Exploring two conflicting diets: Vegetarian diets and the Paleo diet
One of the most frequently asked questions we get in our nutrition counselling practice is simply “which diet is best?” You will find passionate advocates for many eating regimes.
Below I explore two conflicting diets that are virtually opposite in the types of foods consumed. Here are the pros and cons of the popular high-protein, low-carb Paleo diet compared to the opposite, which is the eco-friendly high-carb, low-protein vegetarian diet.
What is the most important consideration before following ANY diet?
Don’t choose to diet, instead choose a lifestyle.
If you want to achieve good health, maximize sports performance or are overweight and need to lose weight to improve a medical concern the best eating plan to follow is the one that you will actually stick to!
This means the plan needs to be reasonable, not extreme and be something that will work with the type of food you enjoy eating. We know from behavior change research that you will not continue to follow plans that cause you suffering. Our brains are historically wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
If you are overweight be sure that whatever plan you embark on isn’t something you will temporarily go on to “lose the weight” and then once you have lost the weight will revert back to old eating habits since the weight will pile back on just as quick as it came off. As I often say – anyone can lose weight but can you sustain it?
Understanding your “food personality” is critical for success. For some “meat-atarians” this means a higher protein, moderate carbohydrate diet, for others this means the opposite (a vegetarian diet, high in carbohydrate and low in protein).
What are the pros and cons of the Paleo diet?
Paleo diet summary:
- Also known as the “caveman” or “stone-age” diet that involves eating like our ancestors did 10,000 years ago.
- Foods that are hunted, gathered or fished (grass produced meat, poultry, eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts as well as some oils, veggies and fruits) are permitted.
- Foods produced during the agricultural revolution such as grains, legumes, potatoes, dairy, salt and sugar are not permitted.
Pros of the Paleo diet:
- Although the research is limited and too soon to tell the full benefits and potential risks of the Paleo diet, there have been some emerging positive research on the health effects and weight loss benefits of the Paleo diet.
- Any diet that places an emphasis on whole foods and eating less heavily ultra processed foods with excess sugar and salt is a move in the right direction.
- Followers often eat a substantially higher level of produce and have trained their taste buds to enjoy these foods more. Based on long-term scientific evidence we know populations from around the world who consume a diet rich in veggies and fruit have protection against disease and are more likely to manage a healthy weight.
- Some people find the higher levels of protein and fat in this diet add to improved satiety and overall fullness.
- You will be cooking more meals at home (since it would be hard to follow this plan if you don’t like to cook). This is not only good for your health but also role models important life skills for kids and significantly improves family health and connectedness.
Cons of the Paleo diet
- Protein and fat consumption exceeds the Dietary Reference Intakes (guidelines established by Canadian and American scientists through a review process overseen by the U.S. National Academies, which is an independent, non-governmental body).
- Although many healthy fats such as olive oil and nuts are permitted on the Paleo diet, a high consumption of meat may elevate your saturated fat intake which can raise blood cholesterol levels. Heavy emphasis on meat is also concerning from a food budget and environmental perspective.
- Diet is low in carbohydrate considering foods such as grains, potatoes and legumes are not permitted. Long-term research suggests populations that consume a diet rich in whole grains and legumes manage a healthy weight and have a low risk of disease such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes. The Dietary Reference Intakes suggest the healthiest diets worldwide contain 45-65% carbohydrates. This would be very difficult to achieve on a Paleo diet.
- Eliminating dairy foods can reduce your intake of calcium and vitamin D for protection of bone health and osteoporosis without proper planning.
- The diet is outdated in many ways and not practical considering it may be difficult to source wild game when the vast majority of meat consumed is domesticated.
- If you look closely at the diet also you will see that even healthy foods such as higher sugar fruits are suggested to be removed if you are trying to lose weight.
What are the pros and cons of vegetarian eating plans?
Vegetarian diet summary:
- Usually excludes meat, poultry and seafood and may or may not exclude eggs or dairy foods.
- Meat, poultry and seafood are replaced with alternatives such as legumes, soy, nuts and seeds.
Pros of vegetarian eating plans:
- There is research to support that following a balanced vegetarian diet may lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer in addition to offering weight management benefits.
- Vegetarian diets are also good for the environment since meat-based diets require about seven times more land and 100 times more water.
- Given the cost of meat, poultry and seafood can be high, a vegetarian diet is often a budget friendly since plant proteins such as beans, lentils and chickpeas are cost effective options.
- Vegetarian diets encourage new flavors, culinary adventures and cooking from home to create nutritious legumes, whole grains and other plant based foods.
- Vegetarian diets fit within the ranges recommended for carbohydrate, protein and fat as part of the Dietary Reference Intakes (guidelines established by Canadian and American scientists through a review process overseen by the U.S. National Academies, which is an independent, non-governmental body).
Cons of vegetarian eating plans:
While you can of course achieve good health and all of the nutrients you need following a vegetarian diet many people do not adequately plan a healthy vegetarian diet and fall short in protein, iron, zinc, omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium.
Some of the clients we have seen in our practice struggle with boredom and repetition since the variety of food choices decreases overall.
Some of the clients we have seen in our practice struggle with satiety and find themselves hungry more often consuming a vegetarian diet which is overall lower in protein.
Reduced flexibility and limitations when other people are planning the menu (eating out, when travelling for work and for social outings with friends and family).
Vegan diets in particular will require significant cooking, label reading and preparation from home.
What is the bottom line?
The best plan to follow is the one that you will actually stick to.
Refuse to go on a diet and instead choose a lifestyle that matches the foods you enjoy and your philosophy. For some “meat-atarians” this means a higher protein, moderate carbohydrate diet, for others this means the opposite (a vegetarian diet, high in carbohydrate and low in protein).
If you are going to eliminate specific foods from your diet, do so thoughtfully for a very clear reason. Simply eliminating specific foods for the purpose of weight loss isn’t necessary since research shows there is no one single diet best for weight loss. All diets that create a calorie deficit create weight loss (and if they don’t, it means other factors outside of nutrition are at play). While low carb, high protein diets offer faster initial weight loss (primarily due to additional losses in water), over the long term, results are similar on diets that are quite the opposite (vegetarian low-protein, high carbohydrate diets).
Eat your veggies (but also get a life!) Consider your health (and the health of your family) but also remember to find enough flexibility and fun that you live your best life. After all, we don’t just eat for nutrition; we eat for many important symbolic, social and celebratory reasons.