A Vegan Take on the Paleo Diet and My Latest Experiment in Clean Living

After stumbling across some online posts from folks who were raving about the Paleolithic diet, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and it led me to a new eating experiment for myself.

The Paleolithic diet, as its name suggests, is a eating regimen based on the presumed diet consumed during the Paleolithic era, a 2.5 million year period that ended around 10,000 years ago. As the theory goes, humans ate exclusively wild plants and animals the Paleolithic era, and then with the development of agriculture humans began to eat farmed foods such as grains, which allegedly compromised the health of the human race. To continue reading this post, click here >>

The modern Paleolithic diet is comprised of up to 65% meat along with vegetables, fruits, and nuts, but excludes grains, legumes, dairy, salt, sugar, and any processed foods.

Support for the Paleo Diet

The argument for the Paleo diet stems from the theory that humans did not suffer from “diseases of civilization” such as heart disease and cancers until the beginning of the agricutural era. Supporters of the diet propose that humans were not and still are not adapted to handle the food that was introduced in the agricultural era, namely grains, processed food and starchy foods.

Avoiding these diseases is a primary justification for the diet, but it is also very popularity in the body building and weight loss communities because of the emphasis on high protein consumption, low glycemic foods and a low overall carb consumption.

Controversy Surrounding Paleo

The theory behind the contemporary Paleo diet is not bullet-proof. There is debate about the diet of Paleolithic humans since skeletal remains from that era have been found with grains in their teeth. Furthermore, even if the non-grain diet theory is accurate, Paleolithic humans only lived to 25-30 years on average, so they weren’t likely to live long enough to contract the diseases of civilization.  To further complicate things, there is strong
evidence that prior to the Paleo era, humans were predominantly vegetarian and were equally free of the diseases of civilization which tends to defeat the rationale for the Paleo diet altogether.

My Take

There are a million good reasons to avoid processed foods and eat whole, low glycemic fruits and vegetables. Grains are a problem for people who have gluten sensitivity and those susceptible to irritable bowel syndrome, but neither of those have ever been an issue for me. On the other hand, grains contain anti-nutrients such as phylates/phytates (which may inhibit the absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and manganese) and pyridoxine glucosides (which may prevent vitamin B6 absorption). Valuable useful fiber, vitamins and minerals are contained in grains, but if in fact they prevent our bodies from getting nutrients, then that might be a good reason not to eat grains.

I am not aware of any downsides from eating legumes. They are packed with great nutrients and fiber. Even Paleo enthusiasts admit that they are healthy, but  not desirable because of the higher carb load. I am not a big fan of eating for vanity so as far as I am concerned there is no reason not to eat legumes, especially if you are exercising regularly and need the energy that they provide.

For a vegan, removing grains and legumes would be somewhat problematic because it reduces the opportunity to mix foods to attain complete protein consumption requirements.

Meat is a different story. We are certainly omnivores in that we can consume animal and plant based foods, but we have many more herbivore than carnivore traits. Just because we can consume meat doesn’t mean we should or need to. If humans were healthy eating a vegetarian diet prior to the Paleo era, then there is no evidence that meat is of any dietary value to us now and even worse, people are risking their health if they consume a diet of 65% meat from commercial farms feeding animals antibiotics, steroids, chemicals and other toxins. Furthermore, eating that much meat means consuming a mountain of saturated fat, putting you in the high risk category for heart and cardiovascular disease, which is fine by the way if you aim to die before your 30th birthday, but not cool if you plan to live to be the average age of modern humans.

My Latest Clean Living Experiment

Grains have always been a big favorite of mine, but I have an open mind and I am interested to see if I feel better or worse without it. The only real way for me to sort through the confusing arguments one way or the other is to try it. So for the next 30 days I will exclude grains from my diet (note – I will continue to supplement my diet with vegan protein powder which includes a small percentage of brown rice protein). Hopefully 30 days will be long enough to see a difference in my energy levels and the way I feel.

My wife is doing it as well. After 7 days without grains, I feel great. While I am burning through food at furious pace and am hungry every hour, my workouts and energy levels are all at peak levels. I will post my updates as they occur.

If anyone else has tried the Paleo diet or eliminated grains, I would love to hear from you.

UPDATE on April 27/2010: I have continued to dig for information on the topic of phytates and have found several interesting bits of information. First of all, phytates, on the one hand are considered an anti-nutrient because of their blocking qualities, but on the other hand they are considered a phytonutrient with anti-oxidant effects that help to prevent cancers. Secondly, if someone was afraid of the downsides of phytates, some and possibly all of the phytates can be eliminated from grains by soaking or cooking. Third, phytates are found in many foods including legumes, nuts and even some vegetables, so they it would be virtually impossible to eliminate from your diet even if you wanted to.  Finally, most foods have some sort of “anti-nutrient” qualities and nutritionist consider them to balance each other out if one eats a wide variety of food.  So….(aside from the Leptins) I tend to think this whole grain elimination thing is a bit of overkill, but I am going to continue with my experiment just the same to see how it feels to go without grain.

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  • hmckeon

    Hi,
    I was directed to this blog through Pink Vegan-which I love as the CC and TVT are 2 of my favourite cookbooks (and my collection could rival Indigo's!).
    Do you plan on posting recipes to this blog?

  • Helen

    OMG, I am so excited that you are doing this!! I am a vegan as well and have also been reading/hearing lots about the paleo diet. Due to the difficulty with removing grains from a vegan diet, I haven't attempted yet, but I am really interested in how you are doing and how you are eating. Describe some meals!
    I am considering limiting grains to only sprouted or fermented in order to reduce the effects of phylates/phytates. Lots to think about…
    Helen

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Thanks for visitng Holly. Chay is absolutely the only gourmet chef in his house. My own creations won't excite anyone since I tend to eat for sustenance and/or standing up. Bad bad. I will be posting some updates to describe what I am eating and to be fair I do have many tasty meals. Will post in a couple of days.

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Hi Helen, thanks for sharing. I supplement with vegan protein powder to make sure there are no gaps in my diet. Has been working well so far. I will write about my first 7 days shortly.

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  • Fill

    Hi Eliot, I was looking for some resources about Vegan x Paleo, and i found your site/blog. I'm 29y and vegan since 1999. I'm looking for more information about proteic (vegan) sources on paleo. any? Thanks a lot. PMA all day!

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Hi Filipe – thanks for dropping by. Vegan for 11 years good for you! I am not sure I understand your question. Are you looking for info on proteic vs non proteic sources of protein? PMA absolutely!
    Eliot

  • Monkeyshine13

    So what was the result of your experiment??

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett
  • Dr. Daniel Thomas

    I am a holistic medical doctor with 23 years of experience. I have been a vegan for 30 years and I am an athlete. I believe the “best” diet is a hybrid of The China Study and The Paleo Solution. Robb Wolf (author of The Paleo Solution) is dead on when he talks about excess insulin and systemic inflammation are often the underlying cause for many chronic degenerative diseases, and I agree that it is crucial to eliminate gluten-containing grains, however, I believe one can eat non-gluten grains in moderation without ill effects. I also believe one can get more than enough protein from tempeh, tofu (in moderation), peas, pre-soaked nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. At lastly, and most importantly, rather subjectively gauging it by “how you feel,” one can objectively know for sure that they do not have excess insulin or systemic inflammation by these simple blood tests: Fasting Insulin (ideal level is <5), C-Reactive Protein (ideal level is <0.55 for men and <1.5 for women), Homocysteine (ideal level is <7.2), and Fibrinogen (ideal level is 200-300).

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Daniel – thanks for stopping by and for your valuable insight. Great point about seeking objective measures of the efficacy of a diet regime. Thanks for adding to this discussion.

  • http://www.sethigherstandards.com Ravisraman

    I just did a search on Paleo Vegan and came across your blog again…interested in hearing about your 30 day grain elimination challenge…guessing you wrote about it on your site…will keep poking around.

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Hey Ravi – good to meet have enjoyed your blog and tweets many times. I did write about it here. http://eliotburdett.com/grains-free-diet-day-29-the-end/

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jennifer-Marshall/1373560557 Jennifer Marshall

    Dear Eliot:
    Do you know if Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids is okay on the Paloe? I’ve just started and am Vegan. Thanks so much for your blog.

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    I am no expert on paleo, but I might assume it is verboten because it is made from soy and paleo’s avoid legumes. You may want to post the question on a paleo forum. Good luck!

  • shmrd

    Thanks for this post. I’m a biologist, and I have never found any substantial proof that humans are natural omnivores. In fact, all the evidence points to Homo sapiens as natural herbivores (and opportunistic for, of course, direct survival purposes). The Paleo diet seems like just another fad diet. Folks mean well, but are greatly misguided by an “expert” on the subject.

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    There is a lot of conflicting evidence, and it is hard to know who is an expert and who is an “expert”. Thanks for the comments.

  • Andrester

    Just curious about your take on eating Meat. I was and was very skeptical about the paleo diet because of the high meat load. The common misconception of the paleo is the high load is filled with saturated fats, when in doing some research into the paleo diets only the LEANEST cuts of ORGANIC, free range meats should be eaten NOT commercial raised meat. The Beef should be Grass fed and free range, the chicken and other poultry should be free range and as local as possible. When I was a vegan and working out (Cardio and Weights 4x a week) I had blood work done and was shown to be Pre-Diabetic, obese and had extremely high Tri’s, LDL and Total Cholesterol (221) and Liver enzymes and was 30. I switched to the Paleo and within three months I lost 30 pounds, gained muscle (didn’t swicth my workout routine), and my total cholesterol (141), Tri’s, LDL all went down to normal. So for me anyway being a Vegan just didn’t work. But Paleo is similar because it is a Vegan that doesn’t eat grains or legumes!

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Thanks for the question. My take on meat is that you can live with the damage the farm business does to the environment, the cruelty inflicted on animals and the toxins in the meat, then by all means eat meat. It doesn’t work for me and there is a lot of evidence that we live longer by eating meat as an exception rather than a staple (see Blue Zones – Blueprint for Living Longer – http://eliotburdett.com/blueprint-for-living-longer/ ).

    Paleo theory contradicts the minimum meat theory. I know Paleo man ate organic free range meat, but I also know from personal experience that a lot of the people on the modern Paleo these days are eating lots of regular, cheap, regularly available, toxin-laden meat. That can’t be good.

    To your point about your health stats as a vegan…Simply being vegan does not mean you will be healthy. You could eat potatoes all day long and be an obese vegan or gorge on rice cakes and be malnourished. As with any eating plan, you have to consciously select a balanced diet with all the nutrients you need in the right quantities. I have been vegan for more than 6 years, eating a diet similar to Paleo subbing the meat for legumes and have had my own vitals tested which show the vegan diet works very well for me in terms of health and fitness (see Vital Signs 2010 http://eliotburdett.com/vital-signs-2010/). Although everyone is different and requires a different diet to be healthy, I expect you would be lean if you ate my diet. Again everyone is different and things like genetics, metabolism, and activity volumes play a big role in what will work for each person. There is no one way.

    Good luck with your new found diet and thanks for dropping by.

    Eliot.

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    Zinc is essential for normal skin, vision, smell, taste, reproduction, brain development, protein synthesis & wound healing.

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    You bet and good sources for vegans include: lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, pepitas, nutritional yeast, green vegetables, wheatgerm and whole grain cereals!

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  • Saab

    A paleolithic type diet consists of meat, occasional fruit for dessert, roots, vegetables, and nuts.  Strictly NO grains, legumes, dairy, salt, added sugars, and processed oils.  Seeds and eggs are in question.  Most of the food eaten is from meat

    A paleolithic type diet is an attempt to emulate the typical way humans ate during the paleolithic era for health beneficial reasons.

    For instance, if a human during the paleolithic diet developed the desire to not eat animals, or their products, then all this paleolithic vegan would have available for food would be:

    1)Vegetables
    2)Occasional fruits for dessert
    3)Roots
    4)Nuts
    5?)Seeds?

    It may be hard to follow because most of the food eaten is from meat.

  • Kevinvw2000

    Great article Eliot.   I’ve dabbled in vegan, raw, fruitarian, etc. over the years, but I would always ultimately fall back to eating too much bread and sugar.
    I am currently eating about 95% “paleo”.  I try to buy organic/local/”ethical” meat and produce.  
    In general I am conflicted about eating animals (even “humanely treated”)My goal is to slowly reduce the quantity of meat and see how that goes.   

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Thanks Kevin and I admire your eating discipline. You may be interested to check out the Blue Zones research, where they studied cultures that eat meat as an exception, not as a rule. I wrote a piece on it a while back>> http://eliotburdett.com/blueprint-for-living-longer/

  • Mr. S

    Many vegetarians and vegans are missing the main point on “paleo” diets. It is not just about protein, but about fat as well. While you may be able to supplement sources of omega 3 and CLA you may risk adverse side effects, but by doing so with grass fed meat, dairy, and eggs you aoudad the harmful side effects. As far as saturated fats go they are unhealthy from commercial grain fed operations, but can actually be healthy from grass fed, organic sources. If you look most of research on saturated fat is vague at most and never differentiates between these sources. (factory farms vs. grass-fed organic)
    Legumes also contain anti-nutrients, lignans, and phytoestrogen; which are all unhealthy.
    While you can try and copy and substitute versions of paleo type diets you cannot achieve the same results as your fat contents and proteins will be severely lacking.

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your perspective. I agree there is a lot of confusion surrounding the paleo diet, and a lot of it seems to exist in the paleo folks themselves – many I know eat meat originating from factory farms which hardly comply with the paleo concept.

    I am not sure I understand your comment about the need for plant eaters to supplement Omega 3 or that meat is the only safe source – we get it from many great sources in our regular diets without side effects – nuts, flax, hemp, some green leafy veg. CLA we get from soy and vegetable oils. The anti-nutrients in legumes can be reduced or removed by soaking and most of the anti-nutrients that exist in them exist in other foods that are part of meat eaters and even paleo diets, so it is kind of a moot point in the sense that if you plant to be alive, you are going to be consuming anti-nutrients.

    If one wanted to replicate the paleo diet protein and fat levels by eating an exclusively plant based diet, I don’t see any reason why they could not. I am not certain why anyone would actually want that much protein, but I don’t see why they couldn’t do it if they wanted to.

    I think the debate is clouded by food religion and emotion which makes it difficult for the average person to make informed choices.

    Totally agree with you on the grass fed, organic meats. That’s what I would want to eat if I were a meat eater.

    Cheers,
    Eliot

  • Jon

    Hi Eliot, just stumbled across your site looking for references for my vegan classes that I teach. Your website is great! Obviously, am vegan myself! Reading this article, just wondering if you continued on no-grains? Some time back I considered doing the same. How do you feel?

    Keep up the good work!
    thanks,
    Jon

  • http://www.eliotburdett.com/ Eliot Burdett

    Hi Jon,Thanks for dropping by and the kind words. After the experiment I started working some grains back into my diet, mostly because eating a highly restricted diet is boring and in my case I am meat-sugar-caffeine-gluten-chemical-preservative-free so I have to have the odd change-up once in a while ;) – so I have rice and oatmeal periodically. I have stayed away from gluten though, so no more wheat and other gluten foods.

    Love your site by the way and congrats on your personal fitness makeover! You may also enjoy my wife’s site which reviews vegan recipes and cookbooks: http://www.chayg.ca
    Cheers,
    Eliot

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LAO5ZIETA433VUYN62YSGFPXEM Carol

    Hi! A month ago, I had a friendly discussion with an employee of my local Health Food Store, where he argued the benefits of the paleo diet over a vegan diet fairly compellingly. So I marched home to do some research and I found your blog.

    I consider myself a transitional vegan. I follow vegan guidelines 95% of the time, but enjoy a serving of venison once a week on Sunday with my parents. And the occasional glass of wine if the selection is subperb. So, I’m not a purist, and certainly not into labels. But the general application of a vegan diet has resulted in extraordinary health benefits for me personally.

    Anyway, I took your “no-grains” challenge. As of today (Day 28), I feel amazing.

    I am a dancer. As with other athletes, I experience levels of performance in rehearsals that vary. Since eliminating grains, I have far more POWER rehearsals than so-so ones. The “drag-your-ass-onto-the dancefloor” rehearsals are virtually gone. The no grains fast has produced impressive results for me, and has actually allowed me to push through physical limitations that I thought were not possible.

    Unfortunately, I still CRAVE my sprouted bread toast with peanut butter. So I’m gonna cheat and eat it on non-rehearsal or non-performance days. We’ll see what happens.

    Overall, I must say that the elimination of grains, which in my past have been whole and organic, have improved my workouts (rehearsals), and have in no way, so far, shown any ill effects.

    Per usual, now I have to find replacement foods that will fill the void of grains positive effects.

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