Post written by Susan Lacke.
I’m never one to back down from a challenge. If you tell me I “can’t” do something, you’ve guaranteed I’ll set out to do it.
So when my buddy bragged about a new diet plan of his, I was intrigued and wanted to give it a shot for myself.
“Aww, that’s cute,” he smirked, “but you can’t do it.”
“Why?” I retorted.
“It’s based on the principles of a paleo diet plan. You couldn’t do it. You’re one of THOSE people. You know…” Joel leaned in and whispered, like a parent saying a dirty word in a preschool, “vegetarian.”
“Eff you, man. It’s possible for the paleo diet to be adapted to the vegetarian lifestyle.”
“Fine. I will.”
The principles of paleo
If you’re unfamiliar with the paleo diet, it’s a diet that encourages “eating like a caveman.” In other words, only foods that our ancestors would have hunted or gathered. It’s what we’re “meant” to eat, say proponents, and for many, that idea translates to the notion that we’re “meant” to eat meat — lots of it.
A quick search for “vegetarian paleo” doesn’t yield much of use, other than Matt’s long post about three ways to make it work. In fact, an overwhelming majority of sources said it’d be almost impossible to sustain a paleo-vegetarian lifestyle. Some even claimed that, like our cavemen ancestors, a person would die of nutritional deficiencies if they didn’t get their hands on animal protein.
Though a dramatic assertion, it does underscore the reason animal protein is so important to the paleo diet. Most plant-based protein sources are considered inflammatory to the body to paleos, and therefore off-limits:
- No beans.
- No soy.
- No rice.
- No quinoa.
- No grains of any kind.
Further, there’s no starchy foods, no dairy, no alcohol, no sugars (except those found naturally in fruit), and no convenience foods of any sort.
I finally understood why there were so few resources on paleo for vegetarians, why vegans and paleos don’t seem to get along, and why there are so few vegan Crossfitters (Crossfit being decidedly pro-paleo). Flustered, I began to wonder if I had met my match in this challenge. What the hell was I supposed to eat for the next eight weeks?
Paleo for vegetarians
Let’s mark this one in the “win” column: I survived 8 weeks as a paleo-vegetarian, and I didn’t die from protein deficiency. Meticulous tracking of my food intake allowed me to see if I was meeting my daily nutritional needs. Yes, even protein.
As it turns out, the veggie-caveman-death theory was wrong on a lot of counts.
Yes, protein sources are particularly important in a paleo diet. However, animal protein is perhaps given too much prominence. Some paleo followers claim that cavemen consumed 60 to 80 percent of their calories from protein, mostly from animal sources. But research shows that cavemen likely got 45 to 50 percent of their protein from … you got it, plant sources.
So where — specifically, from what plant foods — did those cavemen get their protein and fat? More importantly, where should today’s No Meat Athletes look if they want to take on a paleo diet? During my 8-week paleo experiment, I centered my diet around vegetarian, paleo-friendly staples offering the highest amounts of protein and healthy fats:
- Hemp Seed
A rather short list, yes, but keep in mind they’re not the only foods I ate. There were plenty of other plant-based foods in my diet, but I tried to include at least two of the above items in every meal or snack. A smoothie would include hemp seed, almonds, and spinach along with frozen berries. My dinner would be a salad would be loaded with vegetables, including avocado and broccoli. A snack would be apples with almond butter and a hard-boiled egg white.
Off to a rocky start …
The first week of the diet was a major adjustment period. In all my time as a vegetarian, I’ve never felt restricted because I “can’t” eat meat. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on the things I can eat – which is a whole heck of a lot. But adding paleo meant learning to live without grains, dairy, and convenience foods. Suddenly, food felt incredibly constricting.
Also, my initiation into the Caveman Club meant I had to endure a nasty transition in what my body was utilizing as fuel. When your carbohydrate intake drops, your body learns to burn fat instead of sugar. It’s actually a great thing for endurance athletes to harness, since it allows for a body to use fat for fuel instead of relying on glycogen reserves, which are easily depleted.
But holy geez, the process of getting there is hard. For the first week of the diet, I felt like I had a case of the flu. I was plagued with fatigue, incoherent thoughts, pounding headache, and a lot of bonking during my workouts. All of my research told me to expect a crash, but my body didn’t just crash — it dive-bombed.
And then, on the seventh day, I woke up and felt good. Actually, I felt great.
Why being paleo-vegetarian was shockingly easy
As I adjusted to the new diet, I realized something surprising:
This isn’t so hard after all.
Yes, it was an adjustment to learn how to get enough protein without my go-to sources, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I was certain I’d constantly crave baked goods (my comfort food), but as it turns out, I could be just as satisfied with healthier, real-food alternatives. I couldn’t imagine a breakfast without oatmeal, cereal, or pancakes, but smoothies, fruit salads, and egg-white omelets loaded with fresh veggies gave me more energy than the grain-based foods.
And though it was a “diet,” I was never ravenously hungry. I always felt satiated. The nice thing about paleo diet is that it only provides guidelines for what to eat, not how much of it. In other words, if I was hungry, I could eat as much as I wanted. Only this time, instead of reaching for a nutrition bar or a coffeehouse muffin, I’d grab some veggie sticks or a bowl of fruit.
Even eating out at restaurants wasn’t all that hard, so long as I planned ahead. If friends wanted to get together for dinner, I’d suggest we meet up at a Mexican restaurant. There, I could order a veggie fajita salad with salsa and avocado instead of cheese or sour cream (which I never really liked anyway). While traveling, I could grab some nuts and fruit at convenience stores for a quick snack.
Was I perfect? Absolutely not. There were several times where I’d find myself in a situation where the only vegetarian options weren’t paleo-friendly. If I was hungry and unable able to get my hands on something that fit within the diet, I ate the sandwich or the granola bar. And when my partner brought home a cupcake one night, I devoured every single crumb, cavemen be damned.
Overall, though, my consumption was healthier than it was previously. Aside from the sporadic indiscretions, it was a completely clean diet. I thought I did a pretty good job of eating healthy before, but taking away convenience foods forced me to eat more fruit in the morning, or to snack on vegetables instead of a Luna bar.
The surprising results (19 pounds!?)
Let me be very clear: I did not take on this challenge to lose weight. I tend to be anti-diet, advocating healthy lifestyle changes instead of temporary food restrictions. My purpose for doing this for 8 weeks was to prove that it was possible for a vegetarian to be paleo, just to quiet the peanut gallery (including Joel).
I did lose weight, though. Nineteen pounds, to be exact. As of this writing, I am at the same weight I like to be at when I race an Ironman, only I didn’t have to take on the volume of Ironman training to get there.
My body fat percentage also dropped from 29.5 to 24.9 percent. I didn’t get the six-pack abs that launched off this whole experiment, probably because I didn’t follow certain principles of Joel’s diet, including the accompanying exercise plan.
Perhaps most surprising was that I was able to sustain my long workouts on a vegetarian paleo diet. Instead of needing to rely on carbs to fuel my workouts, I burned fat. Instead of carrying gels and sugary drinks on a long ride, I carried water.
(For more, see my plant-based paleo Q&A.)
A modern-day caveman?
Lest you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I’ll have you know that I’m about to head out on a date. We’re going out for pizza, which is, well … about as non-paleo as you can get.
While this experiment was eye-opening, I’m not 100 percent sold on the idea of being a vegetarian paleo. Though it’s not impossible, it’s still a lot of work. There’s so much planning involved, and I’d like to spend less time thinking about food and more time eating it.
I’ll certainly take some principles away from these past eight weeks. For example, I’ve decided not to purchase dairy products for my home anymore. I’m also stocking my fridge and pantry with many of the same foods I had consumed during the experiment – turns out if I don’t buy crappy processed foods, I don’t eat crappy processed foods (imagine that!). I don’t plan on going back to my old breakfasts of oatmeal, since paleo-friendly breakfasts give me sustained energy every morning. I’ll also place fresh, raw fruits and vegetables high on the list of priorities, remembering how much better I feel when I opt for those instead of convenience foods.
But if, on a cold day, I want to make a bowl of chili, filled to the brim with lentils and topped with crackers, I’m going to. If I’m making a salad and want to throw some grilled tofu on top, I’m going to. And gosh darn it, if I want to eat a cupcake, I’m going to.
However, the next time someone tells me vegetarians can’t follow a paleo diet, I’ll be quick to share my eight-week experiment. It’s not as impossible as they might imagine.
“I know,” I’ll say, “because I’m one of THOSE people. You know…vegetarian.”
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