5 Steps to Transition from Paleo to a Plant-Based Diet
I followed a strict paleo diet for about three years before making the decision to move toward a plant-based vegan diet. I’ve written before about my motivation for transitioning away from paleo and about the similarities between paleo and plant-based diets. This post is more of a ‘how I did it’ explanation of the specific steps I took in moving away from paleo and toward a plant-based vegan diet.
Despite the similarities between the two lifestyles, I found the switch to be more difficult than I anticipated, especially from a mentality perspective. One of the more challenging parts of the transition was overcoming the stigma associated with vegan diets in the paleo community. A lot of work goes into discrediting veganism in terms of both health and ethics, and it takes effort to undo some of that training.
I took the process in steps, starting with what I felt to be the most important and continuing with what I found easiest to digest.
Step One – Removing meat and dairy
Removing meat from my diet was not difficult for me, in large part because I spent most of my childhood as a vegetarian and I really don’t like meat. I always had to make myself eat it when I followed a paleo-type diet and thought meat was critical for health. Beef and pork were the first to go, followed closely after by chicken. I have had a dairy allergy for over 10 years, so removing dairy was also easy. I was still eating casein-free ghee, which I also removed at this point. This step was actually a huge relief. It felt like I had suddenly been given permission to stop eating these foods that I really didn’t like and that I felt guilty for eating. The fact that I could maintain my health without animal foods was an immensely freeing realization.
Step Two – Removing fish
Even growing up as a vegetarian, I would occasionally eat fish. As a native northwesterner, salmon was easy to find and something I enjoyed eating. When I started to abandon paleo, I would often eat fish when out at restaurants where the only vegetarian option was pasta or some other gluten-full dish. I found it to be a good transitional solution that made it much easier to eat at restaurants with friends or when visiting family. As time went on, I was still concerned with contamination and overfishing, so I brought other foods with me when visiting family for dinner and found creative solutions for plant-based eating at restaurants. One of my primary strategies still is to order two or three sides to make a whole meal at restaurants that only serve meat-based main dishes.
Step Three – Increasing fruit intake
For years, I had been afraid of fruit. Constantly being told that the fructose would make me fat and ruin my liver left me avoiding all fruit aside from berries and citrus. Now that I had removed almost all animal products, I needed to add something to help meet my caloric needs and I could only eat so many sweet potatoes. Still afraid of legumes and grains, I finally turned to fruit. Eating more fruit was a great choice for a few reasons. For one, it is one of the foods I enjoy most. I’m fairly certain I could eat fruit all day every day and never get tired of it. Second, the increase in carbohydrates was really valuable. It turns out that I operate very well on a high carbohydrate diet, something I had been avoiding like the plague for years. And third, I found that as I ate more fruit I craved sugary foods less and less. A long-time chocoholic, I was surprised to find that I rarely craved chocolate at the end of the day. I still eat chocolate relatively frequently, but I no longer feel like I ‘need’ it on a daily basis.
Step Three – Adding legumes
One of the biggest challenges for me was reintroducing the foods I had been religiously avoiding for years as a paleo faithful. Increasing my fruit consumption didn’t feel too strange, especially as more and more paleo people were jumping on the pro-fruit bandwagon. But things like beans and grains were consistently referred to as toxic and damaging, and I was legitimately afraid of eating them. As I did more research, it became clear pretty quickly that the demonization of legumes is unfounded. Almost all research on legumes points to their health-promoting power. As far as I can tell, claims of beans causing leaky gut and triggering autoimmune flare-ups might make sense in theory but are unfounded in practice. Legumes are high in fiber and resistant starch, two things that are woefully deficient in the diets of most Americans. They also contain antioxidants, minerals, and micronutrients such as iron, magnesium, and folate. I now feel pretty strongly that beans can be an outstanding part of a healthy diet, and I eat them almost daily.
Step Four – Adding grains
In the land of paleo-type diets, grains are considered to be one of the ultimate evils. After years of anti-grain messaging, it took some extensive research for me to be comfortable with eating them, but I eventually started eating gluten free grains like oats and rice and felt great. I still don’t make grains a staple of my diet, mostly due to their lack of nutrient density compared to other plant foods. It’s great to be able to have some dietary flexibility though, and not worry about consuming some corn tortillas or rice with dinner. I continue to stay very far away from gluten at all times, but am continually experimenting with new preparations and recipes that include gluten-free grains.
Step Five – Removing eggs
This was the last, and probably the most challenging step. My parents have a small flock of wild-roaming chickens that eat lots of kitchen scraps and cluck their way around 2 acres of land. After they stop laying, the chickens live out their long, healthy lives on the farm. Ethically, I have no problem with eating those eggs. However, I really don’t tolerate eggs well and ended up with eczema almost every time I ate them, so they will likely stay out of my diet most of the time.
Bonus – My favorite snacks that helped ease the transition (paleo and vegan)
Eating Evolved Mint Chocolate Cups – absolutely amazing at the top of a mountain or at the end of a hike
Seasnax – Crunchy, salty, and full of iodine
Dried Mango – No added sugar
This entire process took close to a year. I removed meat quickly, but the other steps were more drawn out. Everyone is unique in their food journey, and some people will transition to a plant-based diet much differently than I did. I know some have great success with jumping in all the way from the get-go. Others take years to go fully plant-based, or decide to maintain some more flexibility and become mostly plant-based. Everyone’s food journey is unique and valuable. I wanted to share mine to contribute to the discussion, and to offer some perspective on unique challenges that might come up when transitioning specifically from paleo to a plant-based diet.