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The Vegetarian Dilemma

Does it seem like right after you read a study saying that eating meat (or animal foods) is beneficial to your health, another one comes out saying that being vegan, and avoiding animal products is better for your health and way more beneficial to the environment?

Veganism is a strict vegetarian diet people pursue for either health, environmental, or ethical reasons. In addition to the normal vegetarian rules cutting out meat and poultry, vegans do not consume fish or animal by-products, including dairy, honey, and eggs. Most vegans claim that their lifestyle promotes a more humane and caring world by considering environmental sustainability and animal rights. 

Vegans often argue that living entirely on a plant-based diet decreases one’s carbon footprint, experts disagree. Many vegans rely heavily on soy, wheat, and corn as staples in their diet, which often require importing. Industrial farming of these row crops depends on crude oil throughout the entire process, from planting to processing, packaging, and transporting the produce. Popular legumes like lentils and chickpeas are rarely grown in the United States and therefore contribute to a large carbon footprint during importing. Meat substitutes like tempeh, tofu, and seitan create similar issues.

The pervasive use of chemicals and pesticides in industrial farming is harmful to both the body and the planet. Modern agriculture corporations destroy natural ecosystems, like topsoil, streams, and rivers that are home to wildlife.

Though eating only local, seasonal, organic vegetables would help mitigate the environmental impact, even growing organically can take a toll. Many common vegetables require more resources per calorie than expected. One study concluded that eating lettuce is more than three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon. Eggplant, celery, and cucumbers fared poorly when compared to pork or chicken.

High-quality animal products are the core of a Paleo diet because they are non-toxic sources of protein, and when raised well can actually have a positive impact on the environment. These foods also include several nutrients that can be challenging to obtain when following a vegetarian or vegan diet.

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Necessary Nutrients

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is necessary for energy, mood, and mental health and very often deficient on a vegan diet. This is especially true of a Paleo-vegetarian or Paleo-vegan diet, since some of the few non-meat sources of B vitamins are fortified foods, which artificially processed and contain other additives and chemicals. Nutritional yeast, which can be part of your Paleo diet can be fortified with vitamin B12, making it a complete source of B vitamins.

Omega 3’s

Essential fats, in particular the balance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are important for optimal health. When compared to traditional diets, the Westernized foods tend to have higher amounts of Omega 6 fats (found in seed oils, factory farmed meat, and processed foods) and are deficient in Omega 3 fats. Of the 3 Omega 3 fats, EPA, and DHA are in the forms your body can use; ALA has to be converted to one of the other two forms first. This conversion is quite inefficient, especially in the case of DHA.

The best sources of Omega 3 fats are mainly found in grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish. Simply reducing Omega 6 intake by cutting out seed oils and processed foods will reduce the need for Omega 3’s, but some is still vital. For vegetarians, grass-fed dairy and pastured eggs do provide significant amounts of Omega 3, especially eggs from hens fed a diet rich in these fats, resulting in eggs having more of them (Omega 3 eggs). Vegan sources of Omega-3s, including flax seeds and chia seeds contain the less bioavailable form ALA. A good compromise might be to eat a small amount a chosen vegan source of Omega-3s for the EPA, whilst supplementing with a vegan-based DHA.

Iron

While many vegetables do contain iron, it is not how much iron you eat but rather how much iron your body can absorb that matters. The iron (called non-heme iron) found in vegetables, eggs, and dairy is much less bioavailable than the heme iron found in meat. Since there are no vegetarian sources of heme iron, it is might be wise to eat way more non-heme iron sources than recommended in the RDA. Eat iron sources alongside foods rich in Vitamin C will increase the absorption of iron. Using cast iron cookware can help too.

Protein

From a Paleo perspective, consuming sufficient protein is of concern when not eating animal-based products. Nuts do contain protein, however they are also high in Omega 6’s and are best consumed moderately, not making up a major source of calories in the diet. Again, nuts are usually transported to their destinations by way of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, which can mean a long, carbon-intensive journey from nut tree to plate. For Americans, the one exception to this might be almonds, but they have their own environmental issues

Although eggs and dairy (if tolerated) can be good sources of Paleo proteins for vegetarians, most will be challenged to get sufficient protein from these alone though. For strict vegans, even these options are out. For non-Paleo sources, traditional preparation methods are best to maximize nutrient availability.

It is possible to eat a mostly vegetarian diet that follows Paleo principles. This might be a better option. Bivalves (oysters, mussels, and other members of the same family) are one of the best options for farming if one chooses to farm and/or eat animals at all. They appear to have minimal ecological impact while minimizing concerns around welfare in captivity.

Bivalves have no central nervous system. Like plants, they respond to environmental conditions and stimuli, but they have no central brain. One could argue there is then no logical reason for ethical vegans and vegetarians to avoid eating them. They are not being harmed, because they possess no consciousness to perceive pain.

Oysters also rich in zinc, which is minimally bioavailable from plant foods, as well as being a good source of vitamin B12.

Supplementation

Paleo proponents often claim that the need to supplement these nutrients proves that humans are designed to eat animals thus concluding that ethical vegetarianism is a logical fallacy. It might also be fair to argue that t is no longer necessary to eat animals to get these nutrients anymore. It may have been ethically acceptable to kill and eat animals when the alternative was dying from a nutritional deficiency, however, modern the technology has developed means to prevent that suffering, and thus is could be unethical to keep eating meat.

Supplementing is also not restricted to vegetarians. Even an omnivorous Paleo diet might include certain supplements or modern creations to enhance and support a Paleo lifestyle. This does not imply a deficiency in the Paleo diet, but rather a response to modern diseases and toxins which hunter-gatherers didn’t suffer from. From a pure Paleo perspective, a vegetarian or vegan diet in neither ethically nor nutritionally sufficient but a vegetarian diet can be optimized by applying Paleo principles which will includes some supplements.

Is Plant-Based An Option?

Paleo principles stress eating whole foods, not processed food products whilst being mindful where and how the food was raised or produced along with its impact on the future of the planet. People will agree that modern food systems are unsustainable, and as a society and a planet it is imperative to develop a way of feeding everyone that preserves natural resources. Although it may be truly possible to eat a vegetarian Paleo diet, but it is possible to improve a vegetarian diet with Paleo principles and evolutionary science. It is also possible for Paleo dieters to learn something from the vegetarian movement that might improve their health and the health of the planet too.


Michal Ofer is a wellness and digestion expert and nutrition coach. She is focused on assisting clients to take control of their health and happiness through the sustainable food and lifestyle choices that best support them. Through strengthening the body from the inside out, her clients are able to reach new heights of health, happiness and wellness. Michal obtained her Professional Training and Certificate from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. She has a further studied through the University of Colorado (Boulder) and Stanford University and is a Certified 21 Day Sugar Detox Coach. Michal has also received a Bachelor’s Degree in Life Sciences and a Master Life Coach Certification. For further information and to connect with Michal visit her website at www.michalofer.com

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