There seems to be a bit of an ongoing, if somewhat subdued, battle between paleo and plant-based dieters. On some level, I understand the disagreement. At face value, it seems obvious that the paleo diet, which promotes an ancestral diet based on meat and vegetables, would be at odds with a plant-based diet, which eschews all animal products and certainly doesn’t include meat. However, I would argue that much of the ‘battle’ is unfounded. Once you dig just a tiny bit deeper, past the issue of meat or no meat, paleo and plant-based diets have a whole lot in common:
Spectrum of Dieter ‘Types’
I’m going to start here because I want to emphasize the fact that both of these diets have followers who interpret the eating guidelines differently. There are still plenty of plant-based and paleo eaters who consume a diet that consists largely of what could generally be considered junk food. Things like Oreos (yep, they’re vegan) or paleo cupcakes. It is often said by vegans that not all vegans are the same. Likewise, not all meat eaters are the same. Some may emphasize vegetable and fruit consumption, while others focus on what they can ‘get away with’ that still fits the diet.
I think it’s important to note here that I don’t think cookies or cupcakes are inherently bad or should never be consumed. My point is that if someone were to neglect nutrient dense food and eat large amounts of nutrient-poor and sugar-dense food on a daily basis, they will presumably have different health outcomes than someone who eats primarily veggies paired with beans or meat.
There is a tendency for people in the paleo world to point to unhealthy plant-based people and for plant-based people to point to unhealthy paleo eaters and use those individuals as an argument for why the diet doesn’t work. However, we need to keep in mind that people take on these diets and employ them differently, so it’s unfair to say that a plant-based diet doesn’t work just because we know someone who eats an unhealthy vegan diet. Likewise for paleo. For the rest of this post, I am referring to paleo and plant-based dieters as those who ascribe to the diets as they are described by those viewed as leaders in the communities. Essentially, this means eating whole foods and avoiding excess sugar and processed, refined foods.
Avoidance of Processed Food and Love of Vegetables
I think that by far the biggest commonality between paleo and plant-based communities is the avoidance of processed food and rejection of what is often referred to as the Standard American Diet (SAD). I believe this is what is largely responsible for the major health benefits seen and experienced by those who adopt these diets. Much of what we see from advocates of both involves a focus on consuming whole, unprocessed foods. The communities as a whole emphasize staying away from packaged food-like products.
Perhaps equally as important as avoiding processed food is the emphasis of both diets on eating plenty of veggies. Plant-based diets are generally viewed as plant heavy, but many don’t realize that a true paleo diet is also very focused on plant foods. The paleo diet is not atkins. It’s not even meat-heavy, or necessarily meat-based. Sure, there are a fair number of very low carbers in the paleo-sphere. However, there is a large segment of the community that emphasized the importance of accompanying meat with lots and lots of veggies. Some of them acknowledge that there are documented health consequences associated with meat consumption, but that those health impacts are mitigated when meat is accompanied by plenty of veggies. The argument from the paleo camp is that meat contains nutrients that are important for overall health, so the ideal is to eat some meat along with plenty of green vegetables.
Success at Improving Major Health Issues
I think it’s safe to say that a good chunk of the population of people who follow each of these diet philosophies do so primarily in the interest of improving long-term health. Sure, there will be those who join an eating philosophy in search of visible abs; that’s true for just about any way of eating. It seems, though, that these two diets attract many individuals who are seeking to heal chronic and serious illnesses and prevent future ones.
And the awesome thing is that it very often works. There are countless stories of people putting autoimmune or degenerative diseases into remission using one of these diets. So what gives? Are some people lying and saying a diet works when really it doesn’t? Seems doubtful. I think the real answer is that paleo and plant-based diets have a lot of commonalities in terms of foods that are included and excluded. They both contain extremely healthful and nutrient-dense foods, emphasizing large quantities of plant foods.
They also both encourage lifestyle choices that promote overall health. Things such as staying active, getting plenty of sleep, and using stress-management techniques. All of these factors create what is ultimately a healing way of eating and living, and consequently promote health and can help people recover from debilitating conditions.
Concern for Environment Protection and Animal Welfare
This is a big one, and it’s something that is really important to me. Environmental issues are the reason I was vegan or vegetarian for the majority of the first 23 years of my life. It is pretty well established that a plant-based diet is beneficial in terms of environmental conservation. What is not as well publicized is the fact that it is possible to be an ethical and environmentally-conscious meat eater. Doing so requires more time and effort, and often more money. It’s also most definitely worth the potential sacrifice if you choose to consume animal products.
I’ve talked to several plant-based individuals who stopped eating animal products just for the sake of the environment. I think it’s fair to say that a similarly sized segment of the paleo community is very concerned about environmental issues and is actively taking steps to improve environmental conservation efforts and support ethical and sustainable farming practices. Paleo 2.0 (sustainability > abs) is perhaps the most salient example of this at the moment. The point is that one can approach a paleo lifestyle in a highly ethical and sustainable manner. Paleo isn’t necessarily about eating meat to stay skinny/strong/svelte/etc. It’s about choosing and growing food in a way that is in harmony with the natural world and promotes the health and well-being of the environment as a whole. Sound familiar? Yep, a lot like the goal of many plant-based people you may talk to. Eating meat doesn’t have to mean environmental ruin. When done responsibly and sustainably, it is absolutely possible to be a conscious meat eater. Though I do think this requires eating substantially less meat than is often recommended.
Likewise, following a paleo way of eating doesn’t require that one turns a blind eye to animal welfare. On the contrary, those who are generally viewed as the leaders of the paleo movement emphasize the importance (from both a health and environmental perspective) of consuming animals that are allowed to live in an enriching, open, natural environment. This means choosing cows that are kept on pasture their entire lives and aren’t carted around from one farm or feedlot to another. It means buying eggs from farmers who let their chickens run around in large open spaces, eating bugs and kitchen scraps. To some, the fact that the animal is killed may negate all the positives associated with well-raised animals. If that’s you, then being entirely plant-based is likely to be in your best interest. However, if you are ok with eating an animal that has led a healthy, happy life, know that eating animal products doesn’t have to mean sacrificing animal welfare.
Preference for Natural Products
If you look for products that are free of potentially dangerous chemicals and additives, or search for how to make your own health and beauty products, chances are you will find information from a variety of paleo-focused and plant-based individuals. There’s a common thread among those who are health- and environment-focused to look beyond food and toward other components of our surroundings that could be causing harm.
Likewise, it’s not uncommon to find paleo-ites and plant-based people emphasizing the importance of consuming local, organic food and arguing against the production and consumption of GMO foods. There is a huge amount of common ground here, much of which is relate to a shared concern for the environment and for optimal health, as discussed previously.
Frustration with the Conventional Medical System
I listen to quite a few paleo-focused podcasts. Recently, in an effort to broaden my scope of information a bit, I have been listening to vegan-centered podcasts. When I first started listening, I was struck by the similarity between the two in terms of conversations about health and how nutrition is handled/ignored by many doctors.
In both communities, there is extensive discussion of the issues stemming from the fact that physicians are not trained in nutrition and are primarily focused on using medication as interventions for chronic illness. This reflects an overall desire among the plant-based and paleo communities to look at food as medicine and move away from the model that views medication as the first, and sometimes only, line of defense against the progression of degenerative, autoimmune, and other diseases.
Plant-based and paleo advocates alike have turned to the power of food as medicine, looking for ways to heal our bodies from the inside and avoid unnecessary medical interventions. Food may not be the only answer in all cases, but it is undeniably a very powerful tool to prevent and even treat a variety of health conditions.
I’m not here to advocate one way of eating over another. My goal is to elucidate the similarities between these two popular and heavily-defended diets. It’s vital to keep in mind that people are different. Bodies are different. What works for one person might not work at all for another. Bodies also change. What works for you at one point in your life might not work as well at another point. I will say that it seems abundantly clear that, whichever path you choose to take nutritionally, it is best to focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods, to work on stress management, and to keep moving as much as possible. I think it could be extremely powerful if these two like-minded communities spent more time focusing on what they have in common and less time in a battle of nutritional philosophies. Our forces combined could go a long way toward improving environmental conservation and health outcomes.
Ok, I’m done…