Food is medicine, and my job as a doctor involves advising people about the most nutrient dense foods to prevent, treat, and even reverse chronic disease. I'm aware that what to eat can become complicated, confusing and contentious.
Studies show vegan diets help with weight loss, reverse diabetes, and lower cholesterol. So do Paleo diets. The conversation can get heated. Each camp dogmatically adheres to their diet and cherry-pick studies validating their point of view. After reading dozens of studies on vegan and Paleo diets, even I can become confused.
What's an eater to do?
I vote for becoming a Pegan, or Paleo-Vegan, which combines both diets' strengths and focuses on real, whole, fresh, sustainably raised food.
Finding Common Ground
Paleo and vegan camps might seem to agree on little, but both diets share some common foundations. Here are some of their similar tenets:
- Very low in terms of glycemic load, meaning low in sugar, flour, and refined carbohydrates of all kinds.
- High in vegetables and fruits. The deeper the colors, the more variety, the better, which provides a high phytonutrient content protective against most diseases.
- Low in pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, and low or no GMO foods.
- No chemicals, additives, preservatives, dyes, MSG, artificial sweeteners and other "Franken Chemicals" that you would never keep in your pantry.
- Higher in good-quality fats. Most camps advise good-quality fats from olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados.
- Adequate protein for appetite control and muscle synthesis.
- Organic, local, fresh foods should be the majority of your diet.
- Avoid dairy. According to Dr. Amy Shah, the number one reason to ditch dairy is that it is inflammatory. While some can tolerate it, for most it contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, and may increase (not decrease) the risk of osteoporosis.
What About Those Differences?
Paleo and vegans disagree among other things. Let's look at some of them:
For millions of Americans, gluten creates inflammation, autoimmunity, digestive disorders and even obesity. We started consuming grains recently in our evolutionary history and they can be part of a healthy diet, but not in unlimited amounts.
Beans are a great source of fiber, protein, and minerals, but they create digestive problems for some. If you're diabetic, excessive amounts of beans can trigger spikes in blood sugar. Up to one cup a day should be fine for most people. Some in the Paleo camp are concerned that beans contain lectins, which create inflammation, and phytates, which impair mineral absorption.
All meat is not created equally. Eating sustainably raised, clean meat, poultry and lamb can be a part of a healthy diet. But eating meat also puts pressure on the planet, including more water use, more climate change and more energy inputs. Eat meat as a side dish or condiment, and only consume grass-fed and sustainably raised.
Eggs have been exonerated and don't have any impact on cholesterol and are not associated with increased risk of heart disease. They provide a great low-cost source of vital nutrients and protein.
Choose small, omega-3 fat-rich fish such as sardines or wild salmon to minimize mercury. If you are a vegan, you need omega-3 fats, and not just alpha linolenic acid (ALA) found in plants. You need preformed DHA, which is what most of your brain is made from. Look for an algae-derived DHA supplement. Everyone needs vitamin D3. For vegans, vitamin B12 is also critical.
Becoming A Pegan
Becoming a Pegan means you don't worry about focusing on how much you eat. When you focus on what you eat, your body's natural appetite control systems kick into gear and you eat less.
As a result of their eating style, Pegans:
1. Eat a low-glycemic load.
Focus on more protein and fats, including nuts (not peanuts), seeds (flax, chia, hemp, sesame, pumpkin), coconut, avocados, sardines and olive oil.
2. Eat the right fats.
Steer clear of vegetable oils, including soybean oil, which now comprises about 10% of our calories. Focus instead on omega-3 fats, nuts, coconut, avocados, and yes, even saturated fat from grass-fed or sustainably raised animals.
3. Eat mostly plants.
Plant should form 75% of your diet and your plate.
4. Focus on nuts and seeds.
They are full of protein, minerals, and good fats, plus they lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
5. Avoid dairy.
Dairy is great for growing calves into cows, but not for humans. Try organic goat or sheep products, but only as a treat.
6. Avoid gluten.
Most is from Franken Wheat, so look for heirloom wheat (Einkorn). If you are not sensitive to gluten, then consider it an occasional treat.
7. Eat gluten-free whole grains sparingly.
They still raise blood sugar and can trigger autoimmunity.
8. Eat beans sparingly.
Lentils are best. Stay away from big starchy beans.
9. Eat meat or animal products as a condiment.
There's no need to make animal products the main course.
10. Think of sugar as an occasional treat.
Use it sparingly.
After researching nutrition for 30 years and analyzing thousands of scientific papers and treating tens of thousands of patients with food, I vote for being a Pegan!
Have you ever followed a Paleo or vegan diet? Share your experience below or on my Facebook page.
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