Vegan vs. Paleo

Vegan and paleo diets are at opposite extremes, each with separate benefits and challenges.

Syracuse University students are not hard pressed when it comes to finding something to eat. With five dining halls and three food courts on campus, and Marshall Street eateries, grabbing a bite to eat can be as simple as whether or not one is in the mood for Chipotle’s Tex-Mex or Varsity’s pizza.

Yet, for those who are more conscious about what they eat, choosing the right diet to follow can be a difficult choice to make. Two diets have been gaining attention as options for making healthier food choices: The paleolithic diet and the vegan diet.

The paleo diet, often called the caveman’s diet, was the most googled diet in 2013. Curiosity about the diet surged during the summer when NBA player LeBron James followed the paleo diet for 67 days and experienced noticeable weight loss. Paleo followers limit, and sometimes completely cut out, dairy, nuts and grains, focusing much of their diet on lean meats and vegetables.

The vegan diet, too, had its own celebrity endorsers when power duo Beyonce and Jay-Z decided to follow the diet for 22 days before the rapper’s 44th birthday in December 2013. At the opposite extreme, vegans don’t eat any animal products like meat or dairy. Instead, their meals consist of vegetables, fruits and grains. Although celebrity glamour has increased curiosity about both diets, there is still some confusion about which diet is best in achieving goals like weight loss or cardiovascular health.

Ryan Hubbard, an SU grad student in philosophy, has been following the paleo diet for about two years. Before starting the diet, he had followed a traditional low fat diet, practiced vegetarianism for five years and tried being a vegan for a year. He said he started the paleo diet as an overall way to improve his health. “I found the basic rationale for it to be convincing, which is that we should eat the way that evolution designed us to eat,” he said.

Since eating paleo, Hubbard, 31, said he has noticed significant changes in his life. “I lost 30 pounds pretty easily, and I was able to maintain that. I used to have some gastrointestinal problems, and that went away. I began sleeping better.”

Hubbard also incorporates the paleo lifestyle into his workout routine, saying that his workouts mimic the hunter-gather lifestyle. “It involves a lot of natural movement, staying away from weight machines and doing short intensive movements,” he said.

Registered dietician Jessica Garay Redmond said that paleo diet followers, who are often cross fitters, need the amount of protein that is recommended in the diet for explosive exercises and resistance training. A protein-heavy diet may not be the best choice for endurance activities like swimming and running, she said.

“For someone who is doing a lot of endurance exercise, they need a tremendous amount of carbohydrates because that’s the primary form of nutrients their body is using when they exercise,” she said.

Redmond likes how the paleo diet emphasizes good sources of carbs, such as from potatoes or fruit, and restricts processed foods like white bread and white rice. “It does a nice job of getting good sources of carbs,” she said.

Yet, the emphasis on protein can become quite expensive for the typical SU student. Hubbard said he estimates that he spends about $350 a month on food, buying mostly grass fed ground beef and non-organic vegetables.

Laura Ryan, general manager at Strong Hearts Café on Marshall Street, doesn't have an issue with the cost of following her vegan lifestyle with her boyfriend. “For two people, we probably spend about $150 to $200 on groceries a month. We eat most of our food at home,” she said.

Ryan, 25, has been a vegan for six and a half years. Studying nutrition and having a vegan older brother were some of her reasons for adopting the vegan lifestyle. “It’s more ethical than diet,” she said. “I love animals, and I just had a really hard compartmentalizing my food from the live animal I see. That’s basically what the turning point was.”

Turning to vegan foods that are meant to taste like their meat counterparts isn't the best decision to make, according to Redmond, a dietician. “When you look at things like veggie burgers, they contain a strange number of things not found in nature,” she said.

Ryan agrees with Redmond’s advice, and doesn't eat any processed vegan food because of the additives. She said she eats a variety of foods and doesn't take any supplements like iron or calcium, which are usually found in meat and are essential to bone health and growth, according to the National Institute of Health.

“I think that’s the key: eating just the variety of stuff and not just the same thing all the time. That’s how you’ll get different vitamins and minerals in your diet so you don’t have to take supplements. Most of the vegans that I know don’t really take supplements either,” Ryan said.

Ryan sometimes has to supplement meal items when she is not dining at home. “I always have something in my purse that I can eat if I have to. I’m mentally prepared that I might have to eat until later,” she said about her social life as a vegan. “Most of the places I go cater towards me. I’m usually not the only vegan.”

The absence of animal products in a vegan diet can reduce the amount of recommended iron from not having high-quality sources of protein, and the lack of fiber in a paleo diet can result in constipation, Redmond said. “There are slightly different issues and symptoms, but both diets pose those risks if you’re not eating a balanced diet overall,” she said.

Redmond does have some guidelines for those considering either diet.

She recommends that those considering the paleo diet should choose lean meats, but still find rooms for carbohydrates. “It needs to be some kind of starchy vegetable or some kind of healthy grain like quinoa to make a balanced meal,” she said.

Redmond advises researching all the different types of plant proteins that are available for those interested in the vegan diet and incorporating some other plant proteins into their diet.

“For people interested in either type of diet, it’s great to use some kind of diet tracking app or website just to see whether you’re hitting all the food groups in a day, whether you’re getting enough of those nutrients like iron or calcium, and just see overall how balanced your diet is, even if you’re restricting one particular food group or one particular type of food,” she said.

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