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Can One Be Both Vegetarian and Primal?

Posted Dec 29 2008 4:38pm 2 Comments


Greg’s interview with Lorette Luzajic generated a couple comments from Brian, a vegan, requesting that instead of beating up on vegans and vegetarians, perhaps we should be helping them be better vegetarians. So it got me to thinking, is it possible to be vegan or vegetarian and still follow a Paleo-style diet?

What Is Most Natural?

I think it’s startlingly obvious that a vegan diet cannot and is not natural for humans. Our digestive tract is much closer to that of obligate carnivores than to that of herbivorous animals. Certain vitamins can only be obtained from animal foods. Without these animal foods, supplements are a requirement, meaning that the human race could never have survived on such a diet. Given that, let’s look at what I view to be the arguments for and against vegetarianism and explore some ideas on how vegetarians can implement more healthy principles into their diets.

Exploring The Reasons For Vegetarianism

There seem to be three main reasons for “Going Veg”: health, environment, and ethics.

Many people adopt a vegetarian diet, at least initially, with the intent of improving their health. The studies all say it’s healthier and vegetarians live longer. When you look at where most people are starting, it’s easy to see why their health improves. When one moves from a Western diet of processed carbs, sugar, little fruits and vegetables, fast food, etc to a diet full of vitamin-rich foods, health should improve. Vegetarians also tend to be more health-conscious in general.

But that doesn’t make it the best way, which is what we are each pursuing in our own way. Remember that the comparison is not typically of a vegetarian diet to a Paleo diet. And most any diet is healthier than what most Westerners eat.

The Big Vegetarian Issue: Soy
Here is where I think most vegetarian diets go off the rails. In their quest for health, many vegetarians ditch processed food products in favor of…processed food products. The source of the ingredients may change, but the end result doesn’t. One only need walk through the refrigerated section to see what I’m talking about: Garden Burgers, Tofurkey, soy “cheese,” soy milk.

Is this what vegetarianism is about? Garden Steak Ingredients:

Water, red onion with natural sauteed onion flavor, cooked brown rice (brown rice, water), roasted red peppers, roasted yellow peppers, cooked split peas (water, split peas), carrots, garlic, parmesan-type cheese (pasteurized part-skim milk, salt, enzymes, cultures), rolled oats, couscous (wheat flour), natural gorgonzola cheese flavor (contains milk), parsley, contain two percent or less of natural butter flavor (contains butter), modified vegetable gum, sea salt, sesame seeds, natural onion flavor (onions, sunflower oil), spices, soy lecithin.

Now, we could question why someone would give up meat, then eat products that are intended to taste like meat. One could even argue that the desire to eat something that is meat-like probably means that there is an underlying desire to actually eat meat, a desire that is not being met. But that brings us no closer to reconciling a primal diet with a vegetarian diet.

Meat production requires a lot more resource usage than a vegetarian diet. On a calorie-to-calorie basis, a low-fat vegetarian diet is more land efficient than the diet most Americans are eating. But a report from Cornell shows that a diet that includes some meat and dairy is a more efficient use of resources.

What I’d really like to see is a resource-per-nutrition estimation. While a plant-based diet may produce more calories from fewer inputs, we have to presume a high intake of grains, which means that on a calorie-to-calorie basis, a diet heavier in meat is going to produce more vitamins. We already have plenty of calories and most of them aren’t from fresh meats, regardless of what the data says about our “meat-heavy diet”. What we lack in most of our foods is vitamins, particularly the fat-soluble ones.

The ethical and moral arguments against eating meat are much more difficult to overcome. I think there are few of us here that are for the mistreatment of the animals that we call food. Along with the health benefits of grass-fed meats, proper treatment is another reason that we choose meats not raised in confinement operations. For me, the key is about making sure the animals I eat are treated humanely and allowed to live the lives they should live.

As Brian pointed out in his comments (comment excerpt below), not everyone adopts such a diet for health reasons and in fact, some adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet in spite of health.

I’m not under any illusions that veganism is “natural” or the healthiest diet on the planet. I’m a vegan for ethical reasons. There are a lot of people like me, who for ethical reasons refuse to eat animal products even though it’s not the healthiest thing for us.

Now this is a tougher nut to crack. How does one convince someone that it’s okay to eat an animal so long as that animal is treated properly, especially if one is willing to sacrifice a bit of health for their ethics?

Understanding “The Least Harm Principle”
Vegans often cite the desire to not kill animals as part of feeding themselves. But it’s an incorrect assessment of reality. A vegan diet is obviously very high in plant matter. Everytime a field is plowed, disked, planted, fertilized, and harvested, machines run through the field. Machines that invariably kill countless small animals and destroy burrows and nests. One argument I’ve read is that it’s inadvertent death versus deliberate death, but that just seems like a convenient excuse. The reality is that a vegan diet kills far more animals than a meat-eating diet. In fact, how many people can eat from one cow? And how many animals die to harvest enough plants to feed a single vegan?

And can one really say that the life of a field mouse or a mole is of less value than the life of a cow? Is the life of a lamb of more or less value than the life of a human? The other reality is that death is part of life. There is no life without death. Creatures die so that others may live. That’s the bottom line. The death of those animals should at least be used as food for some creature. The key factor is making sure the death is humane (which is probably far more consideration than the lion gives the antelope as he eats him to death).

Merging Vegetarianism With Ethical Treatment Of Food

bugs Let me go ahead and get this one out there: I cannot advocate a vegan diet. I cannot wrap my head around adopting a diet that forces someone to supplement. I view supplements as insurance policies, not as requirements. And with a vegan diet, certain supplements are a requirement, which pretty much means it’s not natural. However, I can see ways to adopt a vegetarian (or nearly vegetarian) diet without turning to a diet of refined vegetarian soy products, improperly cast as being “the healthy alternative”.

So what foods are available to someone that wants to avoid eating meat, but is still willing to eat the animal foods that are necessary for health? Well, eggs are a good start. They are packed with vitamins, especially the yolks (the healthiest part of the egg), protein, and fat. And since the eggs we eat are unfertilized, you’re not actually killing anything.

Dairy products have long been a way to get essential animal foods without killing animals. Instead of raising a cow or goat for food, a family could raise a cow and keep it for years, getting several gallons of milk per day. This milk was either consumed raw or turned into other products like cheese. The cream could be churned into butter. But as you know, I’m not a fan of pasteurized milk and cheese. Stick to raw to get all of the nutritional properties of grass-fed cows.

Now here’s an interesting one mentioned by Brian and one that requires some mental gymnastics: entomophagy. Yeah, bugs. Of course, we’re talking about killing bugs so that one doesn’t have to kill animals and yes, I consider that to be mental gymnastics. If it’s not okay to kill a bird or mammal for food, why is it okay to kill a bug? Anyway, insects are supposedly a delicious source of protein and have a very high conversion ratio, up to 20 times higher than that for beef, if one has environmental concerns.

My Final Thoughts

Meat is good. Meat is very nutritious. Meat should be part of the diet in some form, even if its not a staple. I think we’re better off devoting our energies to changing the system of food production rather than trying to develop a vegan diet that goes against what the body requires. Vegetarians that use the foods listed above (eggs and dairy, and possibly bugs) can probably achieve all of the body’s nutritional needs and be quite healthy.

And finally, stick to grass-fed/pastured, properly-raised meats, eggs, and dairy products. By raising the animals properly, we avoid the worst of the ethical concerns of rearing animals. The animals are happy and are killed in the most humane way possible. They are not abused while being raised, aren’t treated solely as food producing units, and have the chance to do the things animals do rather than standing around in a crate, being fed “foods” that destroy their bodies and riddle them with disease.

Of course, the decision of whether to allow death to maintain life is one you have to answer for yourself. As I see it, there is a natural element to the food cycle. Plants eat sunlight and soil nutrients, animals (including humans) eat plants, other animals (including humans) eat animals. As plants and animals die, they decompose and contribute their nutrients back to the soil, where plants combine them with sunlight to start the cycle over. In the end, animals are just concentrated plants anyway.

So there it is…a way to be both vegetarian and somewhat primal.

Comments (2)
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"Vegans often cite the desire to not kill animals as part of feeding themselves. But it’s an incorrect assessment of reality. A vegan diet is obviously very high in plant matter. Everytime a field is plowed, disked, planted, fertilized, and harvested, machines run through the field. Machines that invariably kill countless small animals and destroy burrows and nests."

 Well, I hate to be a stick-in-the-mud. However, I'm you do realize that the majority of meat is grain-fed? That means that even if you choose to eat meat, in most cases you will contribute to the same problem as mentioned above, you are not "absolved" from it so to speak. Grass-fed beef is not always available to people, either because of scarcity compared to grain-fed, or because of the higher costs. Some grass-fed comes with its own problems, too. For example, a lot of the brazilian rain forest has been cut down to make space for grass-feeding herds, among other reasons, of course.

I also have to take issue with the "trading processed for processed" argument you make. I don't have any statistics on this one, but on a personal level I can say for a fact that I eat very little processed foods and fake-meats. Does it happen on occasion? Of course, but the same might be said about the ethical omnivore who mainly eats grass-fed, naturally raised meat and locally grown produce. Every once in a while these people eat processed food, too. For myself, it actually comes down to when I have dinner with my family and they want to make something for me. They use fake meats, because they're not sure how to make vegetarian dishes otherwise. To me, it seems more like a thing of the western culture. We are used to eating meat, to prepare dishes that are centered on meat and we often grew up eating meat. Missing meat, or eating meat-like dishes might just be a result of growing up in such a culture. Yes, it can also be the result of missing some important nutrient, as cravings sometimes are, but I think it's important to consider both perspectives on this point.

I'm not a vegan myself (I'm a vegetarian), and I do find aspects of primal eating and the primal lifestyle interesting and enlightening. However, I didn't really find that this article hit its goal, if that was to help vegans/vegetarians to be "better" (more paleo I assume). Maybe it's hard to resist to elaborate on why one doesn't find a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle to be the best compared to a paleo lifestyle, but it's hard to gain followers that way (I know from experience that it's hard to gain vegetarian followers that way, at least! ;) ) I actually found this article searching for ways to make my vegetarian lifestyle more primal, but I didn't find a lot of concrete examples. Maybe that wasn't your goal and I have misunderstood you, but that was what I was hoping to find.

I really am interested in a more primal lifestyle, but it saddens me a bit to see parts of the community so hostile to it when it seems to me that both communities in a way are flipsides of the same coin. Primal eating is about cutting processed foods and go back to stone-age basics, to put it simply. It seems to me that the primal community often focuses on the meat-eating aspect while a vegan/vegetarian focuses on the vegetable-aspect. I'm fairly sure that it would be benefical for most primal eaters to know a few primal and vegetarian recipies for when grass-fed beef and organic, free-range eggs are not to be found, or those occasional lean months in the year when the budget is stretched a bit too thin for organic and grass-fed meat, or maybe just to enhance variety in your diet. Likewise, a lot of vegans and vegetarians might learn how to cut some processed food and lower their carb intake from primal eaters if they wanted to.

In conclusion if you really are interested in helping vegans/vegetarians to be better (more primal) in their lifestyle choices, I am sure that you could find some primal vegetarians out there who would be very interested to elaborate on this subject and guide other vegans/vegetarians towards a more primal lifestyle if they are interested.  


Thank you so much for writing this, Malin! You said everything I wanted to say. I found this article by googling "primal diet vegan" because I was interested in learning whether or not it was possible (or even semi-possible.) However, I don't want to be a part of any community (I find that it helps a LOT when you're making a diet/lifestyle change) that is so hostile toward people who just don't want to eat meat. These "arguments against veganism" were a waste of the author's time and have probably alienated quite a few people.
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