The Paleo Diet for Vegetarians: Your Questions Answered

Post written by Susan Lacke.

Almost immediately after I published my last post, How I Survived for 8 Weeks as a Paleo Vegetarian, my e-mail inbox was flooded with questions.

Though I knew paleo-vegetarianism was topic with few resources, I had no idea of the vast gap between supply and demand! There’s a lot of thirst for knowledge on this very topic of hybridizing the Paleo and vegetarian lifestyles — a thirst I feel slightly inadequate to quench. I’m not an expert on a Paleo diet, by any means, and I’m certainly not the be-all, end-all when it comes to adapting the diet to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

However, a dearth of information sometimes means an overgrowth of misinformation. It seems that many people believe that it’s impossible to combine the Paleo and plant-based lifestyle, solely because there isn’t any information out there on it.

To those naysayers: It’s possible. Here are the answers to some of your questions about my 8-week experiment as a Paleo Vegetarian.

Paleo Vegetarian Q&A

Am I missing something or is “Paleo Vegetarian” an oxymoron? — Cheryl

Though the stereotype of a caveman with a club and dead animal seems to be synonymous with “Paleo,” it’s not quite accurate. The Paleo diet actually mimics an overgeneralized assumption of what hunter-gatherers ate during Paleolithic times, before the Agricultural Revolution: lean protein, healthy fat and oils, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol, and refined and processed food are to be completely avoided.

But, as you’ll notice, I haven’t said the “m” word, because the Paleo diet is not really about meat. Instead, the unique focus is on restricting inflammatory foods such as grains and legumes while getting calories from fat – more specifically, Omega-3 fats.

So, what did you eat? — Everyone and their uncle

There have been many requests for me to write a meal plan for a typical day or week of this experiment, and it’s a request I’m not fully comfortable with.

For one, I didn’t really have a “typical” day. Second, the majority of the requests came from people who wanted to use this meal plan as a template for weight loss, and I don’t feel comfortable advising a weight-loss strategy. Just like vegetarianism is a lifestyle, not a “diet,” Paleo is not a low-calorie or calorie-restrictive diet. Depending on my activity, I typically require anywhere between 1900 and 2500 calories per day, and I was able to meet my needs on this plan.

Like I said in my first post about this experiment, some strongholds of my daily intake were hemp seeds, nuts, avocado, spinach, and broccoli. I tried to include as many of those items in every meal, whether it was in a breakfast omelet, a smoothie, a raw soup, or a giant salad. I’m not a whiz in the kitchen, so my meals were often simple; roasted or grilled veggies were a staple. I did, however, find a few recipes that I enjoyed once I made some small modifications (eliminating non-Paleo ingredients or adding ingredients, such as nuts). Many of these were found on sites for raw vegans. Some of my favorite discoveries are listed below:

I’m still trying to figure out why dairy, grains and legumes are such a bad thing (in the paleo diet) … what is the health science behind that? — Amy

To put it in the simplest terms, proponents of the Paleo way of eating say that these foods are inflammatory, causing unpleasant digestive issues, decreased immune response, and slow recovery from exercise. There is also a resistance to these foods because they are often overly processed — a big no-no.

Since I’m not an expert on the Paleo way of life, I don’t want to delve too far into this question. However, this beginner’s guide to Paleo from our friend Steve at Nerd Fitness does a pretty good job of explaining the basics and providing additional links. Go check it out.

Did you just cut out things that are dairy substitutes as well, like coconut yogurt and almond milk, or were those OK in the diet? — Sanna

Because many of those products contain artificial ingredients and sweeteners, I did not purchase them. I did, however, use unsweetened almond milk in my coffee, because if anyone dared to take that away from me, I’d have hurt someone. I gave up alcohol, people. No one messes with my coffee.

Did you take vitamins or supplements? — Jason

Of course I did. And before anyone jumps down my throat with the whole “cavemen didn’t have vitamins!” argument, I’d like to remind you that cavemen didn’t have the ability to criticize each other on the Internet, either.

I took the exact same vitamins I had been taking before this experiment. These vitamins included a daily multivitamin, a Vitamin B complex, and Flaxseed Oil.

During the experiment, how did you feel in terms of energy? — Liz

The first week sucked. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so “out of it” as I did during that time. With such a huge drop in my carbohydrate intake, my body felt sluggish, my brain felt muddled, and the last thing I wanted to do was get up from the couch, much less exercise.

As it turns out, my experience was pretty similar to what most people go through. If you Google “Paleo First Week,” you’ll find a huge volume of stories of really freakin’ miserable people. For some, this period lasted a few days, for others, three or four weeks.

But then something really weird happens if you get through that first sluggish phase: You start to feel pretty good. I was surprised at how quickly my energy levels turned around. I went to bed one day acting like a petulant child; the next morning, after breakfast, I was my peppy self again. I pretty much stayed that way for the rest of the experiment.

Some tips for getting through that first week:

  1. Make sure you’re getting enough calories. This was the biggest mistake I made in the first few days, in part because I wasn’t tracking my food as meticulously as I should have. On the third day, I really committed to logging every single thing that crossed my lips instead of estimating. It was then I realized my caloric intake wasn’t nearly as high as it should have been.
  2. Fat is energy! Though carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables made me feel “full,” my energy levels were best after eating nuts or avocado.
  3. It’s okay to skip a workout. In fact, during this phase, I’d suggest you skip anything high-intensity if you’re just not feeling it. My advice would be to attempt this transition during the off-season of your training.

I would love to hear how it affected your training, if you were doing any at the time. I’ve just started getting ready for my first half marathon, and I was wondering if paleo-veggie might be helpful. — Lauren

As I just mentioned above, I wouldn’t suggest doing your own experiment during key training periods. I did this experiment in my off-season, while I was rehabilitating a knee injury. Most of my workouts were in the pool, on the bike, or with weights – all of my workouts were low intensity.

However, if you adapt to this diet in the off-season, before you begin training for your “A” race, it could be beneficial. An athlete can teach their muscles to utilize more fat stores instead of carbohydrates, leading to greater efficiency and a lack of blood sugar fluctuations. However, don’t assume this fat-burning process means a complete disposal of nutrition. During an extended training day or race, it’s likely you’ll still need easily-digested carbohydrates such as sports drinks or gels.

I heard it can take many months (up to 18) to fully adapt to a fat-for-fuel mode. How did she get on after just 8 weeks? — Martin

Lots of slow, consistent workouts. The transition to fat-for-fuel wasn’t fully complete in 8 weeks, but it certainly was well on its way. By exercising at a low intensity level, I was able to adjust to a way of training that didn’t require tapping into my body’s carbohydrate reserves. It helped that this experiment coincided with my new training regimen for Ironman Arizona, which is based on the principles of Maximum Aerobic Function (also known as MAF).

Is it possible to do it vegan, no eggs? — Joy

I did eat eggs during this experiment (usually one per day), so I cannot speak to a vegan experience. I do believe it’s possible to be a Paleo vegan, and there were several people who commented that they had accomplished this. If you are one of those folks (and you have a blog or other helpful resources), comment at the end of this post to help your fellow NMAs, please! 

Were you able to eat in restaurants at all? — Christine

I was! It actually wasn’t much different from eating in restaurants before this experiment. So long as I did my homework (looked up the menu online) and found something I could easily modify to fit the parameters of Paleo vegetarian (usually ordering a salad without cheese), it wasn’t that hard. The best place for me was actually a Mexican restaurant down the street from my home – there, I could order a HUGE salad with grilled fajita vegetables and avocado.

You mentioned tracking nutrients. Which ones, and did you use anything to help keep track? — Lea

I used the SELF nutrition tracker to log my food. This tool lays everything out visually and helped me to change course when I was lacking in something, whether overall calories, a certain nutrient, protein, or a huge discrepancy in the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. If someone were to take on the experiment for themselves, I’d definitely suggest nutrition logging, especially for the first few weeks.

Can you say more about what you continue to follow now from it (like the actual practical, daily application thereof)? — Amanda

My partner, Neil, is an omnivore who has eaten a Paleo diet since long before we met, though he hasn’t always been a strict devotee. During these 8 weeks, we both fully committed to the experiment, and our household has changed as a result of it.

The biggest thing we’ve changed is the presence of processed foods in our home. Before the experiment, we kept a number of convenience foods around because, we claimed, we were “too busy” to prepare fresh, healthy meals and snacks all the time. Yes, I know. It’s a lazy person’s excuse, but one that served as valid for a long time in our household. Now I know it takes exactly the same amount of time to make a big, fresh salad as it does to cook a frozen pizza; it also takes seconds to open a box of strawberries as it does a granola bar.

We’ve also stopped buying dairy. We learned that we didn’t need it anymore.

Though I haven’t increased my intake of grains and legumes much since this experiment, they’re not completely absent from my diet. I don’t think they’re bad. I felt great during my 8 weeks as a Paleo vegetarian, but I also didn’t feel worse when I incorporated them back into my diet after the experiment was over. I’m not going to jump on the gluten-bashing bandwagon; instead, I’m more conscious of what my grains are paired with. Oatmeal, to me, is not the enemy; it’s the crap that gets tossed in with it, a’ la McDonalds’ version, which has more sugar than a Snickers bar and as many calories as an Egg McMuffin.

The bottom line: I’m not convinced that the presence of the “Paleo diet” was why this experiment went so smashingly. I am, however, certain it was the absence of eating crap.

What is the diet plan that inspired this challenge? I’d like to give it a try. — Mark

My friend Joel Runyon of ImpossibleHQ is one of my favorite collaborators. I served as an editor on his ImpossibleTri guide, and it was during this process that we began teasing each other for our starkly contrasting lifestyles. When I began this experiment as a result of his latest release, Impossible Abs, he and I both held inaccurate stereotypes about the other – thanks to this experiment, he understands a bit more about the plant-based lifestyle, and I have been corrected in my assumptions about Paleo living. I still tease him, though.

Would you do it again? — S.J.

Probably not. It’s a lot of work. During this experiment, I was thinking about food almost every waking moment, whether it was double-checking to make sure something was “acceptable” for the experiment, entering ingredients into the SELF nutrition tracker, searching for recipes, modifying recipes, shopping, prepping, cooking … the list goes on. Though it certainly got easier toward the end of the experiment, it’s not something I’d want to do every single day. As I said in my first post about this experiment, I’d like to spend less time thinking about food and more time eating it.

Besides, my job is part guinea pig, part storyteller. If I did this experiment again, what would I have to write about? I’m looking for ideas for my next adventure.

About the Author:Susan Lacke is No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete, serial optimist, and frequent line-crosser. She is the author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap: Your Plant-Based Guide to Completing Your First Triathlon“Like” her on Facebook for links to her latest publications in Competitor, Triathlete, and Women’s Running Magazines.

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Comments

  1. It really does get easier. It took me longer than 8 weeks to get past the stage of having to think about, plan, and prepare food for longer periods of time than I was used to. This was in part because I went through phases of trying different things, such as the “yogurt” phase that really didn’t work for me. After a gradual process of learning about what feels right for me and how best to prepare food (such as making larger batches and freezing it) today it’s not a hassle at all and I don’t even bother tracking my food on the web anymore. Right now eating paleoveg is no more a hassle than my previous way of eating was before. I have heard that there are improvements I might notice as far out as 18 months, so I look forward to that.

  2. Thanks for clearing up the overlap between “paleo” and “veggie”–as you say, they are not often considered together! And thanks so much for including my pad thai and kale salads! :)

  3. Thanks so much for this! I just switched from pescatarian to Paleo. I am feeling guilt (etc.) about the amount of meat I’m eating now, so it is very, very encouraging to know that it is reasonable to think I could switch to Pescapaleo some day. :-) Many thanks!

  4. Great follow-up to the original article! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m right with you on the coffee. ;)

  5. Thank you so much for the follow up posts and the great recipe suggestions!

  6. Have you tried Mimic Creme for your coffee? It’s dairy free and soy free! I just recently found out about it. http://mimiccreme.com

  7. I’ve thought the diet Brendan Brazier advocates for was somewhat similar to a paleo vegan. Where paleos would eat meat, he has what he calls “pseudograins” which are actually seeds by definition, gluten free, and alkaline forming: amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, and wild rice, which are some very ancient grains indeed. Caveman? I’m no expert. Though he does eat legumes so maybe it’s completely different… but really, they’re just differing on protein sources so whatever feels good to you, right?! Aren’t we so fortunate to be able to pick and choose our diets as we please?

  8. Congrats Susan on a balanced article. Carbs do need to be the non-refined type and then they are the most efficient fuel for HIIT athletes like you and me. I’m involved in four different sports and run on a vegetarian diet with a fair amount of grains as my energy base..I do not accept the gluten-bashing nonsense, and it should be noted that in the toughest martial art, Shaolin kung fu, the students start training at around six years of age and train for some six hours a day, all on a rice and vegs based diet. As for avocados..great ironman food..I eat half an avocado daily on multigrain bread..(and I hold the current World fastest time. age group, in the 500m indoor rowing sprint)
    As for coffee, there are studies that show those drinking around 4-5 cups a day have protection from certain types of cancer, but, the coffee used was freshly brewed expresso coffee. Do not drink instant coffee or any that has been stewing on the stovetop. Expresso coffee is an ideal “good dog” reward after a tough workout.

    You are right when you say we should not be obsessed with food…I have friends who spend the day thinking about what they are going to eat next…OMG..and they are all obese..arrhg

  9. Thanks for a great article! I was just re-reading the original when this gem arrived in my inbox! I’m 31 weeks pregnant so there’s no way in heck I’m giving up on bread right now (this vegan mama would probably murder someone) but I’ce been thinking about the amount of processed carbs I eat and really wanting to cut back and see how it effects my immune system and training (once I push my baby out and get a handle on nursing). Hoping to incorporate more paleo type eating (and get my ultra body back ASAP). This was helpful!

  10. Very thorough and informative article. Thanks for taking the time to answer difficult questions and add your experience to the answers. I always find the articles on NMA to be very helpful.

  11. I second that first week trauma phase lol I started paleo about a year ago and the first few weeks were quite an experience, and just like everyone else after a few weeks my body began to transform. I feel a lot more energized than I’ve ever had and I’ve even noticed that the health of my teeth have improved a lot too. No more bleeding gums when brushing my teeth! For those who are just starting out, make sure to have a list of recipes on hand because it helps! Especially if you have no idea what to eat. This website http://paleodiet.risap.com has some reviews of the paleo books out today which helps with quality control. That’s where I got mine and its made my paleo journey much easier.

  12. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    I learned about Paleo after already being stricter than most Paleos (doctor-supervised, elimination testing which diagnosed Celiac–more testing, blahblah…). As you say, I became FOOD-OBSESSED. All I could do was think about what I COULD eat! Scarcity=fixation.

    I was vegetarian for over 16 years but changed a few years before learning I’m Celiac, ‘finding’ Paleo and then going back to my own thing.

    Your piece has been a joy to read. Thanks again (I’m linking on mine).

  13. The nature of animal flesh (including fish) and its by-products is inflammation in the human body.

    For those interested, this video has the science and research behind it.

    • Yes, aw, the above video from nutrition facts is fantastic scientific evidence based on long term studies that cannot be denied..but the FDA does exactly that because of multiple conflicts of interest that board members have thus ensuring that they stay completely away from recommending the real healthy food pyramid. Meat eaters take note, it doesn’t matter if you remove the fat from meat, you will still suffer from CVD, some cancers, some degrees of renal failure, kidney failure and early onset of AD….Eating dead animals is a great way to shorten your life….

    • Vegan paleo = Unlucky hunter diet
      It was exactly that video that triggered my reassessment of the quantity of meat I eat. Although I do believe paleo diet is the right way to go I think the amount of meat some paleo folks eat is nowhere close to what we had access to during our evolution.

      • Well Martin, not sure about that “evolution” bit….I certainly didn’t descend from a monkey..but, when I look around at some of our world leaders and particularly that most useless organisation, the United Nations, you could be right..

  14. O.M.G. thank you!
    I have been trying the vege-paleo on my ownish.. and have been told by several hard core paleoists.. I’m WRONG! for not eating meat, for this and that..

    but thank you for making me feel acknowledged!

    • Well sugar, you’ll will live a lot longer and healthier by not eating dead animals…..as a sports & medical scientist I have just finished writing an article entitled “Vegetarian Athletes: Faster, Fitter and Stronger” for Australia’s leading fitness magazine “UltraFit Fitness”….As it is 2200 words long, I cannot publish it here, but, I do quote from the excellent work of DrM.Mills who made an exhaustive study of animal & human anatomy & physiology and was able by examining the respective features of facial muscles, jaw motion, mouth opening versus head size, teeth, incisors,canines & molars, chewing mechanism, salive enzymes, stomach acidity, stomach capacity, length of intestines, kidney function, that humans have all the facets of herbivores..the evidence is overwhelming..Additionally, plant eating animals are all at the top of the list for longevity….There are now more than a dozen well constructed medical trials that demonstrate a definite link between red and processed meats and CVD, stroke, and certain cancers. Recent work has shown that one out of every American teenager has atherosclerotic deposits in their arteries. The heterocyclic amines present in meat are the catalyst for mutations that then go on to produce cancer.

  15. Ttrockwood says:

    Did this 8 week trial significantly raise your grocery bill? Quinoa, tofu and oatmeal are much cheaper than nuts and avocados…….

  16. I have been a paleo vegetarian (even though I don’t exactly like to use this term XD) for a few months now. I’d say almost half a year.
    I’ve been a vegetarian for 7 yrs or so..Please bear in mind that I’m barely slowly turning 19.

    I can’t comment much on the aspect of feeling better after I started eating paleoveg..but that’s because I think it’s too soon to say. Why is it too soon to say..because i’ve been on a lot of medications..antiobiotics last year for my sinusitis..and lots of medications before for all my other health issues. I also think I might be suffering from the chronic fatigue syndrome..probably as an a result of being on a lot of medications as a kid. I think my body is stil in the phase of building up my immune system and still healing :)
    All that aside, if I look at the paleoveg ‘diet’ from a perspective of a person who never was on any medications and just wanted to improve their life..then I say HELL YEAH.
    I have never been more ‘proud’ and satisfied of my lifestyle..I am really really happy and satisfied with the way I eat now. I feel A LOT better..and also enjoy my food a lot more.
    I’d recommend eating this way to just about everyone..i think it’s the perfect ‘diet’ that everyone wanting to be completely lean and healthy should follow.
    I think you get all the neccessary vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that the body needs..which is something that most people don’t. It is also NOT complicated AT ALL..Might be as first, because you’re still adjusting but after that it gets REALLY easy :)

    I’d write all the stuff I usually eat..but that would make a long post :) In case, anyone is interested..then just send me an email to petra.mihoric@gmail.com..I’ll be more than happy to help :)

  17. Hi there,
    All the information you’ve provided on the paleo diet sounds good, but I just wanted to know what you thought about people who suffer from low blood sugar taking on this lifestyle change. I noticed that the paleo diet doesn’t have a lot of complex carbohydrates, so it would be hard for a person like me to warm up to it. Thoughts?
    Alana

  18. I think “paleo vegetarian” is quite doable- I’ve read lots of online success stories about it, and that’s great! Most of those I’ve read were vegetarians first, then tried paleo. It was rough for some, going from burning carbohydrates to burning fat for fuel, but eventually they got used to it.

    I’m sort of the other way around- I’ve been (mostly) paleo for the past two years or so, and am currently blogging a (potentially?) week-long experiment where I’m trying paleo veganism (as opposed to vegetarianism). In hindsight, I really should’ve tried vegetarianism instead of veganism first. My body really isn’t used to suddenly being without the protein, B12, etc., and I feel pretty crappy (transitioning from burning fat for fuel to carbohydrates). Eggs really would’ve helped. Oh well. Maybe next time.

  19. Contrary to what the general public believe, I read that we need saturated fats. How did you get saturated fats into your diet?

    • Well Carolyn, if you are talking about animal fats, then having them in your diet will shorten your life by predisposing you to cardiovascular disease, stroke, some cancers.

      • Carolyn says:

        Hi Terry,

        Thanks for your response. I don’t believe your statement is correct. A few good reads: http://www.paleoplan.com/2012/05-26/are-coconut-oil-saturated-fat-and-cholesterol-really-ok/

        • Hi Carolyn, Coconut oil and the white meat from coconuts is healthy…the problem is with red meat and its fat….Autopsies performed on US soldiers killed in the Korean War..average age 20, showed advanced atherosclerosis….this investigation was repeated in Viet Nam with the same result, but how can this be? Well, US soldiers were fed the best field rations of any nation with a large proportion of it being processed meat products.
          A study in the medical journal, “Circulation” 2001,103:2705 stated that coronary atherosclerosis begins at a young age and lesions are present in one out of every six teenagers who consume an animal diet. There are now some 12 medical studies linking red meat& animal fat with CVD, liver disease, hepatocellular carcinoma, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, stroke and diabetes. I could supply the references but that would take a lot of space.
          Dr.M.Mills in his exhaustive work, “The Comparative Anatomy of Eating” convincingly demonstrates the actual difference between carnivores and herbivores and shows without doubt that humans are not designed to consume animal products, there being some 14 different anatomical and physiological features. Remember also, that the longest living animals are all vegetarians. They have not been brainwashed like we have.
          I noticed that one of your references comes from the Weston Price Foundation, but, I have never met a medical or food scientist that gives that website any credibility, due largely to the fact that they have waged a personal vendetta against soy beans and their tofu derivatives, food full of nutrition that you could live on forever (with coconuts) providing you had plenty of wine to wash them down with. Good eating along with your exercise regime. Regards, Terry

          • but, tofu is processed soy.. soy is pumped full of GMOs in the states… What about everything in moderation? Processed meats are different than grass-fed beefs – wouldn’t you say?

  20. Most paleo people eat this way as a lifetime diet,
    My question is – as a vegetarian who is diabetic (who low carbs for that reason) – is a veggie paleo diet do-able for more than 8 weeks? Low carb veggie is tough enough going at times!!

    If I ate meat I would definately go paleo

    Ziggy

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