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Why it’s okay to eat a paleo-vegan diet—but *not* one that’s vegan-paleo


Thumbnail for Why it’s okay to eat a paleo-vegan diet—but *not* one that’s vegan-paleo
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As I’m chatting with Dana James, MS, CDN, CNS, she says something that makes me snap to attention. “You can be Paleo-vegan, but you can’t be vegan-Paleo,” the Food Coach founder tells me.

“Right!” I respond. Then, “But, wait. What?”

She repeats the phrase a number of times, an act which ultimately brings me no closer to understanding the distinction she’s trying to make. After some additional dialogue, I come to understand that a Paleo-vegan—AKA pegan—diet is one that follows grain-free, low-sugar Paleo principles, while aiming towards lowered consumption of animal protein. (So it’s kind of a misnomer, as veganism eschews all animal-derived foods.) A vegan-Paleo diet, meanwhile, follows strict vegan guidelines and then absolutely eliminates grains and legumes as well.

According to James, the latter is problematic for a couple of reasons. “When you’re vegan, your primary source of amino acids comes from grains and legumes,” she explains. Purely Paleo eaters, on the other hand, get the bulk of their amino acids from meat, fish, and eggs. “So if [you’re vegan] and you remove them, you limit your intake of amino acids dramatically.” James says this can affect everything from your gut to your mood, since amino acids are the building blocks of many chemicals our bodies need to function, like digestive enzymes and neurotransmitters. (And theoretically, this logic would apply to the ultra-low-carb ketogenic diet as well.)

Nutritionist Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, agrees that it would be unsafe to eliminate legumes and grains from a vegan diet, though she provides additional reasons why. “To cut whole grains—from which we get a lot of B vitamins, fiber, and protein—would be a mistake,” she says. “It could set one up for multiple micronutrient deficiencies, protein deficiencies, and could even mask an eating disorder.”

“The average person should have at least 20 grams of protein per meal… and even more so if you’re active. It can be extremely difficult to meet that requirement if you’re cutting out both meat and legumes.”—Adrienne Dowd, RDN

Parsley Health‘s Adrienne Dowd, RDN, meanwhile, expands on the protein part of this equation. “The average person should have at least 20 grams of protein per meal, or a minimum of 60 grams per day, and even more so if you’re active,” she says. “It can be extremely difficult to meet that requirement if you’re cutting out both meat and legumes.”

Difficult, but not impossible? That’s what Mark Hyman, MD believes. “It’s definitely challenging to be 100 percent vegan and strictly Paleo, but I know folks who have done it,” says the author of Food: What the Heck Should I Eat. He notes, however, that these are generally vegans who are cutting out grains and legumes for medical reasons—for instance, if they suffer from autoimmune conditions or leaky gut syndrome. In his opinion, the best option for healthy vegans who want to adopt some Paleo principles is to adopt a low-carb diet—not totally grain-free—focusing on nutrient-dense ancient grains like quinoa and amanranth.

Well, that settles it, more or less. But if you get confused as to which combos work and which don’t, Dr. Hyman says not to worry. “Forget labels,” he insists. “It’s all so personal that you have to find what works for you.” So scrambled I accidentally just wrote “pegan-valeo,” I, for one, am more than happy to oblige.

Want to try adding some vegan-Paleo dishes into your diet? This cacio e pepe recipe is dairy and gluten-free. Plus, here’s why vegans may want to mix beer into their smoothies for a fast protein fix.

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