Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole

Paleo vs. Vegan: The Politics of Diet


As we are all coming off the high of this insanely partisan Presidential election, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the equally partisan views that many folks have between the two big fringe dietary models of our current time: Paleo and Vegan.

For those of my readers who may not be familiar, I’ll take a moment here to explain my understanding of the differences between these two diets. Veganism is almost exclusively a plant-based diet, utilizing the carbohydrates that vegetables, fruits and grains provide for energy, with the added proteins and fats from nuts, legumes and fatty plants such as avocados. Vegans stay away from any animal product, protein or meat, including by-products such as milk, eggs, cheese and animal-derived oils. They also generally avoid heavily processed items, anything that has so many ingredients that it stops becoming real food.

The Paleo, or Caveman diet is often construed to be the opposite of Vegan. By definition, it is not at all. The Paleo diet contains any food that is naturally derived and completely unprocessed – that is, anything that would have been consumed throughout most of human history as we evolved to what we are today. This diet contains all forms of unprocessed meat (preferably grass-fed and not drugged-up), fruits, vegetables, eggs and nuts, and strays away from processed animal by-products like milk and cheese. Paleo also excludes any form of grain – wheat, oats, rice – because it must be processed for consumption. Legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts) and potatoes are also out because they were not a part of the diet early on in human evolution.

The reason I titled this post as such is that the people who follow one of these diets tend to feel strongly for their choice, at the total expense of the other. For example, earlier this year I decided to try a 30-day Paleo challenge, and was subsequently chewed out by a Vegan friend on Facebook. Fact and fiction alike was littered about the conversation, and there was even some namecalling. It felt like a political campaign, or hell…even a little like a religious argument.

Personally, I find that I generally tend to stay away from the side of any argument that feels dogmatic to me, and lean toward the side that feels more based in historical or empirical evidence. This is probably why I tend to lean left in my political beliefs, and non-denominational in my thoughts about life after death.

While both Veganism and Paleo tote around plenty of evidence for bringing on good health, and even though, like most religions, they aren’t all that different from each other if you look at the fine print, there’s just something more dogmatic to me about Veganism.

In my experience, many people who promote Vegan eating do it for moral or ethical reasons (i.e. meat is murder). Now, certainly this is not the case for all Vegans, but there is a good portion of that argument in there, anytime you touch on the subject. Conversely, Paleo devotees almost exclusively follow the diet for health and well-being, discarding the subject of morality entirely. I’ve always leaned toward the Paleo way of thinking because in my opinion, the nourishment of my body has nothing to do with ethics or kindness to animals (or plants either, for that matter). Coyotes eat rabbits because their bodies are evolved to need them. Cows eat grass for the same reason. I like to take my cues from science and evolution. But hey that’s just me, and this is my blog.

That said, I have seen some excellent empirical arguments made recently by friends of mine for the Vegan diet, laced with interesting anecdotal evidence (my favorite kind, heh). It’s times like these where I appreciate the sort of people I surround myself with because they are generally open-minded and intelligent, which is an excellent combination of qualities, especially because I love to learn from people and be inspired to think differently. Many of my smart, science-y friends have been testing (and loving) the Vegan diet for its ability to cleanse the body of toxins and promote overall good health. Most of them are runners as well, and they have boasted huge improvements in their performance since switching to the plant-based diet. And probably the best news of all, each of them has reported significant weight loss where needed.

Being that Paleo has always been the better fit for my political compass, I resisted these findings for quite some time. Sure you can go on a Vegan diet for awhile, but how long until you just need to go chew on an animal? How long can you really resist the general diet of the average human in 2012? Other than for out-of-the-ordinary people like Scott Jurek or Pat Sweeney, Vegan always seemed more temporary to me than even the likes of other diet systems like Weight Watchers, Atkins or South Beach. There’s just so much you have to take out of your diet, it just didn’t seem worth bothering.

But I’ve come to a crossroads. I’m struggling emotionally and physically with the weight that I’ve gained in the last four years. I don’t like the way I look in my clothes (or out of them). I run anywhere from 10-30 miles per week, I fill my house with all sorts of high quality foods, yet I still struggle with losing this extra weight. And I believe that the extra weight is the only thing keeping me from my running goals. Genetically pre-dispositioned, I’ve been somewhat overweight for most of my life and even though I’ve been moderately successful on some low-calorie diets before, I’m tired and bored of them. I need a different challenge, I think. It might be possible that going Vegan for awhile could offset that boredom enough to help me discard that unnecessary weight.

So I’m putting some thought into switching to Vegan temporarily, at least until the Across the Years 24-hour race that I just signed up for. I’m thoroughly ecstatic for this race, but I’ve been worried that my body isn’t up for the same challenge that my mind is itching for. It’s possible that changing my eating habits now, just shy of two months beforehand, could bring my body closer to meeting that challenge.

I’m not promising anything, I think, but I’m putting some serious consideration into the idea. I expect I’ll have my decision made by the end of this week. I welcome any thoughts or advice that my readers may have on the subject. Especially the free-of-politics kind. πŸ™‚

17 thoughts on “Paleo vs. Vegan: The Politics of Diet

  1. I know you can have success with this change in diet. You have already done the Paleo so why not try vegan. Whats the worst that can happen? Yes, you’re going to miss your carne asada (sorry I had to bring it up), but you will feel better and cleaner πŸ™‚ DO IT!

  2. Trisha,

    Here’s a few thoughts (given at risk of being bombarded by dogmatists from all sides!) Like you said, these are just my thoughts – if you and your readers don’t like them, then don’t think them!

    I find that if I am overweight it is because I am eating too much. Fundamentally it is because I am consuming more calories than I am using. So if I need to lose weight I try to eat less (and particularly fewer calories.) I’m not suggesting that that is easy, but there it is!

    I’d suggest (dons tin helmet) that one of the reasons that those who embark on a paleo or vegan (or vegetarian or gluten free or cabbage or hi carb or low protein or low fat) diet lose weight (at least initially) is that they take notice of what they are eating, and probably cut out extraneous snacks and nibbles.

    There is also a well known effect in psychology of feeling better when we change something, whether the thing is actually good for us or not.

    I’m not suggesting that a vegan diet or a paleo diet is unhealthy and that there won’t be some improvements that come from the limited diet. But I would suggest (adds flak jacket to tin hat!) that these improvements are marginal when compared to a simple, balanced diet without too much sugar or fat, and plenty of fresh fruit and veg.

    So by all means switch to a vegan (or paleo) diet. Enjoy trying new things and thinking about what you eat. You will probably be healthier, feel better and lose weight – all your goals in one. But don’t think of the new diet as magic, or lapse into pseudoscientific explanations like “releasing toxins from your body”!

    The long term key, though, is to change your eating habits to match your intake of energy to your body’s needs, and to find good foods that you like and so will continue to eat once your enthusiasm for your diet wears off!

    Enjoy your culinary explorations.


    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jell. They are certainly true and well thought-out, and I agree.

      I think for me, though, the deletion of certain foods as a guideline for following a certain diet, like Paleo or Vegan, actually makes it easier to follow. You can say “eat balanced” all you want but that doesn’t mean a thing when there’s no guidelines for how. People eat until they’re full, it’s just a function of our nature. Currently I eat until I’m full and I have no guidelines about what I’m eating, so I’m gaining weight. When I go on a lower calorie diet, I feel hungry and deprived. That’s not to say a low calorie diet doesn’t work, it certainly does – but not for long, because the feeling of deprivation often pulls us out of it at some point.

      But, if we cut out all of the garbage in our diets and get back to the simple natural stuff we are supposed to be eating (paleo and Vegan both more or less support that), then we can eat until we are full, feel indulged, and still maintain or reach a healthy weight. And that’s what I’m going by in this post.

      • Hi Trish,

        Couldn’t agree more. I have been through the same thoughts and actions, and have failed to lose weight by just trying to “be good”! The focus on a specific diet, with rules based, at least partly, on a consideration of the value of what you are eating, is a great way to help us all eat better. That said, you can still get fat as a Vegan or a caveman/woman if you eat too much of the stuff, so you do still need to regulate input.

        You do, though, have to select a set of rules that gives you food that you like. If you love steak and chicken and decide to go Vegan, there will always be a part of you that is hankering to give it all up and sink your teeth into some tasty flesh!

        We are all different, and can use different rules. One of mine is to always serve myself less at suppertime than I serve for the rest of the family. I still eat well, but just that little bit less, and it all helps.

        I was running the OMM ( last weekend, and as ever my team-mate (my brother Pete) and I were fussing over the weight of an extra fleece (it snowed the night before the race!) or another couple of energy bars. We could both have easily accommodated that extra weight by losing an extra couple of pounds in the weeks before the race! (As it happened, we had to pull out on Day 1 because Pete pulled a hamstring.)

        Enjoy your diet and let us know how you get on.


  3. 6 year plant based athlete here. In my opinion, if you are going to try veganism for health reasons, you’re bound to be unhappy with the decision. It is not a magical lose weight diet, neither is Paleo.

    I feel if you are swayed to a plant based diet based on health reasons, you are just as easily to be swayed off of it and onto other type of diet.

    I do not think meat makes any difference in most diets. If you took my vegan diet and added a small amount of clean meat to it each day, there would be no difference in how I felt (physically).

    • Thanks Kyle. I am curious then, what are YOUR reasons for being plant-based, then, if not for health benefits or weight maintenance?

      • Ethics.

        That said, I’m totally PRO Paleo diet since I’m pro “don’t each shitty food”. If you’re a vegetarian who lives off of eggs and oreos, you’re doing it wrong IMO. My reasons for being on the “don’t eat shitty food” diet are for health and weight management πŸ˜‰

      • I would even not hesitate to say that if Scott J would have been eating grass fed/healthy animal at one or two meals a day instead of just being a vegetarian, he would have the exact same racing results. Definitely would not have the publicity of being as successful as he has with the “handicap” of being vegan.

        He eats a huge variety of plants, eats a lot of food, and it’s 99% unprocessed. THAT is a good diet.

      • All excellent and thought-provoking points, Kyle. Thank you.

  4. Great post. I have been thinking much the same way since reading Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run. I love the sound of all the reported benefits he gained. I think the problem that I would have is the thought and effort required to go Vegan. It seems that there’s a lot to consider in order to get a good mix of vitamins and nutrients. Personally I know that it would be too overwhelming for me (unless I had a personal chef!), I’ll be really interested to see how you go, and if there are any tips that you pick up along the way.
    As an aside, for weight loss, I’ve found from my own experience that the faster I tend to move, the less weight I can expect to lose. The best weight loss I’ve ever had was when I was doing 30k hikes (at ~5km/h) every week while training for the Oxfam Trailwalker. (I lost 10kg). I was doing similar mileage last year with running at ~10km/h, but barely lost a pound. Don’t know if there’s something in it or not, but there it is.
    Good luck on the diet and the race!

  5. Always embarking on intriguing new ventures! πŸ™‚

    Here are my “key” thoughts…. stuff you’ve likely concluded already, but can’t hurt to reinforce, right?

    ~ Have a plan to roll out your new diet should you choose to try it. Dropping all animal products is a big switch for the body, and you’re bound to feel adverse if you give it up cold turkey. Er, cold tofu? πŸ™‚ Aka, a slow change will likely leave you more satisfied with it, vs. sending your stomach into feelings of deprivation.

    ~That plan should include some stellar recipes, and some vegan versions of your comfort foods. Most meat and cheese substitutes are pretty darn processed, but there are a few really good gems out there that aren’t. I find such “indulgences” -in moderation- are the key to successfully sticking to new food habits. You’re also in a great area for finding some dishes out that are “vegan-done-right.” When I was a vegan in a college dining hall, I ate nothing but pasta, and rarely enjoyed much food. When I moved to the granola-heart of VT, I didn’t miss a single drop of dairy… there was so much to choose from, I never felt like I was missing out on anything. Naturally became a healthier person.

    ~I find a certain way of eating keeps me much more interested in and inspired by food… vs. just eating to eat. I spend a lot of time perusing online veggie sites and my FB feed is almost solely comprised of food pages. Being involved in a local CSA has forced me to try new things because I never know what I’m going to be given each week. Sure, I’m an ethical vegetarian, but if you took away the moral/environmental questions… I still believe that being excited about your food makes giving up the junk waaaaay easier.

    ~Let me know if you want me to pass on any favorite recipes! πŸ™‚

  6. Pingback: Artisan Vegan Cheese Photo Contest « The Epigenetics Project Blog

  7. Hey there, I think trying a vegtable based diet is a wonderful idea! I don’t lable myself as vegatarian but on most days I am. I started out slowly… I would do meatless Mondays. Then I would do dairy free Fridays. If there was a vegatarian option I would take it. I switched my lattes from skim milk to soy milk or almond milk. At Starbucks their soy milk is organic.( But I drink Soy in moderation.) If I did eat meat or eggs, I always chose organic or wild caught. Now I barely crave meat products, and when I do, I end up hating the texture of them. Another tip I learned is just because it is labeled vegan doesn’t mean it is unprocessed and sugar free. Sugar makes you fat, whether it is vegan or regular. Always read labels. There are two blogs I love. You should check them out.
    She went from 256lb to 141lb by eating clean and vegan
    She went from being sick and over 200lb to being healthy 125lb by becoming vegan. She is also a runner.

    Check out Forks over Knives.

    Good luck!

  8. You may want to look into the 4 Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss. I started at 260 lbs and I am down to 230. I began at the end of August. And I haven’t strictly followed the diet. I’ve be off and on for about a month just to maintain. It’s a modified paleo diet where you you have veggies, protein, and legumes. No other carbs (including fruit) allowed except on your once a week cheat day where you can eat pretty much all you want of what you missed (with certain recommendations to start the day).

    Pick up the book before jumping in. Great arguments and recommendations in it to help you drop about 5 pounds a week on the diet alone. I will tell you the first week sucks. It takes a bit for your body to get used to the missing carbs. After the 2nd week though, you feel great! I guess it helps that you just dropped about 10 pounds in a couple of weeks.

    He recommends that you experiment with what works for you because everyone is different and everyone will get different results as they go along.

    And today is day 159 of the 30+ day challenge you proposed a while back. My mileage isn’t great, but I’m running at least 2 miles a day and from 16 to 18 miles a week. Thank you very much Trisha, you’ve inspired a big boned runner to keep at it!

  9. Pingback: Paleo Diet Curry Recipes

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