Vegan vs. Paleo: Finding the Middle Way

Vegan and Paleo diets are the two fastest growing styles of eating in the U.S. these days. Why?  Because we are realizing that our Standard American Diet (a.k.a. “SAD”) is sorely devoid of many vital nutrients, while being full of processed and chemical ingredients that harm our bodies, promoting chronic illness.

Both camps, vegan and paleo, claim to offer the best remedy to this problem, with decades of research backing them up. Though they have several similarities, they also have some significant differences.

In this post, I will give a brief description of each diet and an analysis of their similarities and differences. Then I will outline the Good, Bad and Ugly regarding each diet. From there, we will see what Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) would say about this matter, in an attempt to find The Middle Way. The Middle Way is a Buddhist concept indicating “a transcendence and reconciliation of the extremes of opposing views”.

BRIEF DESCRIPTIONS:

Vegan diets are 100% plant-based. The only requirement is that there are no animal-based foods eaten at all, including meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy.

There are several reasons people eat vegan; we will focus on the health-related aspects here. Most proponents of veganism for health promote a whole-food, low oil version, minimizing  processed or refined foods, and focusing the diet on vegetables, whole-grains, fruits, beans/legumes and nuts/seeds.

Other vegan-for-health advocates promote raw-veganism, in which plant foods are eaten only in their raw form. Since they cannot be digested raw, this excludes all grains and beans (unless they are sprouted).

Paleo diets aim to mimic the diet of the hunter-gatherer, upon which human beings evolved and lived for hundreds of thousands of years, before the advent of agriculture, (a.k.a the “Paleolithic” era). The theory is that since we evolved eating them, these are the foods our bodies are designed to eat: vegetables, fruits, meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds. Paleo diets exclude dairy, grains, beans/legumes, starchy vegetables, and processed/refined foods, as these were not readily available to the hunter-gatherer.

Some paleo authors seem to conflict about whether saturated fat and cholesterol from meat, poultry and eggs are harmful or beneficial to health. Also, there seems some disagreement regarding exactly how much of the diet should be composed of animal foods, with most sources recommending somewhere between 45 to 65% of caloric intake.

SIMILARITIES & DIFFERENCES:

What do whole-food vegan and dairy-free paleo diets have in common? Both emphasize whole-foods, vegetables, sprouts, fruits, nuts and seeds, while warning against dairy products, sugar and processed, refined or chemical-based ingredients.

The difference? Whereas the vegan diet includes plenty of whole grains and beans/legumes, with the exclusion of meat, poultry, eggs and seafood, the paleo diet is the opposite: including meat, poultry, eggs and seafood, while excluding grains and beans/legumes.

Both cite research stating that they are healthier than the Standard American Diet. I don’t find it surprising that ditching processed foods, refined grains, trans-fats, preservatives, sugars, artificial sweeteners, colors, and additives would make a huge difference in the health of anyone who has been eating them. And adding a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits would add another layer of healing.

THE HEART of the ARGUMENT:  GRAINS & LEGUMES vs. ANIMAL FOODS: 

Vegans say that grains & legumes provide healthful fiber and phytonutrients that are missing from animal foods, while providing all 9 essential amino acids (proteins); while animal foods are full of saturated fat, cholesterol, carcinogenic compounds and inflammatory fatty acids that promote heart disease and cancer.

Paleo advocates say that grains and legumes contain anti-nutrients (preventing absorption of certain nutrients) and turn into sugar too readily in our bodies, contributing to systemic candida, increased intestinal permeability, allergies and autoimmune problems; while animal foods provide complete proteins, essential fats and B-vitamins in concentrations that are lacking in plant materials.

In my opinion, they are both correct: all of these foods have their merits, and none are particularly healthy to be eating in large quantities. The quality of each of these foods has degraded significantly over the past century with the industrialization of agriculture.

THE INDUSTRIALIZATION of AGRICULTURE:

With the industrialization of food production has come: The hybridization of soy, corn, canola and wheat (which increases gluten content); The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers (adding endocrine disruptor toxins to the mix); And, most recently, the genetic modification of these same crops (resulting in more toxic and inflammatory elements, the full implication of which we are yet unaware). (If you haven’t seen it, check out Food, Inc, available on Netflix & Amazon.)

No wonder so many people have health repercussions from wheat, corn and soy!  They are nothing like they were even 100 years ago, let alone 10,000, when human started cultivating them.

For animal production, the industrialization of agriculture introduced the widespread use of antibiotics in order to keep higher numbers of animals in smaller spaces together without dying of infections; and steroid hormones to make the animals grow larger in a shorter period of time. This introduces antibiotics and hormones into our food supply, which wreak havoc with our own immune and endocrine systems.

Also, bringing animals in from grass pastures to be fed grain on feed lots fattens them up faster and allows production of many more animals than possible before. This feeding of grains (which, by the way, are the same altered and sprayed grains mentioned above) has led conventionally-raised meat to be full of pro-inflammatory fatty acids, instead of the anti-inflammatory ones that would result from their natural grass diet.

Additionally, as the animal eats the pesticides on the grain, the toxins accumulate in the tissues of the animal in a much higher concentration than on the grain. This concept is known as biomagnification: each step up the food chain magnifies the concentration of toxins such as mercury, PCB’s, and pesticides in the animal tissue, especially its fat.

These same problems exist in farm-raised seafood: antibiotics, hormones, unnatural diets and biomagnification. Even wild-caught varieties are full of environmental pollutants, since most of our fish-supporting waters are now contaminated.

The foods from today’s conventionally-raised animals is nothing akin to those of just 100 years ago, much less the wild meat that hunter-gatherers ate. No wonder conventionally-raised animal products promote disease.

All of these foods have become damaging to our health as production has become more industrialized.


 

VEGAN: The Good:

As a physician, I love that whole-food vegan diets emphasize whole, unrefined foods, eliminate dairy products (aside from breast milk for babies), and greatly increase the disease-fighting, anti-aging, immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory phytonutrients and fiber found in vegetables and richly-colored fruits.

As a clinician, I have been promoting whole-food, plant-based diets for 4 years and have witnessed many dozens of patients completely turn their health around as a result, including those with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, endometriosis, fibroids, infertility, migraines, allergies, arthritis, autoimmune conditions, obesity and even cancer. Whole-food vegan diets can be very cleansing on multiple levels.

VEGAN: The Bad:

Even the healthiest vegan diets can result in nutritional deficiencies. While it is true that all essential amino acids (protein) are available in plant foods, certain nutrients may be lacking, such as B-vitamins (especially B-12), essential fatty acids, Choline, Co-Q-10, and Methionine, even if the diet contains a plethora of whole fresh foods.

In theory, our bodies can make all of these nutrients themselves (except B-12) or get them from eating enough plant foods. But experience shows me that not all people can. Even the best vegan diet may, over time, deplete some nutrients (as evidenced by symptoms & blood tests), causing energy deficiencies and even chronic fatigue, requiring the addition of some amount of high-quality, animal-based food.

VEGAN: The Ugly:

Because the only requirement for a diet to be called vegan is the absence of animal-based foods, there are many vegans who eat loads of processed foods, chemicals, preservatives, trans-fats and sugars. In fact, most cheese & meat substitutes are full of gluten, genetically modified soy and corn, hydrogenated vegetable oils, chemicals and preservatives. Even Oreo’s and soda pop are technically vegan. In no way are these foods health-promoting.

PALEO: The Good:

I love that Paleo diets emphasize whole, natural foods, while avoiding processed/refined foods and sugar.

I also appreciate that Paleo diets exclude most dairy products. Clinically, I find that in a large percentage of people, dairy causes or worsens sinus allergies, sinusitis, food allergies, asthma, digestive discomforts, blood sugar problems, hormonal imbalances, arthritis and autoimmune conditions.

Paleo diets also get my thumbs up for removing gluten and soybeans from the diet; I find that many people have some degree of sensitivity to gluten and to soy, likely due to the reasons discussed above.

PALEO: The Bad:

The paleo recommended 45 to 65% of our diets as animal foods is an extraordinary amount. Even if it were all high-quality, organic, and grass fed, I don’t agree that these large quantities are necessary or beneficial.  Quite the contrary, high-protein/high-fat diets can be very hard on the gall-bladder, kidneys, intestines and circulatory system, and can promote cancer growth. This well-established in medical literature, and I have seen this in my own clinic.

We know that humans evolved as opportunistic omnivores. We could take a good guess at how much animal foods we really need by looking at the natural diets of our closest DNA relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. They eat primarily fruit, but also leaves, leaf buds, seeds, flowers, stems, tree pith and resin. Insects, birds, bird eggs, and small to medium-sized mammals make up only 2-3% of their diet.

Many paleo-advocates argue that humans need more animal-based foods than our closest DNA relatives. Even if this is the case, we could double or even triple their amount and still be eating less than 10% of our calories as animal foods.

We could also look at the diets of the healthiest, longest-lived communities in the world, such as those in Okinawa, Vilcabamba, Abkhasia, Hunza and Sardinia, and see that they all eat low animal-protein diets (less than 10%).

PALEO: The Ugly:

Many paleo-followers seem to think that as long as they avoid grains, legumes and sugar, then they can eat all the meat, poultry, eggs and seafood they can stuff in, and they will be doing good things for their health; even foregoing vegetables, fruits and nuts in favor of animal foods.

Also, I rarely see paleo-eaters making much (or any) effort to ensure that their animal products are organic, free-range and grass-fed. The fact is this high-quality meat is not always easy to find, it is hardly ever served in restaurants and it is expensive. Most people can’t afford it in the quantities recommended by the paleo diet, so they end up eating large amounts of very poor quality animal foods, full of antibiotics, hormones, inflammatory fatty acids and biomagnified pesticides.


 

THE TCM PERSPECTIVE:

If you haven’t read Nutrition, Part 2, it gives a thorough look at nutrition from an Oriental Perspective.  The TCM recommended diet is: Whole-foods based, with the majority of the diet as vegetables, whole grains and beans/legumes, fruit and nuts, with 5-10% of the diet as animal products.

The TCM recommended diet includes small amounts of animal-based foods, used as accents to meals that are vegetable and whole-grain based. Why so little? Because animal-based foods are very concentrated and rich, and according to TCM, this makes them likely to promote pathogenic Dampness-formation in the body, contributing to a myriad of diseases. (See Part 2 for explanation of pathogenic Dampness).

At the same time, animal-based foods are not excluded from the TCM diet, because they help build Qi and Blood in the body, supporting vital energy and stamina. 5-10% of caloric intake is the guideline.

Absent in TCM literature is anything about gluten, (since ancient wheat had far less gluten than today’s), or genetically modified foods (GMO’s). Nor is anything mentioned about the quality of animal products, since only organic, all natural animals existed.

As a modern-day ambassador for Chinese Medicine, this is my take on it:

In regard to both gluten and GMO’s (these include wheat, corn, canola and soy) we see clinically that they can and do create inflammation, contributing to digestive problems, allergies of all types, and autoimmune conditions.

From a TCM viewpoint, this indicates the creation of pathogenic Dampness in the body, and therefore should be avoided or minimized. Avoid wheat and corn in favor of gluten-free, whole-grain options such as millet, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, amaranth, chia seed, hemp seed, etc. Replace soybeans with other types of beans. And choose cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil or sesame oil over canola.

Non-GMO, organic corn and soy may be eaten in small amounts, as long as there is no obvious negative reaction.

In regard to the quality of animal protein, organic, grass-fed, free-range animals in habitats that allow for their natural behaviors create much healthier, happier animals, which translates into a higher quality food (and Qi) for our bodies. Quality, not quantity, is the priority when choosing animal foods.

CONCLUSION:

Many of us are drawn to a specific diet label. The rules outlined by that label give us a structure to adhere to or strive toward, and provides a sense of community with other people using that same label.

It also necessitates that we blind ourselves, to one degree or another, to any information or evidence that doesn’t fully support our chosen label. This is where the danger lies; In not listening to our own good judgement, and what our bodies are trying to tell us; In aligning ourselves with a fixed view-point, even  if it doesn’t serve us well.

Oriental Medicine considers any extreme to be unhealthy and it often shows us The Middle Way, the healthy balance between extremes.

I think Michael Pollen sums it up quite efficiently in his “In Defense of Food.”  “Eat Food.  Mostly Plants.  Not Too Much.”

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