Two popular diets right now are veganism and paleolithic (paleo for short). There are a boatload of blogs, books and documentary films making a case for one ideology or another. When asked in which camp I land, I say, “Both and neither.” The reason is that I see benefits to both sides. I also see caveats and pitfalls as well.
Diet and food choice are personal decisions, and understanding different eating styles can be complicated. Both sides often defend their positions with near-religious fervor. I want to bring understanding to the issue. Before we delve into all of that, let’s first look at what each eating plan is about.
What is veganism? Veganism is the consumption of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and non-animal products and byproducts, such as soy. Vegans do not consume animal meat or anything that comes from or is produced by animals, such as dairy and honey. It is important to understand that veganism and vegetarianism aren’t the same thing. Some vegetarians consume eggs and dairy (and sometimes fish), but vegans eat only plant-based foods. Some people become vegans because of a conviction about the treatment of animals and some because of the health benefits veganism garners.
What is paleo? Also known as the hunter gatherer, caveman, or Stone Age diet, paleo is an eating philosophy designed to emulate, as much as possible using modern foods, the diet of wild plants and animals eaten by humans during the Paleolithic era. Followers of the diet recommend avoiding any foods that they claim were not available to humans at that time, including dairy products, grains, legumes, processed oils and refined sugar.
What do vegans eat? Vegan diets are based on seeds, grains, legumes (primarily beans), vegetables, fruits and nuts. Meals based on soybeans are a staple of vegan diets because they contain a complete protein (all the essential amino acids a human body needs), like many animal products. Soy milk, tofu (soybean curd), meat analogues (mock meats) based on tofu, tempeh (fermented soy), TVP (texturized vegetable protein) and wheat-based seitan/gluten are common sources of plant protein.
What do paleos eat? Paleos claim that the food our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate (meaning anything pre-agriculture) is what we should be eating. This includes grass-fed meat, veggies, roots, seeds, tubers, wild caught fish and fruit, to some extent. They avoid legumes, grains, sugars, processed foods and dairy.
What are the similarities of vegan and paleo diets? If both camps are implementing their eating styles in the right way, they are not galaxies apart. The foundation of the healthy versions of both plans is not meat. The foundation should be whole plant-based food. If they succumb to the pitfalls (we will discuss later) of their camps, they will both become unhealthy.
Dr. Mark Hyman, author of five New York Times bestsellers and chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine states, “If you look at the science, there’s a lot of evidence for both sides. Paleo and vegan diets are not, in many respects, mutually exclusive.” The original philosophy to both eating styles is a foundation of plant-based whole foods.
What are the differences? The two main differences are meat and grains. A true paleo diet includes grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish. Most vegans make grains an important part of their regimens, but paleos don’t eat any grains, even whole grains.
The ethical treatment of animals is one of the primary sticking points of many vegans. I completely agree and link arms on this with my vegan friends. I advocate for animals be treated humanely. Many paleos would argue that they agree as well. However, this article is geared primarily to the health benefits to the human body of both plans.
What are the pitfalls of veganism?
What are the pitfalls of the paleo diet?
- Too many processed foods. If vegans rely on highly glycemic (raises blood sugars rapidly) processed foods, even ones we think are “healthy,” their health will deteriorate.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a nutritional researcher and best-selling author, states, “The primary benefit of a vegan diet is that the removal of animal products usually necessitates a higher amount of nutrient-rich plant produce. The cons of a vegan diet could be the inclusion of too much heavily processed food, including seitan and isolated soy protein, flour, sweeteners and oils.”
- Too many grains. This is a controversial subject right now, but through my research and observation of my own patients, I believe many people have a problem with grains, even whole grains. Don’t misunderstand me. I know whole grains contain many health-giving nutrients and are not problematic for all. The type of grain and the amount for some is key.
The first issue I have with too many grains is the impact they have on the Alternate Metabolism individual, the large percentage of the population who genetically possess blood sugar and insulin problems. I happen to be one of these people – I consider myself a diabetic ready to happen.
Not everyone is a “Met,” as I call us, but for those who are, there is a negative impact from too many grains. “If all you’re eating as a vegan is fruit and grains, you could easily get diabetes,” states Hyman.
The second caveat is with wheat gluten sensitivity. This is different from celiac disease which presents with dramatic GI symptoms. I see gluten intolerances in many of my patients who suffer with thyroid and GI issues and present with more nebulous symptoms. I know “gluten free” has become a fad as of late, but gluten is a real irritant to many of these people. Many of them suffer for years and when they eliminate gluten, their symptoms often resolve in a few weeks or even days.
- Unfermented and processed soy. I’m saying this up front. I’m not a big fan of unfermented and non-organic soy products. When some become vegan, they don’t want to feel like they are depriving themselves of foods they once enjoyed. They turn to soy hot dogs, soy ice cream, soy burgers, soy cheese, soy bacon bits, soy kitchen sink. Okay, maybe not the kitchen sink, but you get my point. The problem with these foods is that they are usually highly processed foods made with soy protein isolate and preservatives. These are no better than fast food.
Unfermented soy products also include soy milk, some soy sauces and tofu (in all its many forms). The fermentation process maintains the integrity of the nutrients in the soy. Miso, tempeh, natto and naturally brewed soy sauce (organic tamari is best) are fermented soy products. Ninety percent of the soy produced in the U.S. is genetically modified (GMO), which can lead to health problems. Organic soy is not GMO.
Some researchers and practitioners say that unfermented soy is linked to immune system dysfunction, thyroid dysfunction, reproductive disorders and even cancer and heart disease. There may be a link, but I need to read more research to definitively come to this conclusion. Make sure the soy you consume is fermented or organic (non GMO) and that you consume it in moderation.
- B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. We need B12 to help red blood cells divide and to protect the nervous system. B12 is only obtained from animal sources. Deficiency can result in macrocytic megaloblastic anemia. Fatigue and tingling in the extremities are early warning signs, while blindness, deafness and dementia are consequences of severe deficiency. Vegans must supplement, but it is interesting to note that B12 can be stored in the body for years and the deficiencies might not show up right away.
Hands down, the research shows that meat eaters are at a higher risk of heart disease than vegetarians or vegans. However, Duo Li, a professor of nutrition at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, found from his review of published articles from medical journals that vegetarian diets are often lacking in some key nutrientsm primarily B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. The deficiencies were especially evident, he says, in vegans.
“The deficiencies in B12 and omega-3, in turn, are linked with higher blood levels of an amino acid called homocysteine. The deficiencies are also linked with decreased levels of HDL cholesterol, the so-called good cholesterol. High homocysteine levels have been suggested as a risk factor for heart disease. Higher HDL levels are heart protective. This may be associated with an increased thrombotic [blood clot] and atherosclerotic [hardening of the arteries] risk."
Many vegans are well aware of these risks and supplement accordingly.
- Too much meat. Animal protein of any kind is acidic to the body. Is acidic bad? Everything consumed registers with the kidneys as acid or alkaline. Most cells in the body function optimally in a slightly alkaline environment. Disease proliferates best in a body that is acidic.
The body can handle small amounts of animal proteins balanced with a greater amount of alkaline plant-based foods. However, if too many acidic foods such as animal products, carbohydrates and unhealthy fats and not enough alkaline ones are consumed, the body can be pushed into an acidic state, which results in the body pulling from alkaline reserves to try and maintain proper pH.
This pH imbalance can lead to increased blood pressure, bone and muscle loss as we age, and increased risk of developing kidney stones, stroke, asthma, insomnia, stomach cancer, Meniere’s Syndrome and a host of other conditions. It is interesting to note that body acidity can also happen in a vegetarian diet with too many carbohydrates and unhealthy oils.
- Industrialized meat. Most paleos are adamant about purchasing “clean” animal products that are grass-fed, free-range and free from antibiotics, hormones and chemicals. Some may not realize that importance of this and purchase commercial meat that is conventionally raised. Big mistake. Clean meat has a higher nutrient level, including congugated linoleic acid, important for a healthy heart and weight and omega-3 fatty acids. It is nearly impossible to get clean meat when dining out.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman states, “The biggest potential benefits of a paleo diet are that it is low-glycemic and it prohibits refined foods, concentrated sweeteners and processed grains – foods that are at the foundation of our obesity and diabetes epidemic. It can be an unhealthy way to eat, though, if you’re using commercially raised meats, or if the ratio of plant produce to animal products is not high enough.”
- Not enough plants. The quote by Furhman just about sums this point up. I know that paleos eat a lot of vegetables and a few fruits, but the amount of animal products needs to be kept low to maintain the alkaline balance.
- Fish. I hate to write this, because fish in its purest state is so good for us. Truth be told, it’s not the fish itself that is the problem, but our polluted waterways filled with mercury and PCBs that are the culprits.
Dr. Frank Lipman, a best-selling author and director of the Eleven-Eleven Wellness Center in New York City states, “I advise all people to avoid foods that have been altered by processing or environmental toxins. You can’t assume that just because cavemen ate a certain type of food, that type of food is the same in this day and age. For example, paleo fishermen caught fish without mercury, dioxin and sex altering hormones, but it’s very hard to find clean fish these days, even if you catch them yourself.”
- No legumes (beans, peanuts, lentils, peas). Really? I’m completely nonplussed on this one. Paleo dogma holds that we should strictly avoid legumes because 1) they aren’t part of our ancestral diet; and 2) they contain toxic anti-nutrients like lectin and phytic acid. There are some autoimmune conditions that warrant limiting foods high in lectins (grains, legumes and nightshade veggies). Some research has shown lectins to be detrimental to some inflammatory autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Phytic acid can be problematic for individuals prone to kidney stones. Soaking grains helps to reduce the phytic acid, but doesn’t eliminate it.
How in the world do we know that ancient humanity didn’t eat beans? New research coming out is differing with this standing assumption. Legumes (beans specifically) are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, notably soluble fiber, folate, magnesium, iron and potassium. I personally can’t find a problem with them consumed in moderation. Chris Kresser, New York Times Best Selling author of Your Personal Paleo Code, is not so dogmatic either. He says that “Paleo is more of a template than a rigid prescription. Some people are surprised to hear me say that I think eating a few servings of legumes a week is fine as long you tolerate them well.”
When I asked two moms, one who is predominantly paleo and one who is vegan, why they chose their eating style, they both gave some concrete health reasons. But it was interesting to note that they both mentioned their kids’ health in their responses.
A whole-foods vegan mom mentioned that her son suffered from debilitating asthma and was being treated with nebulizers and steroids. After two years on a whole foods vegan diet, her son has come off his asthma medication and his condition is completely resolved.
A paleo mom said, “I was attracted to paleo when I learned my daughter had a sensitivity to dairy and gluten. I found that I was gaining a ton of weight buying gluten-free replacements rather than eating whole foods. I knew that if the recipe was paleo, I didn’t have to worry about making substitutions and that the recipe would work for us.”
The health benefits associated with a healthy
vegan lifestyle are undeniable. The emphasis is mine and it’s on the word healthy
. I’m referring to a diet comprised of whole foods and mostly vegetables.
To my knowledge there are no long-term studies to support paleo health claims (please respond to this Insights if you know of one). That’s not to say the paleo diet is unhealthy or bad, it just hasn’t been around long enough to have been studied long-term. If the paleo diet is based primarily on vegetables, seeds and some fruit and clean meat, it can be healthy.
After reading this article, I hope you see why when asked which eating style I subscribe to, I say, “Both and neither.” I take the best of both styles and combine them to make my own. It’s important to note that we all have unique physiologies. Some may thrive on a vegan plan, others on a paleo plan, and some on neither plan.
For example, many people with blood sugar issues fare poorly on too many grains; some do not digest animal protein well. With my patients, I start with a foundation of whole-food, plant-based foods and then tailor a program that fits their needs.
Both eating styles practiced in their purest form require compliance and restriction. I find veganism especially hard for many of my patients. If they can’t comply then I would rather them eat more low glycemic whole-plant foods and a little animal protein than return to bad health habits.
Here’s something else I need to say about veganism and paleo diets: “Let’s come together, folks!” Healthy, nutritious versions of both plans are more alike than different. Neither eating style is the enemy of the other. Industrialized processed foods are the enemy of us all.
If you haven’t seen the movie Fed Up
, you can get it on DVD now. Fed Up is an excellent documentary about our food industry. I’m asking proponents of both eating styles to join together against what is truly destroying the health of this nation – industrialized processed foods.
I want to end with a quote from Hyman: “Reaching an optimal diet can be achieved in several ways. Some indigenous cultures like the Pima Indians ate a diet that was 80 percent plant-based. On the other hand, Inuits eat a diet that is 80 percent fat. Both are fine. If everybody is fighting with each other about what kind of foods we should be eating, we are missing the bigger picture of how industrialized foods are destroying the earth.” And I’ll add, they are destroying our health!
Take my challenge: Add more whole-food plant based eating to your life and monitor your health for a month. Write to me and let me know what the outcomes are. They may surprise you.
Here is a testimonial from one of my patients that I put on a whole-foods plan (combining both paleo and vegan) that healed his metabolism and changed his life:
"I honestly thought I was doomed to be heavy for the rest of my days because I was eating according to the ADA dietary standard recommendations, but still never losing weight. I was skeptical about the Pancreas Stabilization Program at first. However, amazingly, I was successful on the first eight-week phase of the program. I've progressed to the second phase and in roughly eight months, I lost 60 pounds. I discontinued my diabetic medication and my doctor reduced my blood pressure medication twice. This was the only program that ever worked long-term for me, as I've had weight issued on-and-off through the years, and I tried 'em all, (as the song goes)." – Jim, Age 45
Lindy Ford, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist who runs Lindy Ford Nutrition & Wellness, LLC, a private practice in Wilmington. She received her degree in Nutritional Science from the University of Maryland, College Park. She treats each patient according to their unique physiology so they can achieve long-term results. For more information, visit lindyfordwellness.com, call (443) 417-8352 or send an email to [email protected]. For more great nutritional advice, "Like" Lindy Ford Nutrition and Wellness on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Lindy-Ford-Nutrition-Wellness.