Is There A Place for Vegetarianism on the Paleo Diet?

What do Angela Stokes Monarch’s Raw Reform, Joe Cross’s Fat Sick & Nearly Dead, Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin’s Skinny Bitch, T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, and this report that vegetarian diets are scientifically proven to cause weight loss have in common?

A number of things, actually:

  • They each share the story of individuals who have achieved significant weight loss and health-improvement through a diet based solely on plant foods (in the form of raw food, juicing, veganism, and/or vegetarianism)
  • They have each inspired great numbers of people to change their dietary habits in ways that will have immediately improved their health
  • They each make a strong case for the connection between reduced obesity and health improvement
  • They each make a major point of (or at least a tangential point of) the fact that a change in dietary habits can have a profoundly beneficial effect on the lives of animals
  • They’re each presented with an inarguable passion and enthusiasm for the point they’re making – namely, that a plant-based diet is the optimal one for health and weight loss.

A symbol commonly used to denote "vegetarian". Courtesy of Wikipedia.


Given all this, it begs the question: should there be a place for vegetarianism on the paleo diet?

It’s a question that’s likely to provoke heated debate and passionate disagreement.  The vegetarian/vegan vs. primal/paleo debate is one that rages across the internet, and in kitchens and cafés the world over.

Our recent article critiquing Dr Caldwell Esselstyn’s assertion that a plant-based diet can render a person “heart-attack proof” stimulated some strongly argued opinions.

I’ve experienced the tension at first hand, too.  When I first began writing on Facebook about my explorations in real unprocessed foods (including animal products), I was quickly “unfriended” by a dedicated vegan with whom I’d had a previously cordial online relationship.

So why tackle this question now and risk fomenting more internet unrest?  Simply because I think we need to move beyond the vegan/vegetarian vs. primal/paleo arguments and look at the bigger picture of food and health improvement.  So I’m going to lay my cards on the table.  I believe there can be a place for vegetarianism, veganism, and raw-food veganism on the paleo diet.  But it’s not the place we might immediately think.

More cards-on-the-table: in my opinion (based on a review of the anthropological and scientific evidence, and my own experience) an omnivorous diet is the optimal one for a human being.

I’m basing that assertion on the fact that nature has clearly designed us to eat both plants and animals.  Through natural selection, we evolved the teeth of omnivores, good for grinding seeds, stripping leaves, and tearing meat. We have long intestines (somewhere between the length of those of exclusive carnivores or herbivores), and a digestive system that will break down both acidic and alkaline based foods (protein, carbohydrates, and fats).  Our closest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees, also enjoy an omnivorous diet. They eat plants and fruits, and they also hunt and eat monkeys.

We’re clearly not meant – in nature’s eyes – to be herbivorous. Herbivores need longer intestines (or several stomachs) in order to break down, ferment and assimilate the nutrients in hard-to-digest plant fibres.

Human teeth, designed for eating plants and animals. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

That said, I think that brief, managed periods of vegetarianism and veganism can be used to powerfully complement an omnivorous paleo diet.  Here’s how:

Where A Vegetarian Approach Can Complement The Paleo Diet

As A Way To Rebalance

Annemarie Colbin, author of the excellent Book of Whole Meals, is a proponent of a mainly plant-based diet and was a long-time vegan.  Her books centre around the benefits of eating as a vegetarian, but as she notes in The Natural Gourmet (p.5):

I found that…not only do sick meat eaters get healthier when they turn vegetarian, but weak vegetarians often become stronger when they reincorporate fish or fowl into their diets.

She goes on to illuminate her position in Food And Healing (p.163):

In amounts appropriate to a given organism (meat) energises and helps build strength.  An excess of meat, on the other hand, quickly causes problems of accumulation of matter: clogged vessels and organs, putrefaction, infection.

Before any strict paleo adherents hoot with derision, I must point out that she does go on to discuss the difference in eating factory-farmed and pastured meats, and also notes that these problems of “accumulation” are caused mainly by an excess of protein (not fat).  Her thesis is that – if dietary balance has shifted too far in the direction of meat-based proteins – one way of rebalancing is by cutting out meat for a time until balance is restored.

It’s a notion that’s backed up by none other than Nora Gedgaudas, author of Primal Body, Primal Mind.  In this interview with Underground Wellness’s Sean Croxton, she points out that raw vegan diets can play an important short-term role in health maintenance, due to their detoxifying nature (provided they aren’t based around grains or unfermented soy).  Needless to say, she doesn’t recommend such a diet as being viable long-term.

Incidentally, here’s Annemarie Colbin’s take on selecting whole foods.  Note how many of these principles are just as applicable to selecting good-quality animal foods:

As A Way To Axe Out The Crap

Here are a few more things that most of the plant-based approaches mentioned at the top of this article almost certainly have in common:

  • They result in an elimination of more (or all) processed and packaged foods
  • They result in the elimination or reduction in refined grain products
  • They result in the elimination of industrially processed seed oils
  • They result in a dramatic increase in the intake of antioxidants and phytonutrients
  • They’re accompanied by an increased activity level
  • They require more home-preparation of fresh foods

Two things to note immediately: firstly, it’s not automatically the case that vegetarian or even vegan diets conform to the above.  I know plenty of vegetarians and even vegans whose diets include high amounts of processed foods (and who are continuing to struggle with their weight).  Secondly, the list above could read as a checklist of characteristics of the paleo lifestyle.

The problem with many of the “eat/juice veggies and fruits and drop the pounds” approaches isn’t in the process itself or the results it achieves (those can often be very beneficial) but in the interpretation of those results.

You Are What You Eat! Painting by Archimboldo, courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’d wager that most of the people mentioned above who were overweight and unhealthy and consequently lost weight and got healthier through vegetarianism, veganism, and juicing didn’t get sick in the first place as a result of eating whole, real foods, including pastured meats and animal products.

They got sick because they ate crap, and much of that crap was almost certainly “plant-based” (refined white sugar, for example).  For a discussion of the main offenders in the modern diet, see Underground Nutritionist Barry Cripps’ excellent post on the “neolithic agents of disease”.  The point is, almost any shift from a diet full of processed non-foods – whether that be to solely vegetarian fare or pastured meats and animal produce – is going to have a beneficial effect.

Cutting out those non-foods – by adopting a vegetarian, vegan, or raw food lifestyle – undoubtedly had a positive impact.  There could be a role, therefore, for these diets in helping unhealthy individuals to “reboot” their eating habits.

I’d argue, however, that nature will always eventually require of us that we head back to balance by adopting an omnivorous diet, divested of all the processed junk, if true health is to achieved in the longer term.

As A Place Where Our Common Goal Can Be The Humane Treatment Of Animals

7 Vegan Messages. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of

It’s possible that vegans and vegetarians have done more to foster an understanding of the plight of inhumanely treated animals than any other single group in society.  Here’s a place where their philosophies can – in part – meet those of paleo dieters who are similarly keen to see an end to the nefarious practice of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

Indeed, it’s noteworthy that a number of animal lovers find themselves drawn to both the paleo and vegan diets, since both can (when properly implemented) enable the enactment of a specific set of ethics.  In fact, for many of us – myself included – it was an interest in veganism for ethical reasons that led to learning more about the paleo diet.

I discuss this in greater length in previous post: Eating Animals Ethically on the Paleo Diet.

In Cases Where High Quality Animal Products Are Consumed & Where Plant Foods Are Properly Prepared

I’ve already noted that an omnivorous diet is the optimal one for human beings.  But does that mean we have to eat meat?  Possibly not, provided that a good complement of animal products, from healthy and properly fed animals, are eaten.  The Weston A Price Foundation – who are clearly proponents of an omniviorous diet based around traditional foods and food preparation practices – state:

Vegetarianism that includes eggs and raw (unpasteurized) dairy products, organic vegetables and fruits, properly prepared whole grains, legumes, and nuts, and excludes unfermented soy products and processed foods, can be a healthy option for some people.

A vegetarian diet will undoubtedly be enhanced by the consumption of pastured eggs and real milk.  If grains and nuts are to be eaten, these should be properly prepared through soaking, sprouting and fermentation in order to neutralise the anti-nutrients they contain and to unlock their supply of nutrition.

It’s also important to bear in mind that - just because a plant contains lots of nutrients, that doesn’t mean that they will be available to us.  Whilst some vegetables can and should be eaten raw, others must be cooked to release their vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients from behind hard cellular walls.

Similarly, the hype that fruit and vegetable juices are somehow more nutritious than the whole fruit is just that – hype.  The fact is, a great deal of the nutrition in plant foods is contained in the pulp.  The occasional juice can be pleasant and digestible, but if it contains fruit, it’ll also be high in sugar, without the “buffer” of fibre to regulate its intake into the bloodstream.

There’s more discussion on the potential benefits of the vegetarian approach – and its place in the paleo lifestyle – in this excellent blog post from Richard Nikoley’s Free The Animal.  In it, he notes:

I think a careful vegetarian diet that eschews processed foods and sugar entirely is probably better than the average American diet — even one including meat. And that’s because the average American diet includes a ton of wheat & sugar. Most simply: vegetarian diets have sometimes been shown to deliver net benefit simply because vegetarians are of an above-average health consciousness, and that’s a bigger association to overall health than the specifics of your diet. Because of their fundamentals, they are going to eat closer to nature, closer to the Paleolithic, and that’s going to have a net benefit on some scale.

This is good news for those who are determined to follow a vegetarian diet for ethical reasons, or simply for reasons of preference.  Whether our physiology supports it or not, I’d always fight for the right of the individual to eat what they want.  I’d simply suggest that – whatever our diet of choice – we do the research to find out how to optimise that diet.  Whether we’re pursuing a vegetarian diet, or a paleo diet, it is possible to get it right – and to get it wrong.  Our choice.

Because Paleo Is Plant-Strong!

I want to finish by pointing out something that seems to me to be absolutely fundamental to the paleo lifestyle, and that is that it is plant-based, even when it involves the consumption of relatively high amounts of meat.  In other words, when you read or hear of all the benefits that vegetarian, vegan and raw food diets confer on their adherents, it’s not too much of a leap to recognise that those benefits are passed on when pastured animal products are consumed, as well as a wide range of plants themselves.

Plant Strong! Herbalist Susun Weed. Photo courtesy of

Eat farmyard hens that are free to hunt and peck in the open, where they can eat weeds and worms and bugs to their hearts’ content (and eat their eggs, too); eat pastured cows who are able to feast on fast-growing green grass in sunny meadows; eat wild fish that swim free in clean waters, consuming plankton and algae and seaweeds and smaller fish – and you will be eating a happy animal that provides you with optimum nutrition.

A point worth noting: these animals’ natural diets may be plant-based, but they’re not strictly vegetarian.  In nature, it’s hard to achieve strict vegetarianism without significant processing and cleaning of foods.  Even the grass that ruminants chew on will be covered in bugs and bacteria (the latter of which play an important role in helping the ruminant to digest its food).

For an excellent discussion on the important contribution made by plants to high-quality animal produce, listen to this lively interview between herbalist Susun Weed and Weston A. Price Foundation president, Sally Fallon.

I’d be interested in knowing your perspective on the role of vegetarianism in the paleo diet.  Please post your comments below, and share this article with friends, for their opinions.

And whether we are vegetarian, vegan, raw-foodist, fruitarian, carnivore, omnivore, or paleo: let’s hear it for the veggie kingdom!


Brian Cormack Carr is a professional life and career coach, writer, and advocate of a real foods diet.
His home on the web is where you will find more articles, a free newsletter, and information about his online career-creation programme You can follow Brian on Twitter: @cormackcarr


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6 Responses to Is There A Place for Vegetarianism on the Paleo Diet?

  1. BBC September 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Excellent article

  2. Fred Hahn September 11, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    If you ask me, I don’t know what a vegetarian diet actually is. If you eat anything that is an animal – a fish, a bug, a lizard or a grub, you’re an omnivore. If you don’t, your vegan. There is no in between.

    If all I chose to eat as far as animal matter was concerned was fish just because I like fish and don’t like anything else, am I suddenly a vegetarian? C’mon.

    If you’re human, you’re an omnivore whether you like it or not. That is how we are supposed to eat.

    • Brian Cormack Carr September 12, 2011 at 3:16 am

      I suppose “vegetarian” applies to folks who don’t eat any animals per se, but who do eat their produce (dairy, eggs). I’ve never understood fish-eaters claiming to be vegetarian. Fish aren’t vegetables, last time I looked.

      The other big issue for me is that, if we’re pursuing vegetarianism out of a “respect for life”, we’re still making a judgement – that an animal’s life is more valuable than a plant’s. It’s a valid opinion, of course, but it is just that – an opinion.

      And then we get to the nub of it. Each time we eat a leaf, we’re undoubtedly eating billions of microscopic living beings who exist on the surface of that leaf (even after washing it). Is that OK, if we’re trying to not eat living beings?

      The bottom line is – if you want to live, you have to eat living things. Period.

      Great to see you here, Fred!

  3. Jill September 24, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Thank you for one of the most sensible and balanced articles I have seen on nutrition!

    I have a scientific background, but have only recently turned my attentions to the specifics of nutrition and how diet affects health. I understand how a myriad of scientific data can be overwhelming and confusing to both professionals and lay persons alike. Add to that, studies can be tweaked and/or cherry picked to support almost any perspective.

    It seems to me, that both a broader and more synergistic view of the available data is needed. “Black or white” thinking about any subject is simplistic at best and dangerous at worst. I vote we focus on the similarities of theses various approaches and incorporate the ideas in which they all seem to agree. With regard to the differences, we can respectfully disagree with a certain point of view, but should always retain an open mind as new data and research comes in. Having some skepticism for OUR own beliefs is healthy. Trying to hold to dogmatic “truisms” keeps us from growing and expanding our minds.

    After all, if the scientists and clinicians who have done this research had not challenged some of their own beliefs as well as the standard scientific views, we would not even have all of this wonderful (albeit at times confusing and conflicting) data!

    My two cents, and again thank you.

    • Brian Cormack Carr November 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm

      Thank you Jill, that’s a lovely compliment. Glad you enjoyed the article! I agree that trying to find our way through all the conflicting information can be tricky at times. It’s always worth keeping an open mind, and being willing to experiment on ourselves to find what works. I’ve found my way to an appreciation of certain nutritional precepts based on testing them out – not in a lab, but in my kitchen, and in my body. Thanks for stopping by!