I’ve been getting a lot of messages lately from vegetarians and vegans wanting to know whether they can eat a Paleo diet while at the same time adhering to their animal food restrictions. As a former very sick vegetarian (no meat, no fish, but lots of dairy and some eggs) myself, it hurts my heart to think of all the good protein veg-heads are missing out on. But I soothe myself knowing that while vegetarians and vegans exist, there will always be enough cheap grass-fed beef for me :)
Here’s the short answer: Yeah, I guess you can be Paleo and vegetarian at the same time, depending on what you call “vegetarian”, but it’s not optimal. However, you can not be vegan and be Paleo.
Let’s start from the vegan end of the spectrum.
If you’re vegan, you probably eat a lot of soy, beans, grains, and hopefully veggies and fruits. Probably a bunch of nuts and seeds, too. People need protein, and all of those things except for the fruits and veggies provide a measurable amount of protein. For comparison’s sake, I’d like to point out that 3.5 ounces of sirloin steak fuels you with about 29g of protein while 3.5 ounces of garbanzo been hummus provides about 8g. Many experts (here, here, here) have said that for optimal health and fitness, people need between .7-1g of protein per pound of lean body mass per day. In that case, I’d personally need to eat more than 2 pounds of hummus every day to get that. Or 4 cups of almonds, or 23 slices of whole wheat bread, or a pound of tempeh (fermented soy).
So if you take out the soy, the grains, and the other beans to make your diet Paleo, you’re left with nuts and seeds as your main sources of protein, and I already said that I’d have to eat 4 cups of almonds a day to meet my requirements. By the way, that’s 2,184 calories – about 800 calories more than I usually eat. So could you be vegan and Paleo? Well, you’d probably gain weight if you were trying to eat a proper amount of protein, and you’d be eating WAY too many nuts, which wouldn’t end up being very Paleo anyway, so no.
Here’s a piece from Denise Minger, a former vegan and current Paleo eater, that describes what you can do as a vegan to make your diet better without consuming animal products.
As for vegetarians, we need to discuss what a vegetarian is. I’ve never understood why “vegetarians” can call themselves that and still eat fish or poultry sometimes. Last time I checked, salmon and chickens were not vegetables… Anyway, if you’re that kind of “vegetarian”, then you’re fine. You’ll want to try to eat more poultry, fish, and if you have no problem consuming eggs, eat more of those, too.
If you’re a vegetarian and the only source of animal food you eat is dairy, then switch your dairy to full fat dairy and try to get raw (unpasteurized/un-homogenized) milk products from a local farmer. Will you be Paleo if you do this? No, and I don’t necessarily encourage people to eat dairy. Here and here are articles on dairy’s standing in the Paleo world and how I think people should approach it. If you do eat dairy and follow all other Paleo principles, you will be “Primal” and you can find out more about that from Mark Sisson at www.marksdailyapple.com. Primal is basically Paleo, but with the addition of high-fat, high quality, preferably fermented dairy for those who can tolerate it. One cup of whole fat milk still only provides about 8 grams of protein, but it’s certainly better than nothing if you’re not eating soy, other beans, and grains as a protein source.
All in all, I’d say if you can squeeze an animal source of protein into your otherwise vegetarian diet, then do it. Buy your eggs and meats “pasture-raised” or “grass-fed” and your fish wild or responsibly farmed. I know all about feeling guilty for animals who are mistreated and malnourished for the sake of turning meat out quick and cheap. That’s why I just bought half a grass-fed cow from a local rancher (for $4 a pound). So don’t give up on meat just because you think it’s all factory farmed. If you try, you’ll find a good source of happy cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys. And don’t forget about the llamas, alpacas, buffalo, elk, and other animals being raised kindly throughout the world.
If you don’t want to eat animal products, then eat your beans and grains and copious nuts and seeds, in which case you won’t be Paleo. However, do it responsibly so you’re not infiltrated with anti-nutrients at every meal. And try to stay away from the gluten grains, as they’re clearly ruining so many people’s guts. Study all the info at the Weston A. Price Foundation about how to properly prepare all those things. Since the dawn of agriculture, fermenting, soaking, and other practices have really kept traditional cultures from being as sick as we are now.
Other than that, if you want to improve your vegetarian or vegan diet, do these things. Avoid vegetable oils like soybean, corn, cottonseed, canola, and other über processed oils high in omega 6′s. Don’t drink your calories in the form of sugary drinks or juice. Avoid refined sugar, including high fructose corn syrup, white cane sugar, and so many others. Don’t consume obviously fake foods like aspartame, other fake sugars, food colorings, or other ingredients you aren’t familiar with. Don’t rely on caffeine to keep you awake throughout the day. Eat organic foods, which have more nutrients and fewer toxins in them. Eat whole, unadulterated foods in general – not processed foods from a box or can with a million ingredients in them. Also, you’ll probably want to take a good multi-vitamin so you don’t become deficient in the things that are really only found in meat. If you do all of these things – heck, if EVERYONE did all of these things – we would be much better off.
I’d love to hear your thoughts as a vegetarian/vegan Paleo eater if you’re out there!