Last winter, I sat next to a vegan on a flight to California. We talked for the whole 4-hour journey, both being passionate about food and health. I was gearing up for a Chris Kresser’s 30-day paleo reset diet, which focuses on eating vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, and animal proteins while avoiding grains, legumes, dairy, sugar and alcohol (later on adding certain foods back in if tolerated). And my flying companion was on the opposite end of the extreme, shunning all animal products and oils from his diet while allowing grains and legumes, although also avoiding dairy. A few years ago, I would have been nodding along to the reasoning behind his steadfast veganism. I have experimented with a heavily raw food diet in the past, and used to think that was the healthiest diet to follow. Now I know that there is no “perfect diet,” and that people really need to listen to their bodies to decide what’s best for them. Different times in our life can also mean shifting the way we eat; we’ll likely eat in different ways at various points throughout our lifetime. Having said that, there are some reasons I’ve switched to a more paleo mindset rather than a vegan one, as of late. There are lots of things to say about this, but here are my top 3 reasons:
- Vegans can’t get all their nutritional needs met without supplementation. Take B12, for instance. Studies indicate that up to 80% of long-term vegans, and even up to 50% of long-term vegetarians, are B12 deficient. As a nutritionist, I believe in getting your nutrients from food first whenever possible. Vitamin B12, or cobalamin (so called because it contains the trace element cobalt), is obtained by eating animals (or taking supplements), since plants do not produce it, and we can’t get it from catching some sun like we can with vitamin D. Plant foods that are sometimes said to contain B12 only have analogs of B12 called cobamides, which actually block intake of the type of B12 we need, thus increasing our need for it even more. Talk about dizzying! B12 deficiency can contribute to cognitive problems like dementia, mental health disorders like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, neurological issues, autoimmune disorders, infertility, cardiovascular disease, and more. I recently met a former raw foodist who showed me her black, decaying teeth. She thought she was eating healthy and nourishing her body while she was following a raw diet, but it was lacking some essential nutrients for her teeth (like the fat-soluble vitamin A, which is mainly ingested in the inactive form through vegetables and in an active form through animal meats) are in serious need of repair, and she’s saving up for the dental work. I’ve also listened to health summits where former vegans talked about how seriously ill they became after years of following their diets, and how adding some animal protein back into their lives—after much anguish and mental torment—helped them feel better in literal minutes. It was like a life force washed through their bodies. Chris Kresser, whose course in functional medicine I am currently enrolled in, says “you are what you absorb” rather than “you are what you eat.” This concept really resonates with me, because you can eat the best foods on the planet, but if you’re not absorbing them for whatever reason, you won’t reap the benefits.
- The health of humans declined once agriculture was adopted. Humans started experiencing tooth decay and anemia, lower bone density, higher rates of infant mortality, and they shrank over time—by several inches. During the paleolithic era, people did not suffer from the degenerative diseases we see so commonly now, like diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and heart disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, dementia, depression, etc. When humans started eating their farm-raised foods (and think about it—the farm-raised food was way better quality than most of our factory-farmed raised animal products today), their carbohydrate intake spiked and their protein decreased. Diversity took a plunge as well, since farmers were raising a smaller amount of limited crops, so nutrient deficiency became more common and widespread.
- The nutrient density of paleo foods is high. The term nutrient density refers to how rich the food is in micronutrients (like vitamins and minerals) and amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein and help us carry out many important bodily functions. A paleo approach welcomes eating “nose to tail,” incorporating organ meats and other parts of the animal that we in the US usually discard and find unappetizing. These parts of the animal have many health benefits and help us balance out eating muscle meats, which we tend to focus on (think chicken breast, beef tenderloin or a pork chop). If we don’t regularly get the some 40 micronutrients we need, we’ll be deficient and it will add up, affecting our health in ways we may not even be aware of. Being nutrient deficient leads to premature aging, a weakened immune system and cell damage, and can set you up for chronic disease.