What is the best kind of diet for optimal health? For several decades there has been a large vegetarian movement, but more recently the Paleo movement has been gaining momentum. These two movements have some significant differences, yet there are strong advocates for both sides. So how is a person to know which way of eating is the best?
Before looking at each type of approach, it's important to note that there are ideal versions of both of these dietary approaches, and that both of them can also be done poorly. I'll be addressing the best of both of these, which includes organic, whole foods choices. Ideally neither way of eating should include processed foods, or the addition of chemicals or additives.
One of the main reasons that vegetarian diets are popular is for the ethical considerations. Many vegetarians choose to eat this way to avoid unnecessary suffering to animals, and to support farming practices that are sustainable and do the least amount of damage to our planet. Another reason is to achieve optimal health. A vegetarian diet eliminates meat, and a vegan diet goes one step further and eliminates all animal products including dairy, eggs and honey. Food sources include vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, plant-based sweeteners and fats, and dairy and eggs for those that choose to consume them. Pescetarians include fish and seafood, but otherwise adhere to vegetarian principles.
There are many well-known advocates for eating a vegetarian diet, including Dr. Dean Ornish, Brendan Brazier (co-founder of Vega), Dr. Joel Furhman, T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Neil Barnard. There are also many athletes that have followed a vegetarian diet throughout their successful athletic careers. Athletes place huge demands on their bodies, so the fact that they are able to accomplish what they do on a well thought-out vegetarian diet speaks well of this type of diet.
Many people turn to a Paleo diet to improve their health. These individuals may have tried a vegetarian diet in the past, but many have not. Food sources include pasture-raised meats, wild fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, fats, minimally processed sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup, and some people include fermented dairy in their diets.
Advocates for this type of diet include Dr. Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf, Dr. Terry Wahls (the Wahls Protocol), Dr. David Perlmutter, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride (GAPS diet), Chris Kresser and Sarah Ballantyne.
Here are some common aspects of good quality vegetarian and Paleo diets:
- they are plant-strong. A common misconception about a Paleo way of eating is that it includes large quantities of meat. Both diets when done well, involve large quantities of vegetables.
- nuts, seeds and fruit consumption. Both diets allow for moderate amounts of these foods.
- fats. Both diets can include coconut fat, avocado oil, olive oil and nut or seed oils. Paleo diets allow animal fats from pasture-raised animals as well.
- minimal use of added sweeteners. Whether coconut sugar, maple syrup or honey are used, any good quality diet keeps added sweeteners to a minimum, and focuses on sweeteners that still have some nutritional value.
- ferments. Fermented foods such as cultured vegetables, kombucha, and kvass are great additions to either type of diet. For some vegetarian and Paleo dieters, fermented dairy such as kefir, yogurt and aged-cheeses are added as well.
HOW TO CHOOSE
I should start by saying that I am on the Paleo side of this debate, so I have my personal bias. I was a vegetarian for 10 years, believing that it was the best choice for my body. I went through periods of veganism during that time as well. Despite the fact that I continued to improve the quality of the food I was consuming, and continued to seek help from a variety of health practitioners during those 10 years, my health continued to decline. Finally I saw a doctor who told me to start eating meat again, and who recognized that my gut health was compromised. Reintroducing meat was the beginning of my recovery. Before reintroducing meat I was spending several days in bed each month with extreme fatigue and nausea. I had severe seasonal allergies, eczema and multiple chemical sensitivities that were very debilitating at times. Paleo changed all that for me.
As a practitioner I also work exclusively with Paleo-type diets including SCD (Specific Carbohydrate Diet), GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) and AIP (autoimmune protocols). Why? Because any condition that has leaky gut as a contributing factor (including neurological and autoimmune conditions) requires this type of approach. A vegetarian diet will not repair leaky gut! Grains and legumes, which make up a significant part of a vegetarian diet are problematic for the gut in two ways:
1. They are rich in lectins, which can be problematic for a damaged gut.
2. They are high in carbohydrates. When the intestinal wall is damaged, it can't produce the enzymes needed to complete carbohydrate digestion, and when carbohydrates aren't completely digested, they continue to feed the state of dysbiosis that exists in the gut.
If you are a vegetarian in optimal health, then keep it up. Continue on your path, making sure to choose organic, whole foods, and to include legumes, nuts and seeds in your diet.
If you suffer from a neurological condition, autoimmune condition, IBS, allergies, asthma, eczema or any other chronic health condition, then Paleo is likely the best choice for you. If you have tested positive for leaky gut, then a Paleo diet is definitely for you.
Not sure yet? Try each one for yourself. Spend a month on each and see how your body reacts. Monitor your bowel movements, sleep patterns, mood and energy, and pay particular attention to symptoms of your health condition. I'm still on my journey of recovery, but seasonal allergies are gone, and eczema and chemical sensitivities continue to improve. Better yet, all those days where I couldn't get out of bed are long gone. I've tried both dietary approaches, and know that Paleo works best for me.
Besides my personal experience, as a nutritionist I've gone digging and done my research. When I read the books promoting vegetarian diets, I find all kinds of flaws in research and the way it is interpreted. Researching dietary approaches is difficult and expensive, so good research is hard to find. Most of the research I look at is not actually about any specific kind of diet, but rather looks at how foods are supporting our bodies at a metabolic level. When we look at how food is digested and absorbed, and how it is utilized by the body, then I can't help but support a Paleo way of eating.
What approach works for you?
Does anyone know why Paleo is capitalized? It seems to be used this way in all the literature, so I am following the trend.
Happy, Healthy Eating!