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The Paleo focus on meat and animal products as the core of a healthy diet isn’t very vegetarian-friendly. But after learning about the great health benefits their friends are seeing from a Paleo diet, many vegetarians start getting interested in evolutionary nutrition and want to know more. For people who avoid meat purely from health concerns, the science behind Paleo is often enough for them to start eating animal food again. But others are vegetarians for ethical reasons, so the nutrient content of the food itself is irrelevant. Even after reading the Paleo responses to vegetarian ethical and environmental arguments, some people are unconvinced – and also really sick of people trying to persuade them to eat meat. But faced with the scientific evidence supporting an evolutionary diet, they start to wonder: would it be possible to eat a meat-free Paleo diet?
It’s important to take this kind of question seriously. Vegans and carnivores can both agree that modern food systems are unsustainable, and to develop a way of feeding everyone on the planet that doesn’t destroy our natural resources, we’re going to have to work together, not alienate each other. No, it’s not really possible to eat a vegetarian Paleo diet, but it is possible to improve a vegetarian diet with Paleo principles and evolutionary science. And it’s also possible for Paleo dieters to learn something from the vegetarian movement that might improve their health as well.
Even without getting into the meat issue, there are several other ways that evolutionary principles can be useful to vegetarians or even vegans. After all, Paleo nutrition isn’t just about eating animals. It also emphasizes eliminating toxins and including nutrient-dense foods, some of which are completely vegetable-based.
First and foremost, Paleo stresses eating whole foods, not processed food products. This is a goal that everyone can achieve, meat-eater or not. Added sugars, chemical additives, and toxic preservatives might be vegan, but that doesn’t make them healthy – just getting this kind of junk food out of your diet and eating real food instead is a huge step towards better health. In fact, it’s arguably more healthy from a Paleo perspective to eat real vegetarian foods like legumes and rice than to eat artificial meat-based foods like a Big Mac.
Another modern toxin that’s fairly easy for vegetarians to avoid is vegetable oil, like soy oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. A Paleo diet rejects these oils because they’re artificial products of industrial monoculture farming, and full of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), which are structurally unstable and provoke an inflammatory response when they break down chemically in response to heat, light, or oxygen. (For more on PUFAs and why they’re unhealthy, take a look at this this article.)
The standard Paleo substitutes for these seed oils are olive oil and coconut oil, both of which are completely vegan and much healthier because they’re richer in other kinds of fats (monounsaturated and saturated fat, respectively – see this article for an explanation of why saturated fat isn’t actually unhealthy). Other options include avocado oil, red palm oil, and macadamia nut oil. There’s no reason why a vegetarian or vegan wouldn’t be able to use these non-toxic oils. Butter is another delicious substitute for vegetarians who don’t have a problem with dairy products, and grass-fed butter is an especially delicious source of Vitamin K2, a micronutrient often lacking on a vegetarian diet.
Gluten grains are slightly more difficult to cut out, since they provide such a large percentage of daily caloric intake for so many vegetarians and vegans, but gluten grains are also especially harmful, because gluten is a major gut irritant and a trigger for all kinds of digestive and autoimmune conditions. Eliminating gluten is another big step towards Paleo health principles, and there’s no reason a vegetarian or even a vegan diet can’t also be gluten free.
Cutting out these three biggies (processed foods, seed oils, and gluten) will make a tremendous improvement to any diet, vegetarian or not. Beyond these changes, though, the waters start to get cloudier and combining Paleo nutrition with vegetarianism while staying completely true to both becomes impossible. Compromise is inevitable – to Paleo, or to vegetarianism, or to both.
The big problem with strict Paleo for most vegetarians is that it cuts out almost all of their protein sources. Yes, nuts have some protein, but they’re also full of inflammatory Omega-6 PUFA, so they shouldn’t be a major source of calories in the diet. If nuts are anywhere near the foundation of your food pyramid, it isn’t really Paleo. There are really only two main sources of vegetarian Paleo protein (and none that are strictly vegan): eggs and dairy.
Eggs are a fantastic source not only of protein, but also for crucial micronutrients like B vitamins and choline that just aren’t found in plant foods. Eating only eggs for protein would get very boring very fast, so they aren’t enough for most people, but especially for vegetarians, at least one egg a day (including the yolk, which is where all the nutrients are) will help prevent nutrient deficiencies.
Another Paleo-friendly source of protein and fat (if you tolerate it well) is dairy. Dairy is technically a Paleo “gray area” and many people react poorly to it, so it’s worth cutting it out at first for a 30-day trial, and then reintroducing it and watching for any symptoms. But since it’s one of the least toxic vegetarian protein sources, it’s better to make it work if you can.
Even if just drinking milk gives you an upset stomach, it doesn’t necessarily mean that dairy is off the menu forever. When people react to dairy, it’s usually to one of two components: lactose or casein. Making homemade yogurt or kefir will destroy the lactose during the fermentation process, so fermented dairy is usually easier on the gut. If the problem is casein, you might be better off with goat or sheep dairy, which contain a different form of casein that fewer people react to. Fermented goat or sheep dairy takes care of both problems at once.
Most people can’t get enough protein from eggs and dairy products alone though, and for strict vegans, even these options are out. That means that it’s time to look into non-Paleo protein sources: which ones are the least bad, and what’s the best way to prepare them to minimize the damage?
Legumes and pseudograins (which include vegetarian staples like buckwheat and quinoa) are both promising solutions to this puzzle – as long as they’re prepared correctly. There are three main Paleo arguments againstthese foods. First, they contain high levels of phytic acid, a chemical compound that binds to nutrients in the food and makes them unavailable for your own body. Second, they contain lectins. Lectins are a type of protein found in almost every kind of food (including Paleo staples like meat), but the lectins in pseudograins and legumes are very likely to cause irritation in the gut. Finally, pseudograins also have other gut-irritating compounds called saponins and protease inhibitors, which are designed to protect the seed from being broken down in the digestive system.
In many respects, though, these criticisms are more about the modern preparations of these foods than the foods themselves. As vegetarians like to point out, traditional cultures have been eating these pseudograins and legumes for thousands of years. If they really were that unhealthy, why would we keep including them in our diet? In part, the answer to this is “because it’s better than starving,” but it’s also important to note that traditional methods of preparing these foods are designed to minimize the antinutrients and gut irritants and maximize the amount of nutrition. Just like meat, plant foods can be dangerous if they’re not cooked properly – the difference is that in the modern world we understand how to cook our meat, but not how to treat our grains and legumes.
Soaking (especially in an acidic solution, like water with a splash of vinegar) and sprouting these foods reduces the phytic acid content significantly. Fermentation can almost entirely eliminate it. These preparations require some planning ahead, but they’re not particularly difficult, and have huge benefits in terms of the quality of the food. Cooking breaks down most of the lectins, although only pressure cooking can eliminate them completely. For a more complete guide to these methods, see this page from the Weston A. Price foundation on how well each of these methods works for specific foods.
The context of these traditional preparation methods allows us to make another distinction between processed food products and whole foods. Making natto (a traditional fermented soybean dish) in your own kitchen is a world away eating isolated extracts of soy protein in meat replacement “hot dogs,” “hamburgers,” and “chicken nuggets” in the freezer aisle. Makers of these processed soy products certainly don’t soak or ferment their soybeans before mixing them up with a bunch of chemical additives to sell as a “healthy” choice. Even soy milk is usually full of sugar, and tofu is rarely prepared using traditional fermentation.
If at all possible, it’s actually best to avoid soy altogether, even with traditional cooking methods, because the phytic acid in soy is especially difficult to get rid of. The same story applies to corn. Peanuts are another special case, because the lectins in them are very resistant to cooking. But crossing off even more foods from the menu does make an already restrictive diet even harder to follow, so everyone has to make their own cost-benefit analysis here.
This kind of traditional, whole-foods diet based on soaked and fermented legumes and pseudograins isn’t exactly Paleo, but it’s definitely in alignment with several key principles of ancestral nutrition, especially eating real food instead of processed food products. It’s basically an application of Paleo and evolutionary ideas as far as they can be applied to a vegetarian diet.
As an alternative to eating a Paleo-ish diet that’s strictly vegetarian, it’s also possible to eat a mostly vegetarian diet that’s strictly Paleo. This might be a better option, depending on the reasons why you avoid meat. For example, many people are fine with eating bivalves (oysters, mussels, and other members of the same family), because they don’t have a central nervous system and can’t feel pain.
Some vegetarians also feel comfortable eating fish and shellfish, or even chicken. Others feel much better about animal products when they can buy grass-fed meat directly from the farmer, or even raise their own chickens. These are all options to look into, but this article isn’t about trying to persuade vegetarians to give up their principles. As discussed above, it’s definitely possible to benefit from Paleo ideas without eating any meat at all.
The reason why high-quality animal products are the core of a Paleo diet isn’t just because they’re non-toxic sources of protein. These foods also include several nutrients that aren’t always easy to get on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Non meat-eaters should pay careful attention to several important micronutrients, and consider supplements to make sure they don’t suffer from any deficiencies.
To start with, vitamin B12 is necessary for energy, mood, and mental health (among other things), and very often deficient on a vegan diet. This is especially true of a Paleo-vegetarian or Paleo-vegan diet, since some of the few non-meat sources of B vitamins are fortified foods, which are almost all artificially processed and also full of dangerous additives. To address this deficiency, many vegans take nutritional yeast as a supplement – this is probably fine on a Paleo diet, although it still doesn’t contain B12. Some brands of nutritional yeast are also fortified with B12, making them a complete source of B vitamins. If the thought of eating yeast isn’t appealing, vegan B vitamin supplements are also available.
Another micronutrient that vegetarians and vegans might need to supplement is iron. It’s true that many vegetables do contain iron, but it’s not how much iron you eat that matters. It’s how much iron your body actually absorbs, and the form of iron (called non-heme iron) found in vegetables, eggs, and dairy is much less bioavailable than the heme iron found in meat. Since there are no vegetarian sources of heme iron, the best solution is to get much more non-heme iron than recommended in the RDA, and to eat iron sources alongside foods rich in Vitamin C, which increases the absorption of iron. Another solution is to use cast-iron cookware – some of the iron in a cast-iron pan will leech into the food.
Fats are another area of concern, especially the balance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats. The long story is here, but the short version is that O3 and O6 fats are both essential for health, but they need to be in balance with each other. Compared to traditional diets, the modern menu has far too much O6 (found in seed oils, factory farmed meat, and processed foods) and not nearly enough O3 fat. There are three kinds of O3 fats: ALA, EPA, and DHA. EPA and DHA are the forms your body can use; ALA has to be converted to one of the other two forms first, and this conversion is quite inefficient, especially in the case of DHA.
Unfortunately for vegetarians, useful sources of O3 fats are mainly found in grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish. Just reducing your O6 intake by cutting out seed oils and processed foods will reduce your need for O3s, but you still do need some. For vegetarians, grass-fed dairy and pastured eggs do provide significant amounts of O3, especially “Omega-3 eggs” (from hens fed a diet rich in O3s, so the resulting eggs have more of them). Vegan sources of Omega-3s, like flax seeds and chia seeds, also exist, but they contain the less useful form ALA. A good compromise might be to eat a small amount of raw flax or chia seeds or another vegan source of Omega-3s for the EPA, and also taking a vegan DHA supplement.
Omnivores often claim that the need to supplement these nutrients on a vegetarian diet proves that we’re designed to eat animals, so ethical vegetarianism is a logical fallacy. But it’s also fair to argue that we don’t have to eat animals to get these nutrients anymore. Maybe it was ethically acceptable to kill and eat animals when the alternative was dying from a nutritional deficiency, but now that we have the technology to prevent that suffering, it would be unethical to keep eating meat.
It’s also important to note that supplementing is not restricted to vegetarians. Even an omnivorous Paleo diet should ideally include certain recommended supplements. That doesn’t indicate that there’s anything wrong with the diet itself – the supplemental nutrition (which hunter-gatherers didn’t need) is a response to modern diseases and toxins (which hunter-gatherers didn’t suffer from). It doesn’t prove that a Paleo diet is flawed. In any case, the point is not to debate whether vegetarianism is ethically or nutritionally ideal: from a pure Paleo perspective, it isn’t. The point is to figure out how to optimize a vegetarian diet through applying Paleo principles – and that includes some supplements.
Vegetarians interested in a Paleo diet might have some trouble finding resources to help them, since it’s not a very popular choice in the Paleo community.
Too much of the time, the question “Can I eat Paleo if ________” revolves around specific foods, as though the whole point of Paleo were restricting some foods and encouraging others. But the real value of Paleo is in a nourishing diet overall. What we should be focusing on isn’t “Is ______ Paleo?” but “will this overall way of eating nourish me as a human being, body and mind?” If Paleo is essentially about making a diet more nutrient-dense and less toxic, it’s much easier to see how a vegetarian can benefit from applying ancestral health principles to her diet, and also how a Paleo dieter can learn from a vegetarian friend or two.
In fact, vegetarians and Paleo dieters might even find that they have more in common than they think. For example, we can all agree that school food needs to include more fruits and vegetables, and less sugar. Cooperation on at least the issues we have in common is much better than expending all our energy fighting with each other and ultimately accomplishing nothing.
Keeping the dialogue open between vegetarians and Paleo dieters can also help improve Paleo nutritional science, by keeping the Paleo community constantly on its toes. One of the reasons why USDA nutritional guidelines can stay stuck in errors like the diet-heart hypothesis is that there’s no equally influential group around to challenge them. To keep the evolutionary health movement strong and vibrant, it’s important to keep accepting challenges and considering other points of view.
So, can a vegetarian truly follow a Paleo diet? No. But that doesn’t mean the idea of Paleo is useless to vegetarians, or that there’s nothing the two groups can learn from each other.
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