Right now, the Paleolithic diet and vegan diets are two of the most popular guidelines for eating. The paleo diet focuses on ancestral staples, including meat and other animal products, while veganism is defined by strictly avoiding the use and consumption of animal products.
Proponents of both diets claim their lifestyle can prevent or even cure health problems from obesity to cancer. Can they both be correct?
Whether you’re deciding for yourself between a paleo and vegan diet or looking to win a debate, this article will satisfy your hunger for knowledge and insight.
What is the Paleolithic Diet?
The Paleolithic diet, or paleo diet for short, is a lifestyle and way of eating like our ancestors. The idea of the paleo diet dates back to at least 1975, when a gastroenterologist named Walter Voegtlin wrote the book The Stone Age Diet. The idea was later popularized by Loren Cordain in his 2002 book The Paleo Diet. Dentist Weston A. Price also advocated an ancestrally inspired diet as early as 1939.
Paleo diet adherents eat healthy whole foods like meat and other animal products, seafood, healthy fats, nuts, seeds, fruits, greens, and other vegetables. People following the paleo diet also avoid processed foods, sugar and other refined carbs, most dairy, grains, legumes, preservatives, artificial flavors, dyes, and other chemical additives.
As a lifestyle, the paleo diet also involves physical activity, time outdoors, and stress reduction techniques, but this article will only contrast the dietary aspects of paleo against veganism.
Arguments In Favor of Paleo
Evolutionary Adaptation and Hunter-Gatherer Diets
Our ancestors hunted and gathered, foraged and scavenged, and used minimal or no agriculture. In contrast, most people today eat processed food or meals prepared by others and shop at grocery stores, where they purchase the products of intensive agriculture.
During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, since the introduction of the industrialized food system, there has been an explosion in insulin resistance, inflammation, heart disease, and cancer. Some researchers speculate that these epidemics could be caused in part by an evolutionary mismatch between modern diets and the human body.[1, 2, 3, 4, 5] The paleo diet philosophy is about going back to our ancestral dietary roots for disease prevention and better health.
Processed Foods and Refined Carbs
A lot of the health benefits of paleo come from avoiding foods that cause disease, like processed foods and refined carbohydrates, as well as eating healthy, whole, natural foods.
If you eat paleo, you avoid the “Western” diet or “standard American diet,” which is high in fatty processed foods, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. The standard American diet causes inflammation, poor immune function, obesity, and chronic illness.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Research shows that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in your body can affect your health and disease risk. Consuming more omega-3s reduces your risk of mortality.
Omega-3 fatty acids primarily come from seafood and grass-fed meats. Omega-6 fatty acids come from grains, vegetable oils, and other refined, processed fats.
By eating a well-rounded paleo diet, you can improve your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio for less inflammation and better health.
Complete Nutrition Without Supplementation
Compared to most other diets, including vegan diets, paleo emphasizes a wide range of whole foods, including organ meats and other nutrient-dense foods. Therefore, it’s easier to get all the nutrients you need without supplementation.
What is the Vegan Diet?
Vegan diets entail the strict avoidance of all animal products, from meat to milk to honey. If you avoid those foods, you are technically eating a vegan diet.
Keep in mind that not all vegan diets are healthy. A vegan diet high in canola oil and high-fructose corn syrup, for example, or one consisting exclusively of cake, would be pro-inflammatory but still technically vegan.
This article will examine the effects of a range of vegan diets, but will mainly focus on a low-fat vegan diet that includes grains and other refined carbohydrates. This type of vegan diet is also called a low-fat plant-based diet.
Reasons People Choose Vegan
Many vegan diet adherents are vegan for ethical and sustainability reasons, not for health reasons. Since these are separates issues from individual health, this article will not consider ethics or sustainability.
Some people choose to become vegan because of a specific health issue that concerns them. Food sensitivities, food allergies, and concerns about factory farming, antibiotics, and hormonal additives to meats are some of the reasons that people decide to go vegan.
Health Benefits from Eating Vegan
Blue Zones and Studies
The term “blue zone” refers to a location where people live an exceptionally long time with few chronic diseases. There are five blue zones in the world: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and the Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.
While blue zone inhabitants are not strict vegans, on average they only eat meat about five times each month. This information doesn’t prove that vegan diets or restricting meat or animal products causes long life and reduces disease risk, but it does show that daily meat and animal product consumption are not necessary for a long and healthy life.
Additionally, two studies on meat intake, analyzing the diets of over 600,000 people, have found a modest association between meat intake (especially processed or red meats) and cardiovascular as well as all-cause mortality.[11, 12] That doesn’t necessarily mean consuming meat caused the increased risk of dying from heart disease and other causes, but it does mean that these issues deserve a closer look.
The health benefits of veganism are real. Some studies show vegans live about 3.5 years longer than the average population. Vegans also have a 24 percent lower risk of heart disease, 25 percent lower risk of diabetes, 43 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer, and 57 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Choose What To Avoid: Processed Foods and Refined Carbs, or Meats and Fat
While paleo is all about avoiding processed foods and refined carbohydrates, veganism means avoiding meats and other animal products. And most vegans, unless they go out of their way to consume healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, also eat less fat. (In fact, many vegan advocates tout eating fewer calories from fat as a health benefit of the vegan diet.)
Before comparing the evidence for which diet is healthier, it’s essential to realize that most paleo diets contain an abundance of meat, fat, and other animal products, while vegan diets may be high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates.
To better understand the pros and cons of each diet, it helps to ask which is more important: avoiding refined carbs and other processed foods, or avoiding meats, animal products, and fat consumption?
Despite decades of dietary dogma, clear evidence is now emerging that eating fat doesn’t make you fat, nor does dietary fat raise your risk of heart disease. Diets high in animal protein and fat can help you lose weight, improve your insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation in your body, and provide other health benefits.[15, 16, 17]
Therefore, it’s not essential to avoid animal products and dietary fat if you want to be healthy or lose weight.
In contrast, eating processed carbohydrates (including most grains) and refined sugars is extremely unhealthy. These foods create insulin resistance, oxidative stress, and inflammation in your body.[18, 19, 20] They also contribute to visceral adipose tissue, sometimes called visceral fat. Visceral fat around your abdominal organs is linked to heightened risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease.
When it comes to deciding between avoiding processed foods like refined carbs or avoiding animal products, meat, and dietary fat, the evidence suggests that avoiding sugar and other unnatural carb sources is vital for your health.
However, not all vegans include carbs and processed foods in their diet. Vegans who focus on eating whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and getting enough healthy fats are much more likely to be healthy than those who eat a low-fat diet that’s high in refined carbohydrates.
Paleo vs. Vegan Compared: The Evidence
This section will present data for and against paleo and vegan eating patterns in terms of the health concerns that affect the greatest number of people: weight loss, inflammation and heart health, and cancer.
Although most studies do not draw direct comparisons between the two diets, there is enough evidence to paint a clear picture of the health effects of each diet.
Maintaining a healthy body weight can improve health and prevent disease. Read on to learn the differences between the paleo diet and vegan diets when it comes to losing weight.
A four-week study of 39 healthy women found that compared to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) recommendations, a paleo diet resulted in about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) more weight loss. Remarkably, the paleo group was allowed to eat as much as they wanted–and they still lost more weight.
In the Australian study, the paleo women ate more fat and fewer carbohydrates than the AGHE guideline group. If you eat a diet that is rich in fat and relatively low in carbohydrates, like paleo, it’s easier to lose weight without counting calories because you get full more easily.
A separate study of 49 women comparing the effects of the paleo diet with a Nordic diet (a diet high in carbohydrates and low in animal products and red meat) found that the paleo diet resulted in more weight loss after six months, but the two diets had comparable results at the 24-month mark. However, the 24-month result may have been due to poor dietary compliance. It’s challenging for researchers to ensure that people stay on a diet that long.
In a three-week study of twenty subjects, the paleo diet, on average, reduced their body weight by about five pounds, waist circumference by about a quarter inch, and they ate 36% fewer calories.
In comparison, there are relatively few studies of the effects of vegan diets, or “low-fat plant-based diets,” on weight loss. The lack of studies may be because a lot of people have a hard time following a low-calorie vegan diet. In one randomized six-month study of vegan diets in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), over a third of people dropped out by the three-month mark, and over two-thirds had dropped out by the time the study ended.
Diets low in protein and high in carbohydrates can cause weight gain because they increase your appetite, causing you to overeat. However, multiple studies of low-fat plant-based diets (similar to vegan diets) do show positive results for weight loss and body composition.[27, 28, 29, 30]
Unfortunately, there are no head-to-head comparisons of paleo and vegan diets for weight loss in the published literature at this time. The good news is that you can lose weight using a paleo diet or a vegan diet–but since it’s easier to lose weight without counting calories on a high-protein, high-fat, low-carb diet, paleo is probably a better choice for most people who want to slim down.
Inflammation and Heart Health
Heart disease is the number one killer of adults in Western countries. It kills more men and women in developed countries than any other cause, and up to half of Americans have some form of heart disease. Over six million Americans currently live with heart failure, and that number is expected to rise in the coming decades.
Contrary to popular belief, saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are not the primary causes of heart disease. Inflammation is the root cause of heart problems and plenty of other health problems, not cholesterol.
Compared to low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets, diets like paleo that are high in fatty meats and other animal products increase HDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein. Higher levels of HDL and apolipoprotein A1 help protect your heart.
A study of 117,366 men and women between 40 and 74 years of age found that high carbohydrate intake from refined grains increased their risk of coronary heart disease, the most severe form of heart disease.
Consuming a diet high in carbohydrates and omega-6 fatty acids (like some vegan diets) increases inflammation, extends post-surgical recovery time, and can even worsen chronic pain. On the other hand, paleo diets contain more omega-3 fatty acids and no grains.
While eating a vegetarian or vegan diet has been associated with protection from atherosclerosis, ischemic heart disease, and stroke according to some research, up to 80% of vegans have a much higher risk of these diseases because they do not supplement vitamin B-12 . If you eat vegan but don’t go out of your way to get more B-12, chances are you will make your heart health much worse.
Multiple studies show that eating an evolutionarily-inspired diet like the paleo diet can lower levels of inflammation in your body and reduce your risk of mortality from all causes, including cardiovascular disease.[39, 40, 41, 42]
But if you lower your saturated fat intake and replace it with calories from grains and sugars, which is what happens on poorly planned vegan diets, your risk of cardiovascular disease increases. If you choose a vegan diet, be sure you don’t replace saturated fats with processed foods rich in carbs.
If you want to reduce your risk of heart disease, focus on limiting or eliminating refined carbs and losing excess weight. The paleo diet is an excellent choice in both regards, but a thoughtful vegan diet can also work–provided you eat whole foods and get enough protein, dietary fat, and essential nutrients.
You can prevent heart disease with a vegan diet, but not all vegan diets are heart-healthy. If you eat vegan, be sure to supplement vitamin B-12 and limit refined carbs and other processed foods.
In developed countries, cancer is the number two killer, second only to heart disease. Nearly two million cases of cancer are diagnosed each year in the united states, and over half a million people die from the disease each year.
According to evidence from a longitudinal study of over 21,000 men and women over 45 years of age, eating according to Paleolithic diet patterns reduces all-cause and cause-specific mortality, including cancer. People following the paleo diet were about 23% less likely to die of all causes, and 28% less likely to die of cancer compared to the general population.
A separate sixteen-year longitudinal study of over 35,000 cancer-free women aged 55 to 69 years found that eating paleo reduced their all-cause mortality by 48% and decreased their risk of dying from cancer by 49%.
As you can see, the evidence that eating a Paleolithic or “evolutionarily concordant” diet reduces cancer and other common causes of mortality is substantial.
Vegan and vegetarian diets can also reduce the risk of cancer, but their effect on the disease is more modest than that of the paleo diet. A review of 96 separate studies found that overall, eating a strict vegan diet can reduce your risk of cancer by 15%, and your risk of dying from cancer by 8% compared to the average diet.
Other studies have found that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet reduces your risk of cancer compared to the general population, but not compared to omnivores who eat a health-conscious diet, and that vegan diets may reduce your risk of contracting cancer, but not your risk of dying from cancer.[49, 50]
When it comes to cancer, the current research shows that eating a paleo diet reduces your chances of dying from cancer more than eating a vegan diet. However, as with other areas like weight loss and heart disease, more research comparing head-to-head results from paleo diets and vegan diets would be helpful.
Diabetes and Insulin Resistance
Type 2 diabetes, which is caused by insulin resistance, is on the rise in developed countries. But insulin resistance can also increase inflammation in your body, impair your immune response, and lead to increased risk of heart problems, even if you don’t end up with diabetes.
In a three-month crossover study of a paleolithic or stone-age diet with a traditional medically recommended diabetes diet, thirteen patients ate a Paleolithic diet based on lean meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, root vegetables, eggs, and nuts. In contrast, the diabetic diet had more grains and dairy products, and fewer fruits and vegetables. The study found that after the paleo diet, the subjects’ insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular risk factors had improved compared to the medically recommended diabetes diet.
A separate review of published literature that included 159 study participants found that compared to standard dietary guidelines, people who followed paleo diet recommendations had greater reduction in waist circumference, blood pressure, fasting blood glucose, and other markers of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
Although vegan diets usually increase carbohydrate intake compared to the diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association, they also include more fiber and micronutrients. In a study comparing the ADA diet with a low-fat vegan diet, the low-fat vegan group experienced greater rates of glycated hemoglobin reduction, weight loss, and decreases in diabetes medication requirements.
Plant-based diets probably work for diabetic patients because they promote healthy body weight, increase fiber and phytonutrient intake, enhance microbiome health, and reduce unhealthy food byproducts like advanced glycation end-products (AGEs).
When it comes to reducing insulin resistance and preventing diabetes, the paleo diet and vegan diets are both supported by solid evidence.
To lose weight and reduce the odds of dying from heart disease or cancer, a paleo diet may be simpler than going vegan for the average person.
If you eat a paleo diet it’s easy to stay full without counting calories. Reducing processed carbs is anti-inflammatory, and it’s easy to eat plenty of healthy fats if you stick to an ancestral menu. You are better off eating a diet low in carbs and relatively high in fats (including saturated fats and fats from meat and other animal products) than a vegan diet loaded with refined carbs and sugar.
Of course, not all vegan diets are high in carbohydrates. Vegan diets can also work for weight loss and disease prevention, but they require users to focus on eating sufficient protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals while avoiding sugar and other refined carbs. And even with a relatively high carbohydrate intake, vegan diets work well to reduce the risk of diabetes, provided the carbohydrates are not from refined sugars.
Simply avoiding meat and eating a low-fat vegan diet isn’t enough–you need to replace unhealthy choices with healthier ones.
If you choose a vegan lifestyle, you’ll need to take B-12 supplements and go out of your way to get enough omega-3 fatty acids. You may also need to supplement vitamin D, calcium, iron, and zinc. In contrast, most paleo diets include all the nutrients you need–no supplementation required.
In the end, different diets work for different people. That’s why you should experiment to see which choice is best for you.
The ideal diet for you is the one that makes you feel amazing, and that you can stay with long-term. And remember that there are plenty of other options: if paleo or vegan don’t seem suitable for your body, you can always try something else.