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Paleo Versus Vegan: Which One Is Right? Maybe They’re Both Wrong

Posted by on Dec 13, 2011 | 43 Comments

If you read this blog, there’s a good chance you’re part of a community that champion a particular nutritional philosophy.  Two seemingly popular diets that regularly pop up in my universe are the paleo diet and vegan diet.

The paleo crowd looks to early hominids to determine what foods early humans evolved to eat.  There seem to be a lot of arguments about some foods like potatoes and beans, but generally meats, fruits, and vegetables are okay.  Grains and sugars are bad, so drop that hoagie and Ho-Ho!  Basically if it couldn’t be eaten raw, it’s not paleo.

The vegan crowd rejects the idea that humans evolved to eat meat.  They point to things like our jaw shape, teeth, length of intestines, etc. as evidence that we’re supposed to be herbivores.  Meat is like savory, juicy arsenic.

Both camps have followers that may subscribe to the diet for other reasons.  Some paleo people may have a gluten intolerance (like Shelly.)  Some vegans may do so for ethical reasons.

So which of these diets is “correct?” In an attempt to offend as many people as possible, I’m going to assert the logic behind both dietary practices is flawed.

In This Corner… The Paleo Diet!

The paleo crowd is basing their diet on hominids that lived 10,000 years ago or more.  First, the archeological evidence supporting paleo man’s diet is based on a few remains found in various parts of the word, though most tend to be centered around the Euphrates Valley.  Is this really a good representative sample of the food all hominids ate?  Furthermore, the paleo crowd eats something like 30 servings of meat per day.

Ever try killing an animal with modern technology?  It’s pretty tough.  Now imagine you have primitive weapons and no reliable means of food preservation.  It’s pretty clear paleo man wasn’t eating meat with a side of meat at every meal.

Finally, why is it inconceivable that humans haven’t evolved to process grains and other non-paleo food?  Ten thousand years is a lot of generations, and we’ve had entire societies that have subsided on a primarily grain-based diet.  It’s entirely plausible we’ve physiologically adapted to eating cooked foods.

And In This Corner… The Vegan Diet!

What about the logic of the vegan diet?  They avoid animal-based foods.  I think it’s even more absurd to claim humans didn’t evolve to eat meat.  First, almost all (maybe all) primates will eat meat if given the opportunity.  Second, the vast majority of cultures throughout human history have included meat in their diet.  Third, isn’t meat the only complete source of essential amino acids available anywhere in the world?  How would early man survive when the supply of fruits and veggies dried up?  Modern vegans can get necessary nutrients though a well-planned varied diet thanks to their local Whole Foods store.  Our ancestors did not have that luxury.

Both sides like to use science to justify their position.  Indeed, there is research that supports both ideologies.  There is also research that refutes each side.  I know, I did the research.  In fact, I fully expect the majority of the comments for this post to be links to various studies supporting one ideology or the other.  Interestingly, many of the people that quote research don’t seem to be able to argue against their point of view- a tell-tale sign they haven’t applied a healthy dose of skepticism to their dogma.

So if neither diet makes sense, should we abandon either one?

Absolutely not. If you subscribe to either one and it’s working for you, keep at it.  Both can assist weight loss, make you feel subjectively better, and make for a fun conversation-starter.  Just don’t get too preachy.  There’s a good chance the logic you use to justify your diet is flawed.

I’ve tried both. They seemed to work well.  It was a fun little experiment.  Ultimately I stopped both due to the annoying restrictions.  I want the freedom to eat a McDonald’s hamburger on occasion.  Or a Snickers.  Or beer.

Here’s my own diet philosophy- The Moderation Diet.

It’s simple.  Eat about the same number of calories you burn.  Eat a variety of fresh foods from the perimeter aisles of the grocery store in roughly equal quantities.  Try to eat foods of different colors on a daily basis.  Limit processed foods and fast foods, but indulge on occasion.  If you’re craving a particular food, eat it.  If you have an adverse negative reaction to a food, test it out at least one or two times before abandoning it altogether.  And for the love of Raptor Jesus, don’t stop eating one particular food because the popular media hyped it as causing cancer, obesity, or the gout based on the results of a singular questionable study.

What do you think?

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43 Comments

  1. mark lofquist
    December 18, 2011

    a max of 200 generations to adapt to a grain based diet and milk – it works for some. compared to 10,000 generations for a hunter/gatherer diet (10k/2k*100% chance of being better adapted to it.) and 1-2 generations on fast food – with the highest disease markers ever, you bee the judge of how that pans out over time.

    purely plant based diets work best if your gut is huge. an elephant can build plenty of muscle on herbavorism, but it’s by shear volume of food! small guts (which is a by product of standing upright) requires nutritionally dense foods with all essential fats and proteins.

  2. Skye
    December 16, 2011

    Great post! I am not good with restrictions, so I don’t have interest in Paleo or Veganism, but have no issues with anyone who is! My significant other is a vegetarian who dabbles in pescetarianism. So, I really don’t eat too much meat because of this and, when I do, I don’t really eat red meat because my body has developed an aversion for some reason (which is a little annoying, as I used to enjoy a good burger!)

    Moderation has worked well for me; I have lost 63 pounds in 10 months and am still working on it. :)

    • Skye
      December 16, 2011

      *is* should say *does*

  3. Chris
    December 15, 2011

    Moderation? Heresy!

    Cast off the shoes, follow the gourd!

  4. Peter
    December 15, 2011

    Seriously? –> Third, isn’t meat the only complete source of essential amino acids available anywhere in the world? (quinoa/chia seeds, variety approach)

    Death is a culmination of factors and Life (longer) is avoiding such factors. When the media finally depicts something as of causing cancer or some other ailment, it likely means that studies existed a decade earlier that touted the same information (BPA).

    Avoiding these studies and the mentality that tampering with the naturalness of the world, will overwhelm you. This often happens in your 80s or 90s nowadays, an age when you should still up and about, not on bed rest.

    As for meat, I would suggest looking into essential fatty acids: linoleic vs linolenic, total nutritional composition (how much protein do we really need), and the abundance of literature out there for various diseases from eye problems to endometriosis which interconnect in their healing methods (no grains, meat, nor dairy).

    Choose wisely, we have become married with our food, and no one wants a divorce. Cravings and indulgences can be conquered, and we can live longer. LIVE longer we will!

  5. Angie Bee
    December 14, 2011

    I eat what my body tells me to eat. For a while I was low in b-12. Some say that its due to a depletion of bacteria in the gut that makes b-12. I did two things so I don’t really know which one worked, but I upped my red meat and am eating/drinking more fermented foods.

    My b-12 is up and my gut feels good. For our diets we eat lots of soups, fresh and frozen fruits and veggies, and what makes us feel good. Sometimes I want jelly beans and its perfectly ok if done in moderation.

    Check out the videos on this link. It is not pro paleo although the title makes one think it is.
    http://www.veganmuscleandfitness.com/the-paleo-diet-the-ultimate-review-released/

  6. Andre C
    December 14, 2011

    I’m not trolling by any means, I really enjoy your site, especially your passion for barefoot running. But there are some things that must be addressed:
    #1
    “Third, isn’t meat the only complete source of essential amino acids available anywhere in the world?”

    No, it isn’t. There are other plant-based sources of complete proteins, such as Soy, and Quinoa. And Spirulina contains all of the essential amino acids, which was readily available before health food stores.

    #2
    “It’s entirely plausible we’ve physiologically adapted to eating cooked foods.”

    It’s not. When the body takes in cooked foods, it prompts an immune system response in the body called “leukocytosis.” If humans had physiologically adapted to eating cooked foods, the body would not respond this way.

    Even though I was raised in the South on primarily meats, starches, and refined sugars, I personally subscribe to a mostly vegan diet, and keep my intake of meats, cheeses, and eggs to less than 5%. It’s been proven scientifically that taking in animal based casein (animal protein) in amounts larger than 5% can trigger cancer cell growth. So I agree somewhat with your Moderation diet. And I’m sure we can all agree that anything overprocessed and refined is probably not good for us, especially as runners.

    My $0.02, well maybe $0.50 :)

  7. Erik
    December 14, 2011

    When you eat a fruit or vegetable, it’s often still alive. This is generally not the case with flesh. Solution: drink coffee.

  8. Omotimabad
    December 14, 2011

    I’ve been on the Atkins Diet is the best route overall.

    http://www.atkinsexposed.org/atkins/87/Blood_Flow_on_the_Atkins_Diet.htm

    I may become vegan after this though: http://www.project961.com/cc-common/gallery/photos.html?album_id=82581&p=18444228

  9. john
    December 14, 2011

    I est vegan/vegetarian for ethical and moral reason – modern day ideological principles .

    the paleo crowd is basing their diet on hominids that lived 10,000 years ago or more. – anthropological evidence.

  10. Nick Lo
    December 13, 2011

    “Furthermore, the paleo crowd eats something like 30 servings of meat per day.”

    Do they? Where did you get that information from?

    I’d not call myself paleo as I’m just not interested in branding my eating habits after getting frustrated with having to carry the label “vegetarian” for years (but on that basis probably COULD argue against the diet I now eat). I have however had great success with the change to a diet that follows the patterns of the paleo/primal/etc diet. So what did I just have for lunch? A MASSIVE salad with about a handful of meat. For breakfast I did not have meat. There will be some fish with dinner. I can barely think of a day when I ate 30 servings of meat.

    Ok perhaps I’m a bad example so I’ll pick one of the leading voices of “primal” eating Mark Sisson and look at his sample menu:

    http://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-blueprint-sample-menu/

    No sign of 30 servings of meat in there. In fact it’s really quite a moderate diet.

    I think perhaps you are taking some extreme examples of the paleo community and missing those like Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson that have much more tempered approaches to diet.

    Having said all that I think perhaps that you’re outlining one of the downsides to the whole “paleo” branding. Robb Wolf was asked about this in one of his podcasts

    http://robbwolf.com/2011/11/08/the-paleo-solution-episode-105/

    …and I really suggest you listen to the ““Paleo” Term” discussion at the end of that podcast. It’s really not all caveman eat wooly mammoth meat stuff.

    Also “Now imagine you have primitive weapons” completely ignores the fact that “meat” doesn’t have to be the kind of big animal meat we buy in the supermarket. You just have to watch one episode of Man v’s Wild to realise that bugs and all kinds of small catchable living things would have been a significant portion of palaeolithic “meat” intake. Then there would be fish and shellfish. e.g. here in Australia there are areas by the coast that have mounds of oyster shells going back thousands of years where the Aboriginal population feasted on “meat” without the use of weapons.

    As for veganism, even when I was vegetarian I never understood how you could genuinely believe that you’re doing no harm to sentient beings, etc. Even the production of most lettuces requires numerous deaths along the way. In fact the very vegan cookbook you might be reading is highly likely to be using cow based glue to bind its hardcover!

    • Jason
      December 13, 2011

      Hyperbole for comedic effect, Nick. ;-)

      • Nick Lo
        December 13, 2011

        Agh, bugger, nothing worse than being called out for lacking a sense of humour! Then again I did make reference to watching Man V’s Wild which surely should scrape back some tongue-in-cheekedness to my otherwise food-is-serious-business comment?!

        Off to kick my self-righteous self while I throw in a humorous diversion:

        http://beastmodaldomains.com/2011/09/28/my-take-on-nutrition-paleo-brownies-are-dumb/

        • Jason
          December 14, 2011

          The Man V. Wild comment definitely makes up for it!

  11. John
    December 13, 2011

    I eat food. i drink water. If it crawls or grows, chances are it will be supper. Washed down with liberal amounts of H2O, fermented beverage, or a variety of other things. I am over 40 with single digit bodyfat, and all of my bloodwork points to a very healthy individual. Pizza and hot wings are my cheater meals of choice.

  12. Wednesday, Dec. 14 – Nutrition!
    December 13, 2011

    […] running expert Jason Robillard had a great post on his site about some of the popular diets that’s makes you think about how you should approach this […]

  13. Janice Nicholls
    December 13, 2011

    I am a vegetarian aiming to become a Vegan who cheats regularly. I try to minimize all dairy products and eggs. I also have a gluten intolerance. When I get hungry and don’t feel like sticking to all my restrictions, I eat whole grain breads. I do not compromise on the meat, but cheese is my dairy weakness. I’ll go for eggs as long as the chickens led a fulfilled happy life:)

    I read The China Study and was very impressed with the info, however, health alone will never make me change my diet. I’m a die hard animal lover and animal rights activist. I just don’t want animals to die so I can eat, when there is perfectly good food out there that doesn’t involve killing.

    I hate it when people want you to be one thing or another and stick to it. Similarly, I’m a barefoot runner who sometimes wears shoes if the conditions warrant. I hate labels!

  14. corey
    December 13, 2011

    What’s wrong with following your nation’s food-guide; seems reasonable to me.

    • Chaloney
      December 13, 2011

      Have you seen the inhabitants of our nation lately? Many could move around faster if they laid down and rolled than they can on their feet!

  15. Phil
    December 13, 2011

    This is response to the comments about farming animals for meat. Anybody with a knowledge of Paleo will know it isn’t about eating factory farmed grain fed animals it is about high quality grass fed animals, free range , organic. The grains used for feeding factory farmed animals is the grain that makes all bread and pasta and also has to grown somewhere

    This is for the comment about being vegan for enviromental reasons . I was vegetarian/vegan for 20 years and used to say the same then I read the ‘The vegetarian myth’ which talks about the enviromental impact of soy bean and grain agriculture. Vegans where do you think your tofu comes from wild tofu trees on the island of dreams? And since I started following the Paleo lifestyle 3 years ago I find myself eating a ton more veggies because I had to replace the carbohydrates i.e. pasta, bread, pies, etc
    Paleo isn’t just about eating meat it about eating a wide range of colourful vegetables lots of leafy greens especially Kale.

    If anybody really wants to explore food issues you need to read ‘Food,INC’ edited by Karl Webber, ‘In defence of food’ by Michael Pollan, ‘The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability’ by Lierre Keith and ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ by Gary Taubes.

    If you read these books they will change your life and you will see that sugar is not your friend and it’s addictive qualities make it very hard to take in moderation and it is not just about weight gain but about all the diseases associated with the modern western diet.

    • Pat
      December 13, 2011

      Phil you do realize there are too many people to sustain grass fed cows for everyone? Do you know how much land a cow needs to graze? Do you realize how much and how fast our rain forest is being destroyed for grass fed cattle grazing?

      http://rainforests.mongabay.com/0812.htm

      I don’t really eat tofu but if I did it would take a hell of lot less of it, use less water and create less co2 for me to eat it than for me to feed it to a cow cow and get those calories back from it’s slaughter.

      I like Michael Pollan’s books and I’ve met him and also seen him speak. I’m always left with the impression that he wants to say more than he does but is scared of being sued by the meat and dairy industries.

      The Vegetarian Myth is a very laughable book from a non credible writer.

      Here’s a good response to her book.
      http://www.30bananasaday.com/forum/topics/the-vegetarian-myth-by-lierre?xg_source=activity

      And sugar? Are body runs on it! I think mean refined sugar. Fruit is your friend.

  16. Malva
    December 13, 2011

    I’m with Pat, I eat a vegan diet for ethical and environmental reasons.

    Throughout history, we may not have been able to choose what we ate. Now we have that luxury. We now know the environmental cost of the meat and dairy industries, we also know that animals suffer.

    I started eating this way for health reason (seemed like an easy way to remain healthy for life) but it’s become more than that. For me, it’s a way to live a more compassionate life in tune with my values. Win win.

    And the complete protein thing is supposedly a myth. Your body does all the combining for you. So says the internet. :)

    Anyway, different strokes for different folks. As long as it’s a concious choice, something you’ve given some thought to, you’re ahead of the Standard American Diet eating majority.

  17. BarefootNick
    December 13, 2011

    Moderation? It’s mediocrity, fear, and confusion in disguise. It’s the devil’s dilemma. It’s neither doing nor not doing. It’s the wobbling compromise that makes no one happy. Moderation is for the bland, the apologetic, for the fence-sitters of the world afraid to take a stand. It’s for those afraid to laugh or cry, for those afraid to live or die. Moderation…is lukewarm tea, the devil’s own brew.

    ~ Dan Millman

    • Erik
      December 14, 2011

      That sounds like extreme moderation. What about moderate moderation?

      • BarefootNick
        December 14, 2011

        Your version or my version?

        • Erik
          December 15, 2011

          The version described by Dan Millman. Which means I agree with you, I think. My version is: moderation in all things except moderation. (I make joke.)

  18. Richard
    December 13, 2011

    A vegan diet does not need to be well planned, only varied.

  19. Rob
    December 13, 2011

    I subscribe to more of a pescatarian diet. Have been at it now for over five years. I don’t eat birds, cows, pigs, etc… more for ethical and other reasons. Most of the time however I’m basically vegetarian but will eat salmon or other fish on occasion, but perhaps less than once a week. This diet has worked great for me, including numerous ultra and sub-ultra lifetime bests and just general feeling of good health. I know it’s not for everybody but it works for me!

  20. Curb Ivanic
    December 13, 2011

    Jason, you’re spot on with this post. One thing that seems to get lost when people are interpreting research is the role of individual variability.

    Almost any nutritional intervention (diet) will have varying degrees of effect on specific individuals – some will be high responders, some low and most in between. That is why there is no one ideal “diet” for everyone. Or you could say there are 7 billion “ideal” diets.

    Extreme viewpoints get more publicity but that doesn’t make them “right”. Good job on the post!

    BTW…you don’t always need to run an ultra to justify a greasy burger. Or a beer. Just saying.

  21. Franklin Chen
    December 13, 2011

    I’ve been moving in a direction toward paleo in recent months, and am still collecting data (that is, gauging how I feel, etc.), but am very far from being full paleo. I was a vegetarian once, and a vegan even for a bit, so I’m not new to self-experimentation. I don’t blindly believe the arguments quoted by proponents of anything, but do feel that trying things out is the best way to learn what works for oneself (if not necessarily for other people). My latest experiment I am about to embark on, as mentioned on my blog, is moving away from brown rice for the first time in years. I will undoubtedly do other experiments. The main experiment that has been pretty successful for me in the past two months is completely replacing my oatmeal breakfast with a new one that involves more fat, egg, veggies, and no sugar or grains. I’m still eating grains at other meals though.

  22. Pat
    December 13, 2011

    I eat a Vegan diet for moral and ethical reasons. As for good health I see it as a bonus and No I do not shop at Whole Foods.

    Our Ancestors ate a plant Based diet they ate meat when they could but not even close to every day.

    1 billion people go to bed hungry each night. Yet we waste are agricultural yields inefficiently feeding cows chickens and pigs to feed our gluttony, at the expense of starving child (1 child dies every six seconds of starvation)

    http://www.wfp.org/1billion

    We simply can not sustain a planet that feeds of meat.

    Disclaimer I use way too much

  23. jeremy
    December 13, 2011

    Jason,

    Isnt it great being a slave to moderation? :)

  24. Heather D
    December 13, 2011

    I agree with you completely. While trying to get in better shape I tried vegan, but I didn’t feel well so I switched to paleo. During that little experiment, I discovered that I’m gluten-sensitive. Since then, I’ve backed off being strict about it, except for avoiding gluten as much as possible. But, I’ve *always* been a “moderation” person and I’ve never been overweight.

    I also agree that if I’m craving something, there’s a nutrient there that I’m missing – but then again, I crave things like broccoli sometimes so there’s no telling. :)

    But I also think there are enough variations in body types to say that everybody’s a little different, and – still agreeing with you – no one way of eating works for everyone; do what works for you!

  25. HeatherW
    December 13, 2011

    The evolution argument is always a tricky one – a lot of people that try to use evolution to justify dietary choices can’t seem to shake the Judeo-Christian idea that the human body is a perfect form made in God’s image. Thus, if only we look hard enough, we’ll find the perfect diet for our perfect bodies.

    But evolution is a messy process and produces messy, flawed bodies. Humans didn’t “evolve” to live off of any particular diet. We’re generalists, and “our” strategy is to be able to reproduce reasonably well enough on a wide variety of diets, and even make a baby or two out of several different kinds of single-food diets. Our ancestors weren’t easily killed off when a particular food source went missing. The pressure on our ancestors has been surviving lean times – we don’t become ridiculously more fertile when we thrive.

    • Jason
      December 13, 2011

      Well-said, Heather. I like to think of humans as giant bipedal rats. We’re versatile.

  26. Jeff
    December 13, 2011

    First off, I love the site and I’m a huge fan.

    That being said, I don’t agree with your moderation diet. It’s a diet that sets one up for mediocrity. If someone could feel exponentially better in everything they do – running, sleeping, living – by eating paleo/vegan, then why sacrifice that up for the short term satisfaction of some impulsive craving? Who aspires to be middle of the road? As a result, what else will they start to moderate in their life?

    However, if they feel better and their health improves on the moderation diet after comparing it to others, then by all means keep doing it. Experimentation is key.

    Bias alert: I’m 100% “paleo”, but it’s a paleo that works best for me.

    • Jason
      December 13, 2011

      Jeff- what if cravings are a biological mechanism that alerts us to a dietary deficiency, and satisfying that deficiency would result in greater performance? ;-)

      • Jeff
        December 13, 2011

        Great point, except I’m not confident our biological mechanisms will work accurately with manufactured, industrialized food! Nice try though :) Now if you have a craving for carrots, that’s another story

  27. Theresa
    December 13, 2011

    Great post! I grew up on a farm and fresh veggies from the garden, everything homemade, and lots of meat that we raised (rabbit, chicken, cow, pig)…I did try the vegan thing for about 5 years while going to school and it was mostly because we couldn’t afford meat. I like the thought of the Paleo diet because of the organic fruits and veggies grown in my own garden and eating the deer my husband has shot (or hit by a car – yes we have eaten road kill. Not bad either! LOL)so gave that a try just as an experiment…I failed miserable after about 5 days. Too many things I eat in my normal diet that I wasn’t suppose to eat and I kept questioning the process. Anyway, my family are all in pretty good shape and we don’t have to worry about obesity, so we eat healthy, feed our cravings and occas. stop for that fast food burger when we want to. I know all the horrible stories about where the meat came from and I’ve even seen the videos of how they process the meat…but boy…once in awhile a flame-broiled burger on a white flour roll with extra pickles sure does hit the spot! (Especially after a running for more than 5 hours!) :)

    • Jason
      December 13, 2011

      Theresa- the “farm diet”… I like it! I agree, there’s no better post-ultra food than a giant greasy burger. :-)

  28. David Sutherland
    December 13, 2011

    Wow, your final paragraph sounds like it came right out of the mouth of my wife. She’s a registered dietitian, and thus would be to the paleo crowd what a podiatrist is to the barefoot crowd. Your reference to eating many colors is downright spooky.

    Eating is one of the great pleasures in life, or at least it ought to be. As with all things, moderation must be practiced, but abstinence from eating something you like (and tolerate) is nonsensical.

  29. Lindsay
    December 13, 2011

    Nice post, and I agree. I’m a vegetarian, although not strictly because I do occasionally eat fish and seafood. This really makes me a pescetarian. The reason I stopped eating meat? I stopped liking it. It wasn’t because I thought it’d be healthier.

    I also run in Vibram FiveFingers, not to follow a trend or have a certain image, but because they work better than any other running shoe. For me.

    What we all can do is figure out a healthy diet and lifestyle that works best for us. My diet includes some chocolate. There isn’t one way to eat healthy, and just as one type of running shoes doesn’t work for everyone.