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. 🙂


30 Day Paleo Challenge: Reflections on 4 Weeks of Eating Like a Caveman

For those of you reading this who are not familiar with the Paleo diet (a.k.a. the Caveman or Hunter-Gatherer diet), it is a way of eating based on the belief that our bodies evolved to consume natural, whole foods like we did during the hunter-gatherer portion of our existence. Someone who lives on the Paleo diet consumes all kinds of meat, fish and vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, but avoids foods that must be processed for consumption, or anything that our early ancestors would not have found in nature. The Paleo diet does not include any grains like wheat, soy or corn, or any milk products (cheese, yogurt, cream). Also, legumes like beans and peanuts are avoided. The reason some people believe the Paleo diet is healthier to humans is because it utilizes a lot of good fats, high-quality calories and nutrient-dense food choices. It’s all real food – no low-fat, high-sugar, highly processed and highly addicting simple carbohydrates that our bodies are not adapted to utilize properly, and as a result are causing us to become fatter and sicker.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Paleo diet does not consist of bacon, pork rinds and rawhide.

I, for one, grew up in a French-Canadian home where white bread and butter, salt, starchy potatoes and pork pie were the four food groups. My father raised me until I was 15 and he never used things like olive oil or experimented with anything that couldn’t be coated in Shake-n-Bake. Until I was an adult I never even tried things like brussels sprouts, salmon, fresh garlic or avocado. We went to McDonald’s for dinner twice a week and there was always soda in the fridge. It’s really no wonder that most of the adults in my family never live past their 50’s (or in the case of my father, 36). I must have a different lifestyle if I’m going to live longer than them. Running is one way to do it – and a better diet is another.

So tomorrow, I will have been on the Paleo diet for four weeks. I was going to wait to write about it until Monday or something, but I’m in the mood to write today so I figure I might as well not waste the opportunity. It’s been a cool experience. For one thing, I really think I like the idea of trying out something new by saying that I’m going to “do it for one month.” The timed commitment has an interesting allure to it, and gives me the guilt-free choice to stick with it later on or not. Below I’ve listed my observations for the month.

It’s pretty easy to follow

Meat, veggies, fruit, nuts and good oils. I mean…it’s not exactly brain surgery. And if you think about it, just about every diet you’ll ever go on – to some degree – pushes you in the direction of eating this stuff.

Forgoing cheese will not dismantle the space-time continuum
This one was big for me when I first decided to do this. No cheese? How will I make it a whole month?! I am a cheese addict. I put cheese in everything. Extra cheese. White cheese, stinky cheese, goat cheese, bleu cheese. My husband and I throw a party at our house annually, as an homage to the fine fragrant fromage. But you know what’s interesting? Take away pasta, sandwiches and pizza, and cheese becomes practically obsolete anyway. And if I’m to be completely honest here, of the things I didn’t eat this month I missed cheese the least of all. Why? Because, I learned, I am actually a much bigger grain/bread/pasta freak than I am a cheese addict. This was probably my most interesting observation.

I finally bought a blender
When your typical daytime food rotation includes Kashi cereal with 2% milk, oatmeal, toast with peanut butter, turkey and swiss sandwiches on whole wheat with mayo, soup with noodles and granola bars, putting together a Paleo-friendly breakfast and lunch can be quite a head-scratcher. So I bought a blender (something I never really had a use for before) and started making protein smoothies for breakfast. Turns out they’re pretty awesome. I use plain almond milk, fresh berries, banana, spinach, almond butter, ice and (on run days) whey powder. Lunch was probably the trickiest of all meals – I made a lot of spinach salads with veggies and tuna or chicken, nuts, hard-boiled eggs and dried fruit. Or leftovers. It got a little boring, though – I’m not great at creative salads.

I only went 90%
I still had my morning coffee with milk and sugar. I drank beer. I dipped my sashimi into some low-sodium soy sauce. I put regular milk in my scrambled eggs. I ate sweet potatoes, especially on run days, and I ate white and purple potatoes a couple times.  I brought energy gels on my long runs. I used salad dressing in a bottle. I mean, I still live in 2012 and convenience rules, so I made the decision not to sweat every little small thing and instead try for the bigger overall picture. I didn’t want to hate this diet and decide to quit halfway, so I added in some allowances that made me happy.

Running was interesting
My first few days I tried counting my calories to make sure I would lose weight. My runs were terrible. My legs were heavy and I felt tired in half the usual time. I asked my Paleo-eating friend Christian if he thought it had anything to do with a lack of carbohydrates – and he said it was probably just a lack of calories. So I did away with the counting, my runs improved and I still lost some weight.

I’m not sure whether this way of eating has made any short-term improvements on my running, I’m certainly not running a whole lot faster. But I do believe that my recovery time has shortened. All of my runs are longer on average than they were last year at this time, but I am not walking like an old lady anymore in the mornings. In fact, the other day I playfully bounded down the stairs in my house without thinking, and afterward I realized that between last year’s constant soreness and the summer/fall of long-term injuries, I hadn’t run freely down a set of stairs like that in a very long time.

I cheated
I may not have missed cheese as much as I thought I would, but I craved cookies and other starchy sweets more than I probably ever have in my life. And I will admit that I gave in to it a couple of times this month. To a point, I wondered if that craving was my body telling me it wasn’t getting enough of something – the human body is complex and I do believe that like everything else, cravings have a purpose. I’m pretty sure my body was not, however, telling me that I needed to eat an entire sleeve of Girl Scout thin mints in one sitting. Nope, probably not.

I got bacon out of my system
Probably the most exciting thing about the Paleo diet is that it allows for a lot of healthy fats like avocados, red meat, nuts and…within reason…bacon. Having been on those fat-villifying Weight Watchers-style diets for a decade, this was emotionally freeing for me. I bought a package of low-sodium bacon each week and consumed it with my excited, swine-fat-loving husband. But by now I think we both have the bacon frenzy out of our system. I still have most of this week’s purchase inside a ziplock bag in my refrigerator. I might just give it to the dog.

I don’t like spaghetti squash, but I love dried mango
Trying a different diet is good because it encourages you to discover new types of foods. This month I tried out kale, dried mango slices, coconut milk, coconut ice-cream, organic veggie chips and spaghetti squash. It’s not a terribly long list, but that’s just because I’m not a picky eater and there’s really not much left that I haven’t tried. I do want to eventually put different meats on my menu though, like buffalo, ostrich and rabbit, but those items take more effort to find around here. Also, I want to find some chia seeds to put into my smoothies, and see if I like coconut oil. Those things are also not located in my regular supermarket.

I think I feel healthier
I think I probably do. I mean, how could you not feel better about your eating habits when your grocery shopping cart looks like a farm stand? But unlike what most Americans have come to expect out of diets these days, eating Paleo has not caused any thunderbolts of miraculous healthfulness. Sorry, I’m not suddenly popping out of bed before my alarm or leaping tall buildings in a single bound – so if that’s what you’re hoping to get out of going Paleo you’re out of luck, go buy a diet pill or something. But I do feel that this way of eating could have long-term positive effects on my health. A lower risk of the heart disease that runs through my family, for one. And the really important stuff is what helps you in the long term. But one definitive change I have noticed is that I do “feel” healthier and better fed at the end of the day. Also I’ve just realized that all month I have not once experienced that dreadful “food coma” that occurs when you consume far too many carbohydrates and your sugar levels plunge an hour later.

I think I’ll stick to it
Yeah. I think that this could be a good plan to stick with and make it mine. Over the long haul I may still consume some pasta now and then, but in a dramatically reduced amount compared to before. If I’ve discovered I can live happily while avoiding white rice and cheddar cheese, then why not keep avoiding it for the most part?

Yes, I know, I know…for every barefoot runner who goes Paleo, a vegan fairy dies. But I’ll be honest, I don’t buy the whole “we aren’t supposed to eat meat” thing. I mean, I think the vegans have it partly right – plant-based food is essential to our health. But I also believe the stuff that says we are omnivores – otherwise cows and pigs and chickens wouldn’t be so darn tasty.