Make Your Paleo Diet More Vegan, Like It Used To Be
The discord between Paleo eaters and vegans can be quite intense, but back in the old day, their diets were remarkably similar nutritionally. Here’s how to make your Paleo diet more vegan, like it used to be.
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AS UNHAPPY as the the thought might be to them both, Paleos and Vegans may have more in common then they could conjure. It’s tough to imagine how similar is a blood-dripping T-bone to a carrot.
Not similar at all, visually, but under the hood some nutritional similarities may exist, although separated by eons, as I’ll get into in a bit. But first, has anybody not heard of the Paleo Diet?
For those of you that have not ventured from your cave of late, the “Paleo Diet” is about the eating the type of real, whole, unprocessed foods that adherents envision our pre-agricultural forefathers ate exclusively.
Paleo diehards say this pretty much distills down to meat, eggs, nuts, vegetables and fruit, perhaps a few other stray items, but certainly NOT grains, beans, legumes and dairy, or any processed foods.
Flexible Paleos might sanction some beans and legumes from time to time, if they’re soaked or slightly sprouted before cooking to get rid of the lectins and phytic acid they say destroy any nutritional value.
First popularized in the mid-1970s, Paleolithic nutrition is based on the premise that modern humans are genetically adapted to the diet of their Paleolithic ancestors, and therefore the Paleo diet is the best, most natural diet. Given that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, the supposition is that the ideal diet for human health and well-being is one that resembles this ancestral diet.
Paleo Now ≠ Paleo Then
Although followers of the modern Paleo Diet assume their ingested nutrients approximate that of Paleolithic humans, this might not be true.
Nutritional anthropologists have been estimating the nutrient intakes of our friendly cave-dwelling forefathers for several decades, and they’ve discovered something so shocking that it could knock the legs from under the biggest, meanest, Mastodon thigh-bone-chewing Paleolithic wannabe thumping his chest with Chris Kresser’s paleo book.
The shocker? Well, wipe the grease off your chin and stare in disbelief at the following table, which shows that vegan diets may actually come closer to matching the macro and micronutrient intakes of Paleolithic diets than do new Paleo diets!
Before you throw a celery stick or thigh bone at me, consider a very carefully conducted study that compares these three food menus:
- Recommended Paleo menus,
- Recommended plant-based menus, and
- A true Paleolithic diet eaten by early humans.
The table below summarizes the results. The dietary reference intakes (DRIs) are for adult males (M) and adult females (F) who aren’t pregnant or lactating. Nutrients and other dietary factors in the new Paleo or vegan diet that are more similar to the true Paleolithic diet are highlighted (pink for the new Paleo diet and green for the vegan diet).
True Paleolithic, New Paleolithic, and Plant-based Diets Compared (source)
Here’s a summary of what the comparison shows:
- When it comes to protein, vitamin A, and zinc, the new Paleo menu and the true Paleoithic diet is more closely aligned than the vegan menu.
- Fat and saturated fat levels of the new Paleo menu are nearly double, cholesterol almost triple, and sodium five times as much as the true Paleolithic diets.
- Carbs are a third less, and vitamin C, calcium and fiber consumed in the new paleo menu are half that of true Paleolithic diets.
- Fiber consumed by our pre-agricultural ancestors is, at worst, equal to the 100% plant-based menu, and as much as double it, far exceeding the new Paleo menu.
- Intakes of carbohydrate, fat, saturated fat, fiber, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, calcium, sodium, and potassium are closer between a true Paleolithic diet and vegan menu than to the new Paleo menus.
This begs the question,
Why are the nutritional differences between the new Paleo diets and the true Paleolithic diet so significant?
The answer: the food is different now than it was then.
The wild animals eaten “back in the day” provided about six to 16% of calories from fat compared to about 40 to 60% from today’s domestic animals—even those that are grass-fed, which are, nonetheless, a better alternative then their grain-fed brethren. They were also free of added hormones, antibiotics, and environmental contaminants.
Dr. Terry Wahls, who cured herself of debilitating Multiple Sclerosis through a specific application of the Paleo diet that she reveals in her book, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine, writes that a big mistake Paleo eater typically make is to assume that their Paleo diet will naturally contain as many vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and antioxidants as a traditional hunter-gatherer diet.
Dr. Wahls’ research supports the view that diets of traditional societies exceed the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals two to tenfold, depending on the specific nutrient, and that modern Paleo diets are among the most nutrient dense. Nonetheless, modern Paleo diets still missed 40% of RDAs!
Why the difference between traditional Paleo and Modern Paleo? Traditional societies eat wild plants and wild foods, while modern Paleo eaters consume agricultural foods, which have been bred to maximize carbohydrate content and taste appeal (sweetness). Crops are now grown using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which reduce bacteria in the soil. Having fewer bacteria in the soil is associated with less vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content in plants.
The USDA, which has monitored the vitamin and mineral content in apples, chicken, and hamburgers since 1914, released a report in 1992 that showed a 20 to 100% reduction in vitamin and mineral content since 1914 for apples and 1963 for chicken and meat.
In addition, virtually all fruits and vegetables available in supermarkets are more palatable, more digestible, and easier to store and transport than their wild cousins, and although that may make them tastier, it comes at the expense of valuable protective dietary components. Wild or uncultivated plants provide about four times the fiber of commercial plants (13.3 grams of fiber per 100 grams versus 4.2 grams of fiber per 100 grams, respectively). (Source)
My personal stance is that the “flexible” Paleo slant offers a good diet, as long as:
- The meat you eat is from animals that are grass fed and not injected with antibiotics and hormones, and you’re OK with how the animals are processed from on the hoof on your plate. (Visiting or watching a video of what a slaughterhouse does is — well, let’s just say — eye-opening.)
- You take it easy with the saturated fats and cholesterol. Coconut oil may be the new wonder-fat, but it’s still a saturated fat, and until the medical gods settle on whether saturated fat does or does not cause various forms of cardiovascular disease, be moderate.
- You realize that multicolored vegetables high in phytonutrients are vitally important, and so strive to consume a greater volume of them than meat. Let a small piece of quality meat sit nice and perky-like on the side of your plate, while the veggies are piled everywhere on it, a few even hanging off.
The Bottom Line On Paleo
If you’re now eating a SAD diet (“Standard American Diet”), switching to a Paleo Diet may be a marked improvement. You’d be eliminating some real long-term killers, such as highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, fried foods, and fast foods. In their place, you’d be eating fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
You’d still be eating meat, but hopefully only meat that comes from grass-fed, no-hormone, no-antibiotic animals, and less of it than you may be currently eating — today’s Paleo eaters tend to include more meat than did early humans, ignoring the impressive evidence linking meat consumption to chronic disease.
What’s more, if you agree with the research of the Blue Zone researchers, you may benefit by allowing yourself some grains and legumes from time to time, given their long and impressive track record as valuable sources of carbohydrates and protein for the world’s population, particularly among the longest lived, healthiest populations.
However, as we’ve discussed, it’s highly likely that your Paleo diet will be less nutritious than that of the spear-chuckers of yesteryear. Make up for it by eating as much organic vegetables and whole fruits as you can.