J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Paleo vs. Vegan, a Battle of Straw Men

Battle of the straw men.

Watching the paleo vs. vegan blog battles is entertaining, but frustrating. Each side likes to make well-reasoned arguments against positions the other side isn’t really taking. The proponents of veganism like to pretend that paleo-eaters only eat meat and cheese (in other words, paleo = zero-carb = extreme Atkins), while some paleo advocates lump vegans and fruitarians together, or imagine that vegans eat soy products every single meal.

For example, Dan Pardi of Dan’s Plan recently forwarded me this series of videos from Don Matesz of the Primal Wisdom blog. Don, a formerly enthusiastic proponent of the paleolithic diet, has switched to veganism and is now condemning the paleolithic way of eating. I’ve watched about half the series so far and I haven’t found it very convincing. Most of it seems to be an attack on low-carb, high saturated fat, low fiber diets, which is not necessarily the same as a paleo diet. Most variations of the paleo diet are medium-to-high fiber (from vegetables and fruits), medium carb (from fresh fruit and starchy tubers), and some “seafood only” variations of the paleo diet are extremely low in saturated fats.

The truth is, there is a great deal of consensus on many health topic among paleo-eaters and vegans. Both sides agree that:

  • eating fruits and vegetables is health promoting
  • animals should be treated humanely (with enough space, social contact with their own kind, fed food that doesn’t cause digestive distress, not abused, etc.)
  • organic, sustainable agriculture is superior to conventional agriculture, both in terms of environmental impact and nutritional quality
  • moderate intake of healthful fats (Omega-3 and monosaturated fats) is health-promoting
  • trans-fats, refined sugar, refined vegetable oils, and refined flour are terrible for health

Of course there are points of disagreement. Does high saturated fat intake usually lead to heart disease? Does high gluten intake often lead to gut inflammation? I would say probably no, and probably yes, respectively, but I might be wrong. I try to keep up with the research, and base my own behavior on the most reputable, most widely replicated clinical studies. My own mind has changed in the past. In my late teens and early twenties I was an evangelical vegetarian. I was incredibly annoying. I’m done telling people how they should eat — I only want to share what I’ve learned so far in a take-it-or-leave-it format.

Your enemy is not the health enthusiast who disagrees with you. It’s a difficult fact to accept, but it’s true; different diets work well for different people. If someone finds a diet that works well for them, we should let them eat it in peace.

The real enemy is the Standard American Diet (fast-food, i.e. factory-farmed meat cooked in rancid vegetable oil, served with genetically modified, conventionally grown, pesticide-laced, uber-refined soy/corn/wheat concoctions, served with a vat of carbonated high fructose corn-syrup).

I’m not a fan of most vegans diets, but many vegan diets are closer to a healthful diet than a fast-food diet. A vegan diet based on gluten-free grains, minus the soy, plus some low-mercury fish (sardines, wild-caught salmon, etc.), would probably work out pretty well for most people. Yes, I know it’s not vegan if you add fish, but it’s just one dietary step away from excellent health (some extra protein, B12, and Omega-3 fatty acids). And some people seem able to thrive on a pure vegan diet (for example, Derek Tresize).

Vegans are not the enemy. Industrialized food production systems that want to feed you manufactured Franken-foods are the enemy.

Vegans should stop worrying about ancestral health enthusiasts as well. Millions of people, including myself, have restored their health by cutting most refined sugars and oils, grain products, and legumes out of their diets. Many paleo/ancestral health enthusiasts don’t eat any dairy products at all, and many more don’t eat red meat. Vegans, paleolethic diet advocates are not the enemy. McDonalds is the enemy.

You know who the biggest enemy is? Public school systems that feed our children tater tots, chicken fingers, chocolate milk, and soda for lunch. And don’t forget the plastic containers and bottles treated with bisphenol-A.

Health enthusiasts, let’s spend less time and energy arguing about the finer points of diet, and focus on taking action on the things we can agree on. More fresh vegetables and fruits, more healthful fats, more nutrient-dense high-quality food, less trans-fats and refined vegetable oil, less refined sugar, less white flour, less processed food, and fewer health-damaging chemical additives and preservatives. Especially for our kids!

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37 Comments

  1. Mom

    Nicely Obama-esque!

  2. Al Beeman

    Amen!!!

  3. Thank you! Great suggestion that we keep our eye on the ball.

  4. The real enemy is thinking about eating as some kind of dogmatic religion or ideology.

    • Sure, I agree with that to some extent. It would be ideal to live in a traditional food culture and not “think” about food at all, because all the food available would be healthful. But in industrialized nations, “normal” food has become corporate product, optimized for taste and not nutrition, so skepticism and scrutiny is necessary if you want to eat well.

  5. calvin

    My enemy is fat. I am down 22 lbs thanks to Paleo. I eat only shrimp and drink on Bombay Dry Gin. My big toe is very big and it is painful. What do I do now?

    • If your toe is painful from gout, the traditional culprits are alcohol and purines. More recently, fructose has been implicated:

      http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/569656 (requires login)
      and
      http://www.bmj.com/content/336/7639/309.full

      Dairy products may have a protective effect against gout. So can drinking more water.

      http://www.nutraingredients.com/Research/Dairy-vegetable-proteins-may-protect-against-gout

      So an anti-gout diet might be high in water, vegetables (even purine-rich vegetables don’t contribute to gout according to the study linked above), some low-fat dairy products, low fructose (juices, anything with corn syrup, dried fruits), and low purine. Foods highest in purine content include liver, kidney, heart, brains, sweetbreads, game meats, goose, partridge, anchovies, sardine, mackerel, herring, scallops, and mussels.

      • Jaime

        Produce high in purines should still be avoided until the gout subsides as it seems to be a factor for some. I know a few people that have to avoid specific foods because they contribute.
        I would avoid all things thought to exacerbate gout to be on the safe side. Acerola cherry powder is a good supplement for those with gout.

        Also, great article.

  6. DB

    Didn’t Dan Pardi got himself a vegan girlfriend? They can be very convincing at close quarters…

  7. DB

    No wait… that was the other guy…

  8. Thanks for the shout out! Based on the clinical and epidemiological research, as well as my own experience with myself an clients, I strongly believe a plant-based diet is optimal, but I love your call for perspective here. “The real enemy is the Standard American Diet” – absolutely!

    • Thanks for the comment Derek. Speaking of shout-outs, vegan bodybuilders got a huge plug in the nytimes today:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/sports/vegans-muscle-their-way-into-bodybuilding.html

      It may soon be possible to move beyond the search for a universal optimal diet, and start considering optimal diets based on individual genotypes. I’ve had great success with the paleo/primal diet (asthma reversal, fat loss, muscle gain, reduced allergies, improved mood, etc.), and digging into my 23andme profile has provided some clues for why I might be well suited for a mostly gluten-free diet that includes some animal products. For example, I carry a less efficient form of the gene that allows conversion from beta-carotene to vitamin A. I carry another gene variant that corresponds to higher fasting blood sugar (and I do well with intermittent fasting). Other genes show a higher probability that I’ll react badly to gluten (gut inflammation, etc.).

      That said, I’m all in favor of eating non-poisonous plants. 😉

  9. Timmy

    “Vegans are not the enemy. Industrialized food production systems that want to feed you manufactured Franken-foods are the enemy.”

    I’d disagree with you here, if scientists can produce chicken or fish in a lab that has the nutrients minus the possibility of harmful chemicals like mercury than I’m all for it.

    I don’t like eating harming food as much of the next guy , but man made doesn’t necessarily mean bad.It’s also better than starving to death where it’s distributed in poorer country’s.

    I’m fine with vegans as long as they don’t force it on there baby’s/children.I remember a news story where two vegan parent’s had there baby taken from them because it had malnutrition due to it’s diet. I think the simple fact is baby’s/children have different nutritional needs than adults.

    • Timmy — I agree that vegan diets aren’t ideal for growing children (with maybe a few exceptions for very carefully managed diets). I also agree that food science has contributed to human progress and has prevented starvation in many cases.

      What I’m thinking about is big picture. Which is more harmful … a few parents who attempt to feed their kids a healthy diet but miss the mark (not enough protein, B12, etc.), or an entire industry that is causing an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes by pushing corn syrup, white flour, etc. as dietary staples?

      No gripe with food scientists here … what I have a problem with is corporate profits being prioritized over health, poor food options in public schools, additives like MSG to increase sales, etc.

      As for “vat-grown meat,” I’ll try to keep an open mind. I haven’t tried any yet!

  10. Britny

    Yeah, it sure is FUNNY watching Paleos and Vegans argue!! XD I have adhd, and I’m a paleo, while my friend is a vegetarian. His family hunts deer, and my mom wants me to just shut up and take my Ritalin and iron pills. :/ Kinda ironic, isn’t it? (My little bro is also a vegetarian. ) The fact is, going Paleo helps with my adhd, and my anemia. My vegetarian friend lost weight. I eat lots of fish and almonds. (When I can. ) We’re BOTH healthy! I think everyone who wants to eat both bread and meat should just meet themselves halth-way, and no one’s ever died from that. The fact is, saturated fat and high carbs just don’t go together. They’re OK by themselves, but not together… Americans have high ammounts of both. (Pfft… We should all just move to Japan…) P.S… In most blogs, I’ve seen Vegans and Paleos agreeing with each other. 🙂

  11. I really like the idea of diets determined by genotypes. Too many try to slop people into the same mold, yet each individual is unique and will react differently to certain stimuli.

  12. Joel

    Acids from animal meats and fish cause gout as well. I’ve been ratings vegan diet for 4 months I my results have been epic. I’m not a doctor but I got my facts from medical doctors and dietitians. Both parties agree that eliminating all meats, including fish increase health. As for saturated fats leading to ACS and additional cardiac conditions, it’s true guys. Saturated fats from oils and meats kill over time. Over consumption of protein strips your bones of calcium to balance the acidic PH which can lead to osteoporosis. If you can’t afford a physician who focuses on nutrition or a dietician, I recommend watching the documentary “Forks Over Knives”. By witnessing the facts from the registered professionals, I’m sure it will change a few open minds.

  13. R. Cutter

    Well, I think I’ve finally worked up the perfect diet for myself – non-processed, properly balanced plant food, vegan style, plus a couple of sardines every day. I feel terrific, have lost weight, and as I really do the vegan thing right, I think I’ve got my bases covered except for vit. D supplements (NY winters). Sardines take care of the Omega3 and B12 problem handily. Woot! I love the veggies and fruits and legumes and seed and nuts and all, but I live for my beautiful greasy sweet little sardines every night. They keep things moving just right, too – often a bit of a problem for vegans.

  14. Doug Spoonwod

    “Vegans should stop worrying about ancestral health enthusiasts as well.”

    It could happen that paleo enthusiasts stop worrying about vegans. However, it simply will NOT happen that vegans.. .writ large… stop worrying about paleo enthusiasts. Anyone who eats vegan primarily for ethical reasons will not like others eating meat, unless they absolutely need to do so in order to survive. Oftentimes, undoubtedly, vegans have both ethical and health reasons for their diet… which comes as *much* more specifically than veganism which includes a class of diets. On the other hand, so far as I can tell, there exist no ethical reasons for eating paleo.

  15. I just went to a heart dr who suggested a paleo diet. I had a dr who said vegetarian. What is the fine line between the two? Why are legumes bad for you? Is paleo + legumes ok?
    Peggy

  16. laura

    Nice article. My husband and i get tons of ctiticizm after going vegan years ago, and nobody likes to hear about how much our health has improved! My anemia is gone and my bloodwork went from being a total mess to perfect. Our energy and stamina is off the charts. The sex is sooooo much better and more frequent. Weight loss and more LAN muscle. My husbands eyesight is improving. The list goes on and on.. We don’t ever tell people what to east but what really irritates me is when ignorant people say that a diet without animal products is ungealthe. This is false. This past five years has been the healthiest of our lives.wham

    • laura

      I suppose i should mention what i eat as a vegan in case anybody wants to improve their health. Lots of raw fruit, raw and cooked vegetables, lentils, beans , rice, whole grains, tempeh, tofu, nuts and seeds. I couldn’t recommend a healthier diet. I feel amazing.. No more headaches or heartburn. I think giving up dairy is the single best thing i ever did for my health

  17. Stan

    Moyer, what’s your opinion on the recent GenoType diet by Peter D’Adamo?

    • It doesn’t make sense to me to assign people diets by what “type” you are like “teacher,” “hunter,” and so forth. It would make more sense to look at your own specific genetic profile (on 23andMe.com or elsewhere) and then see what kind of clues like in your specific genotype. Do you produce lactase as an adult? If so you may be better able to tolerate dairy products. Do you have extra genes to produce amylase? If so you may be better suited for a higher starch diet. And so forth. But even then, paying attention to how your body responds to certain foods and diets is more important than any “type” you are.

  18. Thanks for this post. As a 5 year vegan trying to incorporate some paleo principles (& re-evaluating my diet of late), I’m just finding it ridiculous. Both sides are so ridiculously closed to each other – it’s almost like they’re not listening, they’re just standing their ground and saying “no, no, no, that’s wrong” like spoiled brats. I’m thinking the truth, like you said – is a personal thing, and that it’s probably more “the middle path”. Paleos and vegans have a lot more in common than they realise, and labelling and segregating each other and sending smugness out into the world isn’t helping anyone.

  19. Robert Andersen

    J.D,
    This is a fantastic article. Thank you.

  20. Clover

    This is ridiculous. ‘Happy meat’ is a farce. Vegan is not a diet fad, it is living while causing as little harm as possible. And no, whatever link you send will not convince me or any other ethical person of the ‘happy meat’ lie. Real paleo lifespan 35yrs.

  21. Sam

    I don’t know. There are Vegans (a good number) whose goal in life is to take away the right of another person to eat meat. This doesn’t make them the enemy? This is my problem with Vegans and is a valid concern.

    • Sam — straight question here … not trying to troll. Where do the rights of animals come in? I eat meat too, but I think it’s valid that there are legal protections against animal abuse and poor farming practices. So do we have a right to eat meat “no matter what”? Or is it valid that there are legal restrictions on the treatment of animals? In my view meat-eating should not be outlawed, but there should be even more stringent standards for how we treat animals as a society.

      Vegans who see things only in white-and-black (see comment from Clover above) obviously aren’t going to get anywhere in terms of convincing omnivores of anything. But there is common ground; we can make progress in terms of ethical treatment of animals. Meat-eaters should take responsibility in this area even more so than vegans (since we’re the ones eating the animals).

  22. Michael Gaines

    Well, I for one can say a ketogenic diet 60-75% fat; 20-25% protein; and 5% or less of daily carbohydrates greatly improves the life of those person struggling with metabolic disorders that result in increased blood sugars.

    20 weeks ago, my sugars ran from 55-300 and 60 day average of 155-170 on an ADA diet while taking insulin up to 6 times or more a day. I also was taking Metformin in large daily doses. I had to have a heart valve replaced 2+ years ago and that’s when the doctors told me I had diabetes too… I also suffered dawn affect and usually woke with sugar levels between 150-170 even when I went to bed with a normal blood sugar using my insulins.

    20 weeks sticking strongly to my ketogenic diet, my life has turned the corner with respect to diabetes. The endocrinologist just kept saying up the dose, exercise more, etc… But nothing really helped once I started injecting insulin daily to control blood sugar levels. I took the dive and my results are as follows:

    1. By day 3 I noticed good improvements in blood sugar levels
    2. My current range is from 90-135, with a 60 day average of 115.
    3. My dawn affect has been improving week by week. At first it was like 140’s , then 130’s, sometimes 95 (odd), then 130’s , high 120’s and the last 3 days it’s been 90; 112; 114; etc…

    Most people overweight in the middle are pre-diabetic or diabetic and don’t even know it. There problem for a decade or two before diagnosis of diabetes is the actual cause of diabetes and doctors simply don’t check for it. It’s called INSULIN. People predisposed to diabetes are people that tend to over secrete INSULIN. INSULIN in excess is the cause of INSULIN RESISTANT BODIES. IGF also play a role is sugar control and even to some extent as well if not more so than the pancreas on many levels. We need both of them to control blood sugars and to prevent all the symptoms associated with this disease like obesity, heart disease, cancer, etc….

    I now control my blood sugar better through diet than I ever did using drugs and doing what these experts have been doing for years. They mean well– but their results are deplorable.To Change your life if your diabetic begin the journey of understanding how your body works and then eat to live!!!

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