Vegetables: They Fight Back

Published by Billy Dickinson on

Plants are renowned for their copious uses in healing and medicine. Herbal tinctures, phytonutrients, antioxidants and adaptogenic powers, but as it’s often said: there are two sides to a coin. Let’s delve in to the not so pleasant, less popular, and poorly understood concept of plants biochemical defences.

Fruits and Vegetables

What Defences do they have? As you’re probably well aware, nature is never stupid, ineffective or wrong, and this holds true for plants. Animals can avoid being eaten through fight or flight – they either physically fight back or they run away. Plants clearly don’t have this ability, but they aren’t without their own arsenal. Plants can create chemical compounds, with the intention of protecting themselves against predators, some more obvious examples are chillies and fruit. Chillies make a compound called capsaicin, the thing that makes them taste spicy.

We might enjoy the taste, and the compound could have a potentially hermetic (beneficial stress) effect on the body, but any animal that eats the chilli would be heavily dissuaded from eating it. Furthermore, pepper spray is made by isolating capsaicin from peppers, and it’s clearly a dangerous weapon. In the case of fruit, peels and rinds can be extremely bitter. These compounds deter insects and other larger potential threats from consuming the plants fruit (basically their offspring – fruit contains seeds). A great transition to the nastier antinutrients

Nuts and seeds

Being a plants reproductive system, the plant would really prefer that you couldn’t digest the seed. Some plants, think blackberries, have a fruity tasty sack of sweet juice around a nasty bitter seed, there are two fascinating mechanisms working together here to help the plant reproduce. Firstly, animals like birds will be more than happy to eat the juicy snack whole, leaving the seed still sealed and intact. The flesh of the blackberry will be digested and the bird will get some nutrition, but the seed remains undigested and will pass through the bird, and will then be able to grow where it lands. But how does the seed pass undigested?

Enzyme Inhibitors

An enzyme is a catalyst, something that speeds up a reaction and is not used up in the process. An enzyme inhibitor does what you’d imagine, it prevents the enzyme from speeding up the reaction. In this case, the enzyme inhibitors can delay the speed of digesting the seeds to the point that they will pass through the bird before they can be broken down. Seeds also use enzyme inhibitors to prevent the seed from germinating in inappropriate environments. These enzyme inhibitors, that are contained in every nut and seed, can also have detrimental effects on obtaining maximum nutrition from foods. Modern food processing leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to these enzyme inhibitors. Traditionally, soy would be fermented into natto, vegetables into sauerkraut and kimchi. Bread would be fermented into a sour dough variety, where it can sit and these microbes disable the enzyme inhibitors, as they are living and produce enzymes themselves that will bind the enzyme inhibitors.

This is significant because consuming food with these enzyme inhibitors still activated can be a strain on your digestive system. Your pancreas, intestines and microbiome work hard to produce enzymes to expedite the speed at which you digest your food, but if you’re consuming nuts, seeds and grains that haven’t been prepared the way we traditionally used to consume them, it’s going to pay a toll on your digestive system. It only gets worse from here.

Oxalates, Phytates and Tannins

These chemicals are just a few of many that have had the largest exposure. Oxalates are a compound where oxalic acid is bound to a mineral (e.g. calcium oxalate, magnesium oxalate etc.) When minerals are bound like this, they are not bioavailable to our body, this means we can’t digest, absorb, or use the mineral. A good example of this is spinach. Most everyone knows that on paper, greens are a good source of magnesium, calcium and iron but what you might not know is spinach is extremely high is oxalic acid, forming magnesium oxalate. This could reduce the amount of bioavailable magnesium[1], calcium[2] and iron[3] significantly. Phytates, made of phytic acid bound to a mineral (e.g. magnesium phytate) works in effectively the same way, and they are just 2 of the most will studied plant compounds. Tannins, polyphenols and other phytochemicals have yet to be studied, or even discovered. So what’s the takeaway here? Avoid all plants at all costs? Not necessarily, but could be potentially helpful in some circumstances. Here’s what you can do to mitigate the damage

Damage Control

As I’ve touched on lightly already, the only reason these compounds have become problematic is because we have distanced ourselves from the traditional techniques we used to prepare our food with. If you’re going to consume plants, consume them how your ancestors would have. Soak and sprout your grains, ferment your vegetables. Even cooking can degrade some anti nutrients, especially in a pressure cooker.


When consuming foods that you know have a lot of enzyme inhibitors, consume extra enzymes with them. You can purchase digestive enzyme capsules for a quick and easy solution, or you can indulge in fermented foods, or other high enzyme containing foods (sauerkraut, vegetable juices, yoghurt/kefir) Also, make sure you take your time when eating, this will allow more time for your body to stimulate it’s own digestive juices.


If you’re taking supplemental nutrients, particularly minerals, don’t consume them with high doses of anti nutrients. This will prevent the anti nutrients binding to your nutritional supplements in your digestive system, and should hopefully allow for optimal assimilation of the supplement.

Avoid what you must

Some people are very sensitive to certain anti nutrients, but tolerate others without a problem. A good example is nightshade. There’s a substantial amount of people who have sensitivity to nightshade, and get symptoms like arthritis and skin issues, only to have then resolve by removing nightshades (potato, eggplant, pepper and tomatoes) from their diet. Many over at have found excellent progress in their health conditions by eliminating almost all vegetables, and there’s a plethora of anecdotes to read there. I hope you can use this information to improve your life and health; it’s not about being perfect, it’s about learning as much as you can and applying it strategically. Enjoy your vegetables, responsibly.

Categories: Nutrition


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