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Everyone is different, some are happy with wheat, some with meat.
If you choose to go vegan:
If you choose to go Paleo:
By - Zonya Foco, RD, CSP, CHFI
Have you heard the news? You can drop weight, unclog your arteries, defeat diabetes and cancer, rid yourself of brain fog, dementia and debilitating auto-immune diseases, and even win endurance sporting events...all by eating a 100% plant-powered VEGAN diet!
No wait, scratch that... all by eating a meat and egg rich, no grain, no dairy, no sugar PALEO diet!!!
Wait - how can complete opposite prescriptions give the same excellent results? And, anyway, who wants to deprive themselves of entire food groups for the rest of their life?
If you are like most Americans, you have probably never gone without eating some sort of animal product (beef, chicken, fish, cheese, milk or egg) for an entire day, let alone for an entire month or year. You also have probably never gone an entire day, month or year without grains or sugar either. But all indications are that amazing things can happen by eliminating certain food groups. The question is... is it necessary to be this extreme?
And if so, what food groups should be eliminated? Is it the fat, cholesterol and protein associated with animal products that are villainous as the vegan proponents say, or is it the “frankenwheat” and processed sugar that we are genetically unsuited to eat, as the Paleo enthusiasts profess?
As a nutritionist, I was feeling bombarded by all the contrasting information about veganism and Paleoism coming across my professional realm, and since I was unable to find “apples to apples” controlled studies comparing the two diets, I decided to conduct my very own personal study to get to the bottom of these questions.
I would give equal time and effort immersing myself in the available literature about each diet. I would then spend an entire month eating vegan followed by a wash-out month of my normal omnivore diet, then spend an entire month eating Paleo. I would measure my weight, percent body fat, cholesterol, and HDL and triglyceride levels before and after each diet, and perform a computer nutrition analysis of my dietary intake during each of the months. I would also keep my exercise the same (3-4 times per week).
To keep me accountable and supported through my experiment, I coaxed my husband and Media Manager, Scott, and my Director of Operations, Amy, into joining me.
The first stop: get educated - drink the “Kool-aide” so to speak. The vegan authors’ mantras echoed heavily in my mind: Animal fats and protein cause cancer and heart disease by damaging endothelial cells. Plants give you all the protein you need, coupled with the fiber and nutrients that animal foods ’displace.’
Instead I ate cholesterol-free, fiber-rich oatmeal, granola or pancakes made with soymilk or almond milk. I enjoyed this... until about day 17. THEN it hit me. I wanted SCRAMBLED EGGS and I wanted them bad! But no problem, I made scrambled tofu, with lots of vegetables and the spice turmeric. The first batch was HORRIBLE. I searched recipes online and made a second batch... better. The third try... quite delicious! When it came to lunch (which often meant with clients), I had to turn away quite a few foods offered to me, because they contained yogurt, chicken stock or cheese, and I felt like a “prude.” However, I found soups and salads with beans and grilled or roasted vegetables and they were delicious. For dinner, mushrooms, zucchini and eggplant became a meat substitute for me. I enjoyed amazingly flavored meatless bean burgers or Portobello burgers (both very delicious and satisfying, and yes, I ate both the top and bottom bun!). Eating out at restaurants took effort and asking a lot of questions but I was rewarded with many delicious offerings. I let vegetables and leafy greens replace meat and cheese, instead of just using grains to replace them. Overall, my grain consumption rarely exceeded 6 servings in a day.
It was when a restaurant served me a pasta dish that the server assured me was loaded with vegetables, but was in fact very sparse (her idea of “loaded with vegetables” certainly was not the same as mine!). I crawled into bed each night, not hungry, but certainly “lighter” on my feet than usual - even though I had eaten a lot of “carbs” via cereal, bread and grains. At first, I felt my body hanging on to water more than normal (probably a result of the extra carbohydrates from having a few more grains in my diet than usual). But that leveled out after a week when my weight started dropping. My energy remained high (if not climbed), and by the 4th week I had lost a total of 4 pounds! My body fat percent dropped as expected with that weight loss, and my already low cholesterol dropped further, but so did my HDL, and my triglycerides went up (not a good thing, unless these are just “transient” changes, which could very well be).
Plants did indeed give me exactly the 55 grams of protein my body needed. Additionally the diet was very high in fiber and low in saturated fat, with 0 cholesterol. Amazingly, I got the calcium I needed, and iron too.
Let me just say that I fully understand why vegans are vegans, and I welcome and support them. It’s great for the animals and the planet, not to mention, yourself! My focus was clear, and I did not have gastric upset that some people feel gluten creates (you can, of course, be a gluten-free vegan). And, if you are vegan and come to my home, I can cook for you! Being a vegan long-term? It certainly helps to hang out with other vegans, who keep you pumped up to “buck the culture of animal foods.” At my 30th day, though, I admit I happily went back to being an omnivore for my “wash out month.” I dearly missed salmon and feta and yogurt, but I was pleased to learn the following:
How did Scott and Amy do on the vegan diet for 30 days? Scott’s cholesterol dropped even further than mine did, he lost 4 pounds, reduced his body fat percent, and reported that he felt quite great. He enjoyed the food, except he missed cheese on pizza (although he was happy he could still have pizza). Amy, on the other hand, LOVED being a vegan! She, in fact, ended the month reporting she WAS A VEGAN and would NOT be going Paleo with me and Scott for the next month!
I bid Amy farewell, entered into the month of my “normal” omnivorous eating prior to the month of Paleo, and dove into my reading in order to fully understand why I should go “against the grain.” The Paleo authors’ mantras rang clear in my mind: Grains are inferior to vegetables, and by putting grains on your plate, you are missing an opportunity to eat more vegetables.You have to admit, this part makes serious sense!
In general, the Paleo argument is that grains are not our original human food, since grains did not enter our diet until the industrial age. We therefore are not “evolved” to eat grains. Specifically, they suggest that grains contain “anti-nutrients” that are counter-productive to nutritional health, cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rise, increasing risk of type 2 diabetes, and are overly hybridized and therefore unfriendly to our digestive tracts. In short, grains and sugar fatten us up.
Off I went, shopping for lots of eggs, fish, chicken, beef and pork, plus a boatload of vegetables and leafy greens. I ate lots of salads, with no croutons and even no beans (Paleoists claim beans have anti-nutrients, just like grains). I had to equip myself for no sandwiches, no pizza, and no pasta. Just meat or eggs, vegetables and fruit. Repeat. For breakfast I had eggs with lots of sautéed vegetables with fruit on the side. No toast. No potatoes. I swore I would be hungry. But miraculously, I was not. I was satisfied until lunch! Wow. What a surprise! Next morning, same thing. If nothing else, I was learning to replace toast with veggies in my breakfasts. For lunch I ate giant salads topped with vegetables and chicken, beef or tuna. I used vinegar and olive oil as dressing. Again, no feta or blue cheese, no dressings containing yogurt, and nothing with sour cream. Dinner? Meat-topped salads again. Or stir-fried or grilled meat and vegetables. No rice, noodles or pasta. Talk about limiting, but yet, protein and vegetables were satisfying.
More quickly on this diet I felt like I was losing weight. (Probably water weight from it being so high in protein and low in carbohydrate). No wonder I was disappointed to learn that after 30 days of what felt even MORE depriving than the vegan diet, I had only lost 2 pounds. And my body fat actually went up! Ugh! My total cholesterol went up (all those eggs?), and my triglycerides dropped (from a low carb diet). Surprisingly, my HDL and LDL levels improved (perhaps transient).
It was low in calories, but not as low as the vegan diet. As expected, I consumed lots of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, but NOT enough calcium. Also, surprisingly, my diet was low in potassium (perhaps due to the omitted grains) and high in iron (a pro-oxidant that in high doses can promote heart disease and cancer). My sodium intake was also high. I’m guessing this was due to the all-too-tempting deli meats that I consumed when I didn’t have time to cook fresh meat. My fiber intake was not only lower than the vegan diet, but much less than my goal of 30 grams per day.
While I definitely liked creatively replacing grains with zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash, and other vegetables, I admit that I did not like this diet overall. It was much harder to adhere to than the vegan diet. It was difficult to avoid processed meat due to the time needed to cook fresh every meal. And my colon felt heavy. Relying on vegetables and fruit for ALL my fiber needs (instead of fruits and vegetables and grains) didn”t get me to the 30-40 grams of fiber which is much better for colon health (and probably why my colon felt “heavy”). While I didn’t keep precise track of my food bill, my overall eye-ball guess was the month of Paleo was certainly more expensive! Especially if you want organic meat and eggs, which the Paleo authors admit you should do in order to be “safe” eating so much meat. Still, here are some great things I learned during the month:
And what about my husband? “I hated Paleo,” he said. “Colon cancer runs in my family and this did NOT feel right at all. I bailed after 2 weeks.”
Both diets are a slam-dunk improvement over the SAD (Standard American Diet) by supporting weight loss through less calories and more nutrient-dense foods. Whether it's animal products that you are denying, or sugar and grains, both diets force you to stop and think about each meal and snack, sub in extra vegetables, and essentially get off processed foods.
I had begun this quest with trepidation that I might be missing the boat on diet trends. But to my unexpected pleasure, this vegan vs. Paleo experiment actually returned me more strongly back to my roots, which are my eight DIET FREE habits! By immersing myself in two diets that at their core require the abandonment of processed food, I was able to spend two months engrossed in my DIET FREE Habit # 6, “Replace processed food with wholesome,” in an up-close and unique way. Following my test months, I settled with laser focus into EATING REAL FOOD, supported by my eight DIET FREE habits. I then reanalyzed my dietary intake. And what did I find? I remained low in calories, while nutritionally complete!
I am now convinced more than ever that eating real food is a vital component to a healthy lifestyle. This can certainly be accomplished as a vegan or Palean, but these restrictive diets are not necessary to KEEP IT REAL. Giving up all processed foods while enjoying real food from ALL food groups is, after all, more freeing than giving up ENTIRE food groups like all sugar, all meat, all dairy, or all grains. Similar results, yet with a fraction of the deprivation - wow, I’m in!
Zonya Foco, RD is the creator of the lifestyle program DIET FREE: The Eight Habits That Will Change Your Life as well as a partner in the EatRealAmerica.com membership site, both excellent resources to help you find your EAT REAL lifetime strategies to deprivation-free health. Learn more at DietFree.com and EatRealAmerica.com