Can “Paleo” and “Plant Based” Diets Live In Harmony?

Confession: a few years ago, I jumped on the paleo bandwagon. During that time, I used to bristle at the advent of plant based diets and things like “Meatless Monday,” mainly because they became so conflated with the vegan diet. I felt tired of people pushing the no meat thing, annoyed that vegetarian diets are always deemed healthier despite the fact studies supporting this diet are essentially comparing a group who has made a conscious decision about their health to “everyone else” – a wider group of many who haven’t. I was (and still am) also concerned that many people do it wrong, substituting meat with things like pasta, rice, and bread. And THAT IS NOT HEALTHIER, I ranted.

The Plant Based Diet 

Given that I’ve just written much of the above paragraph in the past tense, most of you have correctly guessed that my attitude has changed. The more I look at my own diet, at the paleo diet, and at research, the more I’m convinced that plant based diet IS the way to go. The key question here is what is a “plant based” diet? Based on a Google search, “plant based diet” is poorly defined (kind of like “fitness” before CrossFit). So, I’m making one up. According to the dictionary of Alexandra Black MPH, RD, LD, a plant based diet is:

A diet in which plant are the foundation of the diet. This diet consists primarily of non-animal nutrient sources. This includes vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and grains, although some animal foods – meat, eggs, dairy – can be included from time to time. 

Of course, as with any diet, there are healthy and not-so-healthy plant based diets. Eggo waffles with Aunt Jemima syrup for breakfast, vegetable pizza for lunch, and a rice and beans Lean Cuisine for dinner is plant based, but not so healthy. Whereas a banana with peanut (or almond) butter for breakfast, vegetable stir fry with quinoa for lunch, and grilled chicken with vegetables and baked sweet potato for dinner is much healthier (and still plant based).

Plant Based V. Paleo

The thing is, right now the consensus among experts is that eating meat at every meal increases your risk for heart disease, among other things. Currently there isn’t enough good research contrasting the “meat eating diet” (which, in most studies, is anyone who eats anything) compared to meat eaters who choose predominately organic or grass-finished animal products. There also isn’t any good research I”m aware of comparing vegetarians to the organic meat eaters. So it’s kind of a “what we know right now says X but maybe it might say Y if research was different”.

Another point I’d like to make is that most of our paleo ancestors also likely ate a plant based diet. Excepting the northern populations like those on the Aleutian Islands, most paleolithic people ate a lot of plants. They couldn’t go into the supermarket and buy all the meat they needed for the week at anytime. They had to hunt and kill their meat, so they only got it when they were able to bag some game. Otherwise, they ate plants and fruits and whatever else they could gather.

So yes, plant based diets and paleo diets can – and should – live in harmony. Paleo is not supposed to be an excuse to eat bacon everyday, rather it should be one of many ways to find a healthful, sustainable diet.

Photo c/o Marco Bernardini

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