Anyone who's ever picked up a fork knows: Food is more than just what you eat—in some cases it becomes a part of your identity. You might be in it for pure pleasure, or health and well-being, or maybe ethics are your thing.
Both vegetarians and proponents of the Paleo diet believe their lifestyle choices tick off all those boxes—and although there are some pretty big differences in their core philosophies, it's actually possible to mesh them more seamlessly than you might think.
Paleo eaters typically adhere to a diet high in animal protein and healthy fat, eating grass-fed meat and butter daily while most grains, legumes, and soy are big no-nos. For vegetarians whose plate might look like a tofu and quinoa scramble with a side of lentils, it’s hard to imagine how to integrate aspects of a Paleo diet (especially the idea of eating meat!) into their daily meals.
"The foundational principles of both diets—real whole, fresh food in its natural state free of processed ingredients, refined carbohydrates, and additives—are the same," says Dr. Mark Hyman, a champion of Paleo-veganism. "Designed correctly, both a Paleo and vegan diet can provide health benefits like weight loss, lowered cholesterol, and reverse diabetes."
So, let’s make those keystones the basis for a Paleo-ish vegetarian diet. Everyone's body is different, so it's totally acceptable to modify a diet to suit your needs. After all, the modern Paleo movement is an adaptation of the caveman way anyway—most people aren’t actually foraging in the wild for their foods.
"[Paleo-vegetarian] is not a deprivation diet," says Dr. Hyman. "There are a ton of options." Here are some tips on how to eat a Paleo diet as a vegetarian—and get enough protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins in the process.
1. One of the essentials of a Paleo diet is limiting sugar. All the sugar you need can come from ample fruits, which also provide plenty of fiber and other essential nutrients.
2. Make vegetables the center of every meal. Good thing, because the more variety, the better—more phytonutrients to protect against disease. It’s not a stretch that a flavorful, filling meal can be veggie-centric. Our recipes for a green wellness bowl and roasted butternut squash are proof.
3. Seafood isn’t necessary in order to get omega-3s—algae does the trick. Just another vegetable to add into the mix.
5. Eat as many eggs as you can stomach. Their cholesterol content is no longer an issue. This will fill a good portion of the protein gap.
6. Though legumes are traditionally shunned on the Paleo diet, consider incorporating them into your diet occasionally. One cup of beans or lentils provides a ton of protein. Soaking legumes for 24 hours and cooking them very well—even sprouting them—will reduce enzyme inhibitors and convert some of the starches into sugars, and proteins into amino acids. They are also a source of zinc.
7. The reason for avoiding grains on the Paleo diet is because of their high-glycemic index, which can raise blood sugar and trigger autoimmune responses. Allow low-glycemic grains like black rice, buckwheat, and quinoa in moderation to minimize this possible effect.
"The best way to stay satisfied is to plan!" advises Dr. Hyman. "Create the right environment for success. Keep foods in the kitchen that will make you feel good."
It may not be a cakewalk at first, but a paleo-vegetarian can be incredibly nutritious. Sure, it takes a bit of discipline, but you don't have to be totally rigid about every meal. The key is finding foods that make you feel good—and satisfied. Don't be afraid to experiment until you find a balance that works for you.
Photo credit: Amelia Cook via Flickr