some people can live on a very low C intake, you apparently being one example. The wide range of distribution of C requirements among humans allows for some being able to live on very low C intakes without scurvy. I said so already.

Second, if you think that because some people can do it, everyone can, you are committing the survivor fallacy. The people who do well on a very low C intake/all meat diet are the ones who stick to it and blog about it. The people who don't do well don't stick to it and don't necessarily blog or write about it on the internet. So you see only the people who "survive" the all meat diet, not those who didn't survive (i.e. who went back to eating plant foods). This skews the data set, leaving us with a tendency to draw an inaccurate conclusion.

pfw said...

Survivorship bias is an important point. However, we're talking about something which is metabolically fatal; one wouldn't worry about survivorship bias if they were about to try out a guillotine because there'd be no expectation that anyone would survive. It's when someone DOES live through having their head chopped off that one must question the model suggesting that decapitation is fatal.

When I said that your answer suggested that you didn't believe it was possible, I meant that your answer implied that people weren't actually surviving low or no C intake - they were special cases with high tolerance for low levels who are actually getting enough C from somewhere, which is essentially a case of adequate C intake, not low or none. Apologies for my confused terminology.

I mean to say that the evidence suggests the possibility that dietary vitamin C is not always necessary for humans to synthesize collagen. It's possible that some individuals have the ability to synthesize a small amount of C. It's possible that a high meat diet contains enough pre-formed hydroxylysine and hydroxyproline for creating collagen, and so you don't need C to do the conversion from lysine and proline.

Again, the end to this question is for someone with very low C intake to get a blood-C test and report the results compared to measured scurvy cases. If they are C-replete then they must be producing it endogenously or getting enough from their diet. If they are C-deficient and not showing signs of scurvy, then maybe eating enough meat can obviate the need for C in collagen synthesis.

Don said...


I never said no one was surviving low or no intake. To repeat, I said there is enough variance in requirements that some people may indeed survive low or what appears to be no intake.

I say "appears" because unless you test every single morsel of meat someone eats for vitamin C, you can't prove that they have no intake of C. Meat can supply C, especially if lightly cooked or raw, and especially if including certain tissues like adrenal or liver, or certain special foods like whale blubber. Although the USDA says X item of meat has 0 vitamin C, this may be because they did not test or because the amount is below the detection limits of the test used.

However, if you could prove that someone had no C intake, you are correct, the procedure you describe could show that at least some can either make C or do without it given enough meat intake.

Al said...


was your all-meat diet like Charles Washington's (corn-finished steaks) or like Lex Rooker's (grass-finished, approx 80-90% muscle, 10-20% mixed organ meats sold as pet food)?

Asking that question causes me to have another one. Don, do you have an opinion on the general trend of conventional wisdom, that onion and garlic are generally health-building?

JLL said...

Here's the account of two guys who pretty much just ate steak for a year:

Perhaps some of the meat did contain vitamin C, but it seems clear that you can get by with very little vit C.

Auggiedoggy said...

How can I put this tactfully? I'll just say, Zoe doesn't appear to be PhD material, if you know what I mean.

Googleblogger said...

I enjoyed reading your counter argument but as I was reading I checked how much kale it took to make 100Kcal (approx 14 oz) vs Steak 1.5oz. So I agree that eating Kale is good for you it is just that you have to eat an awful lot to get the values in your comparison table. Note I don't eat meat. I'm more concerned with her online articles saying that food does not contribute to Cholesterol levels. Seems dangerous nonsense to me.

Shay Johnson said...

Obviously you guys have never heard of enzymes, bioflavanoids or antioxidants....all high in fruits and veggies. Some of the top ORAC foods are fruits. "USDA researchers recently discovered that artichokes actually contain more antioxidants than any other cooked veggie, providing about 9,400 ORAC units."