If you don’t like eating vegetables, then the headlines are scary. Inadequate vegetable intake is linked to 6.7 million deaths in a single year. Without veggies, your risk of stroke, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, and numerous other conditions skyrockets.
You aren’t going to get cancer overnight from not eating vegetables. However, if you don’t find a suitable replacement for the nutrients in vegetables, your health will face consequences.
What Is a Vegetable?
According to botany, a vegetable is “the root, stalk, or leaves of a plant.” ANYTHING WITH A SEED IS A FRUIT. This includes tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and many other plants we typically refer to as “vegetable.”
However, most people consider a fruit to be any type of sweet produce. Anything that isn’t sweet is considered a vegetable. To simplify things here, we’ll talk about what happens if you don’t eat vegetables, cucumbers, peppers, or any of the veggies which are really fruits.
Nutrients in Vegetables and Fruits
Bright-colored fruits (such as peppers, oranges, and tomatoes) tend to be very high in antioxidants like vitamin C and A.
Vegetables, particularly leafy greens, are great sources of minerals and micronutrients. They are also loaded with vitamins A, B, C, and K. It is really hard to compete with the nutrient profile of greens.
The chart below gives you an idea about how fruits and vegetables compare nutritionally.
Nutrients per 100g, as per %DV
|Bell Pepper (Fruit)||Kale (Vegetable)|
Many of the nutrients in vegetables can also be found in meat and dairy products. So, it is possible to get them without having to eat vegetables. However, nutrients don’t act alone in the body. They need to be balanced to perform their roles.
Examples of Nutrient Synergies:
- Vitamin K and Calcium: Vitamin K acts as a “public transportation” system to take calcium where it is needed in the body. A massive study found that people taking calcium supplements increase risk of heart disease. Because, without adequate vitamin K, the calcium was hardening in the arteries instead of being taken to the bones.
- Iron and Vitamin C: Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron by binding to it and traveling with it to the intestines. No wonder greens (loaded in both iron and vitamin C) are so good for your blood.
- Vitamins and Fat: You need fat to absorb certain vitamins and antioxidants, such as vitamins D and E and lycopene. This is a good excuse to slather veggies in butter!
If you are not eating vegetables, it is going to be really hard to provide these nutrient synergies. You’ll end up with a nutrient imbalance. That’s why eating a variety of foods will always beat supplements.
If you don’t eat vegetables, you’ll have a hard time getting phytonutrients. These chemicals are only produced by plants and important for fighting cancer and heart disease.
Without veggies in your diet, you’ll have to get your phytonutrients from sources like nuts, seeds, and whole-grains.
Disorders from Inadequate Vegetable Intake
The research on what would happen if you didn’t eat vegetables is slim. What we do have is a lot of studies which show that inadequate vegetable intake is linked to various health conditions.
Of course, anyone could argue that these conditions could be avoided by eating X, Y, or Z. That’s not the point though. Rather, these are the health conditions you could reasonably expect if you weren’t eating vegetables and weren’t replacing the veggies with suitable alternatives.
Scurvy was common throughout history, particularly with sailors on long journeys. The disease is caused by inadequate vitamin C and causes bleeding, anemia, tooth loss, and bone pain.
Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children. Yellow and orange foods like yellow peppers and carrots are good sources of vitamin A. You can also find vitamin A in liver.
Vitamin K, which is found in many veggies, transports calcium to where it is needed. Without vitamin K, your risk of osteoporosis increases – even if you are consuming lots of calcium. Fermented foods are an alternative source of vitamin K.
Heart disease is complex, but a lot of the risk factors are related to diet. People who do not eat adequate amounts of vegetables lack the phytonutrients needed to reduce inflammation. Fiber in veggies helps regulate gut flora, which is linked to heart disease. Vitamin K is also crucial for keeping calcium from preventing in the arteries.
Inadequate vegetable intake is linked to various cancers, particularly colon cancer. You need the fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals from veggies to fight inflammation and cancerous growth.
Examples of Societies Not Eating Vegetables
But what about all those societies who didn’t eat vegetables? They didn’t get scurvy or go blind!
Vegetable-haters around the world have long used the excuse that certain societies don’t eat veggies and still were perfectly healthy.
The most commonly-cited examples are the Inuit and Sami peoples.
Inuit subsist mostly on fish, sea mammals like whales and seals, caribou, and eggs. Yet, contrary to common belief, the Inuit actually do eat vegetables. They didn’t have access to tomatoes in the frozen Far North, but they could gather berries, seaweed, lichen, and roots. Tea was made from pine needles.
The Sami are herders in the north of Scandinavia and mostly eat meat, fish, and reindeer milk. They are also commonly cited as not eating vegetables. Yet, these people also eat berries, mushrooms, and other plants.
You’ve also got to remember that the Inuit and Sami people eat differently than most Westerners today. They might not have eaten a lot of veggies, but they consumed lots of organ meat. Organ meat is particularly rich in nutrients including some vitamin C and A. Thus, even with very small amounts of vegetables, they could still get all the nutrients they needed.
Can You Go without Eating Vegetables?
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people who eat zero vegetables and remain “healthy” (what healthy means to them is up for debate though).
YES, with proper planning, you can go without eating any vegetables.
As biochemist Harold Draper says, “There are no essential foods – only essential nutrients. And humans can get those nutrients from diverse and eye-opening sources.”
However, it is going to be very difficult to remain healthy without veggies. Supplements can help, but even these won’t perfectly balance out the missing nutrients. You’ll have to eat a lot of non-vegetable superfoods like organ meat and kefir to get the complete nutrient profile you need.
Want to know more? Read How to Eat Healthy If You Don’t Like Vegetables.