Paleo vs. Vegan

Photography by Todd Quakenbush

Photography by Todd Quakenbush


What does it mean to eat paleo or vegan? Is it a diet, lifestyle or personal philosophy? Understanding the current rhetoric around healthy eating will ensure you’re not missing out on valuable health information.


At face value, to eat paleo or vegan appears very different. Paleo, a.k.a. “The Caveman Diet” is known for meat consumption while veganism eschews all animal products. Could these two eating approaches be any different? While both include fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and exclude dairy, they differ on their inclusion/exclusion of many other foods.

The paleo diet became wildly popular with the book The Paleo Diet written by Loren Cordain in 2010. The concept is based on eating like our ancestors during the Paleolithic era, eating the foods that hunter-gatherers would have eaten. Included in the Paleo Diet is grass-fed meat, fish and seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, and specific oils such as olive and walnut. The food indicated for this diet does not include anything with a label. No frozen dinners, no cookies, nor anything processed. Additionally, the paleo diet excludes grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, refined oils and salt.

The paleo diet is an appealing approach because many people report rapid and sustained weight loss. Popular with athletes, the higher protein intake aligns with many athletes’ desired macronutrient ratios. Other alleged benefits to the paleo diet seen in various studies include clearer skin, improved digestion and reduced inflammation. However, the study of the paleo diet is still in its infancy as there are not a lot of long-term studies on the effects of its higher protein intake and other attributes.

A vegan diet, with roots in vegetarianism, became an official movement in the 1940’s. Veganism is both a way of eating and a lifestyle. To be vegan means you not only avoid flesh and animal products, but you do not utilize animals or their by-products in other aspects of your life. This includes shoes, clothes, house products, etc. Veganism considers your personal health, the health and treatment of animals and environmental sustainability. However, there are many foods considered vegan that aren’t necessarily healthy. Many “accidentally vegan” products on the market delight animal lovers and your taste buds but won’t necessarily help you stay in shape.  

A newer term, plant-based, describes the adoption of the dietary protocols of a vegan diet with less emphasis on other daily decisions you make. A plant-based diet emphasizes whole foods including grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Dairy, eggs, meat and fish are not emphasized and are generally excluded from a plant-based diet. The plant-based movement has roots in preventive healthcare. Plant-based eating celebrates the bounty of the season with a focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes. There are many documentaries showcasing the health benefits of eating plant-based including Forks Over Knives, What the Health and Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.

Epidemiological studies on the effect of plant-based eating on heart health include the Adventist Health Study and the EPIC-Heart trials. These studies have thousands of participants providing robust data. Other studies in heart health have shown reversal of heart disease in patients adopting a plant-based diet.  Other benefits to a plant-based diet include improved outcomes with arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

One concern with plant-based eating may be with regard to adequate protein intake and specific micronutrient deficiencies including calcium and B12. A well-balanced, thoughtful diet can eliminate these concerns. When adopting any new lifestyle or approach to eating, it’s important to consult your physician or a dietician. You can get your lab values to check your nutrient levels and make the right decisions for you.


When it comes to healthy eating, the most important thing is, “Will you do it?” A food can only give you its countless benefits if you are willing to and like eating it! Above all, it’s important to feel good and eat in a way that’s in accordance with your beliefs, lifestyle and sense of well-being. Don’t let any approach take away from your quality of life. Even healthy eating can become obsessive. Having a healthy relationship with food that fits you is the key for sustainability and longevity.


Last, get to know your food! Turn off your phone and head out to your local farmer’s market to see what’s fresh and abundant. Whether you’re eating like a hunter-gatherer or your hippie neighbor, making a conscious decision about what you eat everyday will profoundly impact your life.