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:
- Raw Pad Thai
- Kale & Avocado Salad
- Baba Ganoush
- Raw Broccoli Hemp Soup
- Baked Kale Chips
- Roasted Broccoli with Smashed Garlic
- Tropicado Salad
- Crunchy Pickled Salad
- Roasted Curried Cauliflower
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:
- 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.
- Fat is energy! Though carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables made me feel “full,” my energy levels were best after eating nuts or avocado.
- 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.
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