Can a vegetarian eat a Paleo diet? If you’re a vegetarian and are interested in following the Paleo diet lifestyle but don’t know if it’s possible, then read on. I will show you how to adapt Paleo diet principles into your vegetarian lifestyle so you can reap its great health benefits and also lose weight.
The Paleo diet seems to be spreading throughout the health and fitness world like wildfire. Ask any CrossFit junkie about Paleo, and they’ll be sure to give you an earful of information. But, with high amounts of protein and fat at its core, it may be difficult to see how vegetarians can get enough when the most common vegetarian sources of protein (e.g. legumes) are off limits.
Difficult? Yes. Possible? Sure. However, there is a trade-off.
For some vegetarians, the avoidance of animal products is due to health concerns and is the main reason for becoming vegetarian. For others, it’s an ethical and environmental decision, and the nutrition aspect isn’t of much concern.
When it comes to the Paleo diet, the nutrition aspect is at its core. One of the main points of Paleo is to rid your body of added sugars, preservatives, and other toxic chemicals often found in grains, some nuts, and other refined food products. Basically, it aims for whole foods that haven’t been tainted by the hands of mankind. It’s a hunter-gatherer diet, and has been called “the caveman diet.”
Over most of the span of human evolution, our bodies adapted to metabolizing whatever foods were around at the time. This meant mostly meat and animal products, with some vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, but in smaller quantities.
If you compare the period of modern agriculture (only a few thousand years) to the millions of years before it, eating refined grains almost happened overnight. Grains became the main staple of our diet, replacing most of what we were used to eating before.
Many scientists say that our bodies didn’t have the time to adapt to our new diet, causing autoimmune diseases and digestive problems such as Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, Inflammatory bowel disease, and ulcerative colitis.
And, WEIGHT GAIN.
Sure, grains served a purpose back during times of famine and protected us against starvation, but we don’t live in times like that anymore.
Take a look around and you’ll find a McDonald’s on every corner, Starbucks serving 900 calorie lattes, and you’ll also find a chain of weight loss clinics (how ironic!).
We are becoming more overweight and obese than ever before.
Luckily, Paleo may solve these problems. In fact, research has shown that people lose more weight on the Paleo diet than any other compared diet.1
By eating whole foods that are low on the glycemic index (foods that have less of a negative impact on blood sugar levels), it’s easier to burn fat than to store it.
In addition, the Paleo diet has been found to be beneficial for those with diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and is also being studied as a treatment for multiple sclerosis symptoms.
Paleo Diet Principles
- Eat: Meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, sweet potatoes.
- Don’t Eat: All grains, beans (including peanuts), legumes (chickpeas, etc.), grain-like seeds (quinoa, etc.), white potatoes, added sugar, alcohol, and dairy (although it is arguable).
- Whole foods
- Lots of healthy fats and avoidance of processed vegetable oils
- Low glycemic load
- Avoidance of preservatives and toxic chemicals
- Organic and local whenever possible
Paleo-Vegetarian-ish Protein Options
- The incredible, edible egg (with yolk!). They are a good source of high-quality protein and 13 essential vitamins and minerals, including choline and vitamin B12, which aren’t found in plant foods. You can meet the protein requirement of 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day by eating eggs, but since one egg only contains about 6 grams of protein, you will need to eat many eggs, so hopefully you really, really like them.
- Include dairy. This is regarded as a “gray area” in the Paleo world. Some say it’s Paleo, some say it isn’t. The reason why it’s often avoided is because milk can cause gut issues, usually because of either lactose (milk sugar) or casein (milk protein) or both. However, for those with a lactose sensitivity or intolerance, consuming a fermented milk product such as kefir or yogurt, versus drinking fresh milk, tends to have a different effect on the gut since the fermentation process eradicates the lactose. For those with a casein sensitivity or intolerance, they are better off avoiding cow dairy and choosing an alternative such as sheep or goat’s milk. And for those with an intolerance to both lactose and casein, fermented sheep or goat dairy products are the best option. In the end, if it doesn’t upset your stomach, dairy can be really useful as a source of protein.
- Include beans, legumes, and grain-like seeds. Although these are said to contain anti-nutrients such as phytic acid, and gut-irritant proteins such as lectins, some research shows that the soaking and cooking process can make them healthier to eat. The soaking process decreases the amount of phytic acid significantly, and the cooking process decreases the amount of lectins. However, this doesn’t hold true for soybeans or peanuts (did you know peanuts are actually beans?). It’s best to just avoid soy products because they are often not prepared in a way that lowers the amount of phytic acid. Peanuts should also be avoided since their lectins are very difficult to destroy even through cooking. To make eating grain-like seeds even healthier, opt for sprouted, such as sprouted quinoa. For a more in-depth discussion on this, I recommend reading Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution. So, if you’re okay with not following being strictly Paleo, eating beans, legumes, and grain-like seeds may be an option to get enough protein in your Paleo-Vegetarian diet.
- Eat more nuts and seeds. Although nuts and seeds are recommended to be eaten sparingly in a Paleo diet since they are said to have high levels of inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acid, increasing the amount of nuts and seeds is feasible for vegetarians wanting to go Paleo.
Sample Meal Plan for the Paleo-Vegetarian Diet
Breakfast: Protein smoothie with coconut milk, almond butter, berries, and chia seeds.
Lunch: Carrot-ginger soup (see recipe and video below!)
Dinner: Veggie burger with sautéed zucchini and mushrooms, and baked sweet potato fries. Kefir with berries for dessert.
- 1 ½ pound carrots unpeeled and roughly chopped
- 1 onion roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger roughly chopped
- 1 clove garlic peeled
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
- 1 leaves sprig fresh tarragon
- 1 teaspoon chopped chives
- Salt and pepper to taste
Monitoring Your Nutrients
Iron. Essential for hemoglobin in red blood cells, lack of iron can result in anemia, which is the most common nutrient deficiency. Vegetarians need to consume more (twice as much) iron than meat-eaters since plant-derived iron does not absorb as easily than meat-derived iron. However, there are plenty of Paleo-Vegetarian options for iron, such as dark leafy greens. To help absorption of plant-derived iron, you should also consume foods rich in vitamin C during the same meal, such as citrus. Also, having high quantities of coffee, tea, and chocolate can decrease absorption, so be wary of that. Cooking with a cast-iron pan can also increase iron levels, since the iron leeches onto food during cooking.
B12. This is found in animal products, although it is often added into fortified cereals. But since cereals are not included in a Paleo diet, and vegetarians don’t eat meat, finding a way to include B12 does not come easy. It’s important for red blood cell production and too little results in anemia. Besides meat, dairy provides B12, if you’re okay with it. We used to get B12 from the dirt (formed from bacteria!) on our produce, but since our society basically sanitizes our food before it gets to our table, we don’t get it that way anymore.
Zinc. This is an important nutrient commonly found in animal products and plays a role in immunity, cell function, and protein synthesis. Since vegetarians need to consume 50% more of the Recommended Daily Allowance of zinc than meat eaters, and consuming foods rich in phytates (such as broccoli and legumes) inhibit zinc absorption in your gut, it’s important to keep an eye on zinc. Paleo-Vegetarian foods with good amounts of zinc include asparagus, chard, spinach, and shitake and crimini mushrooms.
Should I take supplements if I am Paleo-Vegetarian?
Before taking any supplement, you should consult with your medical provider. While having a vitamin or mineral deficiency can have adverse effects on your health, too much can do the same.
Recommended Paleo-Vegetarian Guides, Meal Plans, and Cookbooks
- Following a Paleo-Vegetarian diet is possible, but you need to make sure you get enough protein and nutrients such as iron, B12, and zinc.
- Paleo-Vegetarian-ish sources of protein may include eggs, dairy, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds. But that depends on what you are okay with.
P.S. Have a look at The French Paleo Burn, my weight loss program that helps you burn fat and feel great without counting calories, and you’ll be able to find plenty of Paleo-Vegetarian recipes inside!
Feedback, please! What are some of your favorite protein options as a vegetarian? And what made you interested in adding Paleo into your life? Please comment below!
- Young, J. (2014). A review of the modern Paleo diet: Effectiveness for weight loss. Proceedings from American Public Health Association 142nd Annual Meeting & Expo. New Orleans, LA: APHA.
- Boers, I., Muskiet, F.A., Berkelaar, E., Schut, E., Penders, R., Hoenderdos, K., … & Jong, M.C. (2014). Favourable effects of consuming a Palaeolithic-type diet on characteristics of the metabolic syndrome: A randomized controlled pilot-study. Lipids Health Dis, 3,
- Manheimer, E.W., van Zuuren, E.J., Fedorowicz, Z., & Pijl, H. (2015). Paleolithic nutrition for metabolic syndrome: Systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102(4), 922-932.
- Masharani, U., Scherchan, P., Schloetter, M., Stratford, S., Xiao, A., Sebastian, A., … & Frassetto, L. (2015). Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69(8), 944-948.
- Pitt, C.E. (2016). Cutting through the Paleo hype: The evidence for the Palaeolithic diet. Aus Fam Physician, 45(1), 35-38.
- Bisht, B., Darling, W.G., Grossmann, R.E., Shivapour, E.T., Lutgendorf, S.K., Snetselaar, L.G., … & Wahls, T.L. (2014). A multimodal intervention for patients with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis: feasibility and effect on fatigue. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(5), 347-355.
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