If you haven’t heard of the paleo diet by now, you’re probably living under a rock. Although, if you’re living under a rock, maybe you have heard of the paleo diet, because it’s a diet based on the idea that cavemen ate the best food. And cavemen lived under rocks, right?
According to paleo diet gurus, eating like a caveman means eating lots of animals with select fruits and vegetables. (But you should note, many experts disagree that early diets were so meat heavy. Just check out these articles from The New York Times, Discover Magazine, NPR, Scientific American, Scientific American again, Nature, Nature again, Harvard, and CNN for a different take on what early humans ate.)
If you love eating meat, then the meat-heavy paleo diet probably doesn’t seem too bad. Eating bacon and losing weight?! That sounds almost as insane as someone saying they get their nutrition advice from cavemen.
The primary reason the paleo diet is not for you is because it is extremely restrictive. In fact, it is so restrictive that even the leading paleo bloggers and gurus have carved out loopholes, exceptions and cheat days to make the diet more feasible. As a result, there is widespread disagreement in the paleo community about what exactly is permitted in the diet. Between both the hard-to-follow restrictions, as well as the mess of loopholes and exceptions to those restrictions, the theoretical health benefits of the paleo diet are undermined.
Furthermore, those supposed health benefits are not on very strong ground to begin with. While there are countless paleo gurus plugging studies and stories about the nutritional merits of the diet, there are even more diet and health experts who slam it. The US News and World Report puts together a panel of nutrition experts to rate diets every year, and in 2014 they ranked the paleo diet dead last. In the panel’s opinion, the studies paleos use to support their diet are small, short and difficult to draw conclusions from.
The aspects of the diet that nutrition experts generally all approve of (such as cutting out vegetable oil, refined carbohydrates, and sugar) are do-able in any diet, including a vegan diet. And you certainly don’t have to pile on the meat to achieve that.
The Foods You Can Never Have Again (Unless You Kind Of Cheat)
If you think a vegan diet is restrictive, you haven’t seen anything yet.
I surveyed the meal plans of several popular paleo gurus (Paul and Shou-Ching Shih Jaminet, Loren Cordain, Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, and Sarah Fragoso) to come up with a list of what foods they do not allow. For many of these food groups, it depends on whom you ask. Some gurus find a few of these food groups acceptable. Some do not. Some sort of find some food groups acceptable in “moderate” amounts. Their blogs are generally filled with conflicting posts about whether certain foods are (or are not) acceptable on a paleo diet.
In general, these are foods that paleos say you should not eat:
- dairy, including milk, yogurt and cheese
- sugar and artificial sugar
- vegetable oil
That’s a lot of restrictions. How do paleos manage? Paleos have devised exceptions and loopholes to each of these rules. If the loopholes I’m about to divulge sound confusing—don’t worry. That’s the point.
Paleos don’t eat dairy. (Cue the “But how can you possibly give up cheese?” questions). But a few paleos do allow milk and dairy products, and an even larger percentage allow butter in their diets. Of the pro-butter paleo group, many limit it only to butter from grass-fed animals. Others find only raw dairy products acceptable. Many paleos also make exceptions to the no vegetable oil rule by allowing coconut oil and olive oil.
It only gets more confusing from there. Some paleos find beans and legumes acceptable. Others believe it’s okay to eat some starches and potatoes. And yet others make exceptions for alcoholic drinks and caffeinated drinks. For sweeteners, some believe artificial sugar is okay, and a few allow agave and honey. Some paleos plan cheat days where they don’t adhere to the diet at all.
And for any one of these given food groups, there are plenty of paleos who vehemently argue for their pure, absolute exclusion. After all, it’s difficult to see the point in being paleo if everyone is trying to find ways to not be paleo.
Perfection is said to be the enemy of good. And paleos might cite that saying as reason enough to forgive the exceptions, loopholes and cheat days. But these loopholes erode the professed health arguments.
Here’s The Beef
Despite the above, vegans and paleos have reason to be friends. We all agree, for the most part, that we should avoid dairy. And many of us agree we could all benefit from cutting out added sugars, most vegetable oils and refined carbohydrates.
Nevertheless, we criticize each other a lot. Some paleos disparage pro-vegan studies because vegans and vegetarians tend to be healthier for other reasons. Compared to the general population, vegans exercise more and drink and smoke a lot less. Therefore, paleos argue, the evidence supporting the healthfulness of the vegan lifestyle is biased.
Yet much of the same can be said for paleos and their anecdotes for weight loss and wellbeing. Paleos seem to couple their diet with physical activity. Most notably, many CrossFit gym members adhere to paleo diets. Is it fair, then, to credit their alleged health benefits to eating lots of bacon? Or can those benefits be primarily attributed to regular physical exercise, eliminating added sugar and dairy, and cutting down on refined carbohydrates? Paleos will argue it’s a combination of all of the above, even though their main basis for eating lots of meat is simply that they believe early humans also ate lots of meat.
And it’s meat, ultimately, that vegans and paleos disagree about. (Ethical and environmental arguments aside—those topics deserve their own posts.)
Meat certainly has its nutritional pluses. It’s a good source of protein, for example. But paleos don’t appear to scrutinize meat as much as they should. For example, when meat is cooked at high temperatures it forms cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines. Those might be worth avoiding more than whatever paleos find wrong with black beans and quinoa.
Protein, after all, is a package deal. As explained by the Harvard School of Public Health, “To your body, protein from pork chops looks and acts the same as protein from peanuts. What’s different is the protein ‘package’ — the fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that invariably come along with protein. [Two recent] Harvard studies add to a growing body of evidence that emphasizing plant-based protein packages is a better bet for long-term health.” Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and tempeh are a few of those plant-based packages loaded with protein and other important nutrients.
Discussing health and nutrition with anyone can be difficult. But discussing the paleo diet can be especially frustrating because so many of its adherents take advantage of exceptions and loopholes to make the diet more practical. If there are any health benefits to the pure, absolute version of the diet, it’s still unclear whether those benefits are due to the increased meat consumption, or from avoiding sugar, oil, dairy and refined carbs. Those latter restrictions are worth seriously considering, but you can do it well without eating animals. There are a ton of bloggers and authors who are vegan “paleos.” Just google it.