Our early ancestors were stuck eating whatever they could hunt or gather — a limited menu to be sure. Today, we can walk into a supermarket and choose from a multitude of options for diets based on choice, not chance. But what to choose with our health in mind?
Two popular extremes today are vegan and paleo diets. While there's no question that a vegan diet is better for the environment, is one of them likely to be better for your health?
Vegan or paleo: What you need to know for good health
You may be surprised to learn that both diets can offer good health benefits, provided you curate them carefully and consider possible pitfalls. That's because a healthy diet can take many forms. There is no single way to eat for good health, and people respond to diets differently. Some people may feel great on a vegan diet, while others prefer a paleo diet.
But you do need to consider what's excluded on each diet if you follow it strictly:
- Traditionally, the paleo diet allows you to eat lean meats and encourages healthy fats and low-glycemic plant foods, but excludes all whole or refined grains, legumes, certain healthful fruits and vegetables, and dairy. Excluding entire food groups is not recommended by nutrition experts — and here you could miss out on healthy fiber, B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and a great source of plant protein.
- A traditional vegan diet includes grains and legumes and encourages healthy fats and a wide range of plant foods, but excludes meat, dairy, and other animal products. Getting sufficient vitamin D and calcium may not be easy, but the major problem is vitamin B12 deficiency unless you use supplements.
In what ways are both of these diets healthy?
Each of these eating plans includes lots of vegetables and reduces consumption of highly processed foods. They can also mix and match other high-quality fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil) and carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables, though the selection is more limited on a paleo diet). High-quality protein can be delivered through plants (legumes and soy for vegan diets) or animals (fish, lean sustainably raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy for paleo diets). Essentially, it takes a varied diet to get all of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals required for optimal health, but many combinations of foods can get you to that goal.
In fact, a number of recent studies have found that the quality of the food you eat — particularly emphasizing whole foods over processed foods — is more important than whether it's low-fat, low-carb, or somewhere in between. So keep this thought in mind: while there are a number of healthy ways to follow both diets, there are plenty of unhealthy combinations as well. After all, a diet consisting of nothing but Skittles and Atomic Fireballs is technically vegan, while eating multiple daily servings of red meat can be paleo. Neither is recommended.
Five principles for eating well
To ensure that any dietary pattern you follow delivers solid health benefits, it should hit the following five marks:
- Lots of plants. Plant foods — vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds — offer a wealth of vitamins and minerals. They also have fiber and healthful compounds called phytochemicals: natural substances in plants that offer humans a range of health benefits, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even anticancer activity. Fully half of your plate at each meal should consist of produce.
- Adequate protein. Abundant research shows it's important to eat enough protein. Some ways to get that protein are healthier than others. People who limit how much meat they eat tend to have lower risks for chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes. Plant protein sources (beans, lentils, soy foods, nuts, seeds) and seafood offer the most health benefits. Getting enough protein, along with physical activity, is important for staying strong, healthy, and independent.
- Minimally processed foods. A 2019 National Institutes of Health study definitively showed that eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods causes weight gain and unhealthy shifts in blood sugar and cholesterol. Instead, incorporate whole foods (unprocessed foods such as broccoli, apples, and almonds) and minimally processed foods (such as plain yogurt, canned tuna, and natural peanut butter). Processing tends to strip away nutrients while adding extra fats, sugars, and sodium, not to mention other additives and preservatives.
- Limited saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10% of daily calories. The same goes for added sugars. If you have a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that means that no more than 200 calories a day should come from added sugars. As for sodium, keep it below 2,300 milligrams per day. The average American consumes more than 3,400 milligrams per day.
- Balance. To meet nutrient needs, it's important to choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within all food groups. Choosing nutrient-dense foods helps you get the nutrients you need without taking in too many calories.
Sticking to these five principles can help ensure that your diet is good for your body, no matter what dietary pattern you choose. If you strictly follow a vegan or paleo diet, talk to your health provider about whether you might need to compensate for any missing nutrients due to foods your diet excludes.