Can I do the paleo diet as a vegetarian?

Give the caveman diet a plant-based twist

The basics of the paleo diet are simple; reducing the amount of processed foods and increasing the amounts of wholesome fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

However, when you dig a little deeper, it doesn’t appear to be a particularly veggie-friendly choice.

Followers of the diet take a step back in time, namely 2.6 million years ago to the Paleolithic era, to eat only the food of their cavemen ancestors.

Mealtimes usually serve up at least one portion of meat or fish and leave out vegetarian staples like grains, pulses and legumes.

So that rules out the diet altogether for veggies, right? Well, not exactly. The paleo diet is possible if you’re a vegetarian – it just involves some clever and creative meal plans and bending the rules on occasion.

What is the paleo diet?

Going paleo means following a very simple principle: If a caveman or cavewoman could have sourced the food, then you can eat it. If they couldn’t, then it should stay clear of your plate.

That’s why paleo is often referred to as the “caveman diet” or the “hunter-gatherer diet”.

As a result, followers adopt an all-natural pantry full of fresh ingredients, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and grass-fed meat.

Paleo advocates believe our bodies haven’t evolved to cope with a diet full of the processed foods, grains and dairy that western farming and manufacturing has bombarded us with.

With this in mind the diet prohibits:

  • All grains – like wheat, rice, corn and oats
  • Dairy products – like milk, yoghurt and cheese

Paleo dieters are also not allowed:

  • Legumes – like beans, lentils and chickpeas
  • Root vegetables – like potatoes and onions
  • Heavily processed foods – including some vegetable oils and refined sugar

So what can you eat on the paleo diet if you’re vegetarian?

Other than meat and fish, the list of paleo-friendly foods is incredibly inclusive of a vegetarian diet:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Cage-free eggs
  • Unrefined added fats – like olive oil and coconut oil

Protein is the most difficult food group for vegetarians to weave into their meals on the paleo diet. Processed meat substitutes, including soy and tofu, are off limits, as are natural go-to protein sources like beans and pulses for die-hard paleos.

This is where veggies could give themselves some wiggle room though and allow for some creative interpretation of what cavemen and cavewomen did and didn’t have access to.

Strictly speaking, legumes are left out of the paleo diet for their supposed high levels of anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are plant compounds that reduce the body's ability to absorb essential nutrients.

However some, like beans and lentils, are a good source of protein, so perhaps something to consider The benefits of this style of eating are well established, and thus you can reap these benefits even by including some protein sources to ensure you are getting enough such as legumes/beans or dairy products.

Otherwise, eggs will be the go-to protein source for many of your paleo meals. Remember though, they should be produced from a cage-free environment.

Calcium is another hard-to-get mineral for anyone following this diet, not just vegetarians.

Sesame seeds are a great option though – a serving of around 100 grams will provide your recommended daily intake of calcium. Ancient seeds such as buckwheat and amaranth are also a great way of adding grain-like fibre to your diet.

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What are the potential benefits of a paleo diet?

If you think you can meet the fat, protein and carbohydrate requirements on the paleo diet as a vegetarian then there could be many potential health benefits if you stick with it.

Ditching junk foods and upping your intake of fruits and vegetables beyond the recommended five a day will mean you get lots of important vitamins and minerals.

Some paleo dieters see a boost in their digestive system and also feel fuller for longer, thanks mainly to their increased intake of fats.

And what are the potential drawbacks?

Excluding a big food group like dairy could be troublesome as it makes consuming important minerals like calcium more difficult – which your body needs for healthy bones and muscles.

The diet naturally excludes carbohydrates too, which are important for energy.

So, thinking of giving the paleo diet a go? Before you do, it’s best to have a chat with a nutritionist or your GP.

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