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“It occurred to me, that I should get my long list of nutrients from food [rather than supplements]. That if I did that, I would probably get hundreds and maybe thousands of other compounds that science had yet to name, that would be helpful to my brain and my mitochondria.”
~ Dr. Terry Wahls
Who is Dr. Terry Wahls?
If you aren't familiar with Dr. Terry Wahls, check out our interview. She's a leader in the paleo movement, having reversed her multiple sclerosis through dietary intervention. A cornerstone of her protocol is feeding the mitochondria in our bodies, with 9 cups of vegetables/fruit daily.
P.S. If you have people in your life who think paleo is a meat-only diet, feel free to direct them to this article, or any article about Dr. Wahls. Paleo people LOVE their vegetables and often eat more of them than vegans/vegetarians who get a bulk of their calories from grains.
What are mitochondria?
Mitochondria are the cell's power producers. They convert food molecules into the energy our cells need to do their jobs. They also coordinate communication between cells, and every function in our body depends on them. Every cell contains mitochondria, and some cells contain thousands of them. You can see why Dr. Wahls focused on feeding the mitochondria, to give our bodies optimal health.
Tell me more about the 9 cups of vegetables and fruit daily.
Through years of personal study, Dr. Wahls identified 31 microntutrients that the mitochondria need to function. She then learned what foods provide those nutrients and came up with her “9 Cups Daily” protocol:
- 3 cups (about one heaping plateful) of leafy green vegetables, such as kale, collards, chard, spinach or lettuce, which provide vitamins A, B, C and K.
- 3 cups of sulfur-rich vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, garlic, mushrooms and asparagus, because they support the removal of toxins from the body.
- 3 cups of colorful vegetables and fruits (ideally three different colors each day), because they're full of antioxidants. They have to be colored all the way through, so apples and bananas don't count as colored, but berries, peaches, citrus, beets and carrots do.
Can you eat less than 9 cups, and still gain benefit?
Any fresh vegetables you add to your diet will provide vital micronutrients. Dr. Wahls believes that 9 cups daily is the “sweet spot” for men and tall women, for optimal health. She said petite women can get by on 6 cups daily. If you can't manage the full amount right now, start with what you can, with a goal of increasing over time. Also, remember these measurements are raw. So, if you can't imagine eating a salad that includes 3 cups of greens, go ahead and cook your greens. They'll reduce in size by at least half, and for some people, cooked greens are easier to digest anyway. Lastly, there is one vegetable that has a special status: garlic! Because garlic is so potently healthy, Dr. Wahls says that 2 garlic cloves is the equivalent of 1 cup of sulfur-rich vegetables. If you still have trouble eating enough vegetables, try supplementing with Dr. Cowan's Garden Vegetable Powders. 1/2 teaspoon of their organic dehydrated vegetables equals 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw fresh vegetables. They shouldn't replace all of your vegetable intake, but they can give it a boost both in quantity and diversity. Use the code PHOENIX for 15% off your first order.
How should the vegetables be prepared?
She prefers the vegetables be either raw, or cooked at a low temperature, for maximum nutrient retention. If you boil or steam your vegetables, she says you should drink the water, so as not to lose any micronutrients that have leached into the water. Soup is a lovely way to eat vegetables, because you automatically drink the liquid in which the vegetables are cooked. A quick sauté is another option. That said, Dr. Wahls loves kale chips and the occasional roasted vegetable, so you can cook them that way, too, but the nutrient density is greatest in her recommended methods.
What if it's hard for me to chew raw vegetables? One symptom of some autoimmune conditions is chewing fatigue.
In this case, she recommends juicing the vegetables in a high-powered blender. She doesn't recommend an extraction juicer, because she wants us to get the whole foods, including the fiber. That said, some autoimmune conditions include digestive symptoms that are irritated by fiber; in that case feel free to use an extraction juicer. Like every protocol, you need to personalize it for you. Another option for anyone with a fiber sensitivity is to heal it through the GAPS Introduction diet. Many people find they can eat fiber again after 1-4 weeks on that protocol.
Do they need to be organic?
Ideally, organic is best, but we all have budgets. Buy whatever is within your means. If you buy conventional produce, rinse them with some white vinegar and water before cooking, to remove any pesticide residue. If you have the option to buy some (but not all) of your produce organic, the Environmental Working Group has a shopping list called the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen, outlining which crops have the highest and lowest pesticide use.
What's the rule on starchy vegetables?
I asked her about this, and she said starch tolerance varies from individual to individual. She herself does best with a lower starch diet. However, she knows both individuals and traditional cultures who have done well with high amounts of starch. She includes beets and carrots in her colored vegetable category, because they're on the lower end of starch content and the higher end of micronutrient content. Also, the other 6 cups of vegetables (in the leafy green and sulfur categories) are automatically non-starchy and provide a good balance.
How important is variety?
Dr. Wahls recommends rotating vegetables as much as possible, simply because they each contain a unique micronutrient profile. The more variety you eat, the richer your nutrition.
Do I eat the vegetables plain or with other foods?
Always eat them with some healthy fat for better nutrient absorption. Healthy fats include avocados, unrefined coconut oil, ghee, extra virgin olive-oil and animal fats such as tallow and lard. Also don't neglect your protein needs. The Wahls Protocol is a version of the paleo diet, which means no grains/legumes/processed foods, and she recommends some grass-fed meat or wild fish at each meal, as well as bone broth and fermented foods daily. And once/week, she recommends organ meat (for its nutrient density) and seaweed (for iodine and selenium).
What are some examples of how to eat this many vegetables on a daily basis?
- Looking for recipes? Check out this A-Z Vegetable Recipe Roundup and the Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life.
- Juice or blend 3 cups of vegetables daily. Drink this alongside a meal, to keep blood sugar stable.
- Make a huge pot of vegetable soup in bone broth for the week, and have a portion every day.
- Have a large salad for lunch. Mark Sisson provides some great ideas for building his famous daily bigass salad.
- At dinner, get used to a 4-6 oz. portion of quality fish or meat, with a huge side of vegetables cooked in a healthy fat.
- Snack on berries, with coconut flakes or coconut milk.
- It's really not that hard.
Wahls Protocol Series
For more information on the Wahls Protocol, check out my series of articles and interviews.