Paleo versus Plant-based Diet: so different, yet somehow so similar…
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate the plethora of dietary information available at our fingertips. To make things even more confusing, diets are constantly evolving, and guidelines change depending on new research or on the criticism they’ve received (both of which are valid reasons for change).
In addition, many of the popular diets are open to interpretation which means that diets with opposing premises may be found in versions that have quite similar features. And such is the case for some versions of the Paleo and Plant-based diet.
This post discusses the main features of these diets, including their benefits and disadvantages and how they have actually adapted to become quite similar.
The Paleo Diet
The Paleo diet is based on foods that are believed to be similar to what our ancestors might have eaten over 10,000 years ago – before the emergence of agricultural practices. It gained popularity about 10 years ago and initially promoted the intake of real, unprocessed food with a dominance of animal products and fats. This combination offered rapid fat loss and alleviation of a range of common symptoms such as fatigue and joint pain.
The Paleo diet includes vegetables, meats, fish, organ meats, eggs, healthy fats such as coconut and olive oil, avocados, coconut, nuts and seeds as well as small amounts of fruit, starchy vegetables and ancient grains (such as quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth). It excludes dairy, grains, legumes and processed foods.
There are many versions of the Paleo diet with some recommending a high intake of animal protein and saturated fats while others recommending a higher intake of healthy fats and non-starchy vegetables. This means that the diet also varies in carbohydrates and can either be ketogenic or have a low high-carbohydrate intake. Some versions of the diet allow kefir and legumes, therefore making them similar to the Mediterranean diet.
The premise of the Paleo diet is that our genetic make-up has not evolved to tolerate foods, such as grains and dairy, that were introduced with the agricultural boom, and there is evidence to support this.
In support of…
Proponents of this diet believe that the genetic mismatch theory explains the deterioration in our health status since the endorsement of highly processed, high carbohydrate, grain-loaded foods in the 1980’s. Since then we’ve seen a significant rise in food intolerances, allergies, autoimmune conditions, psychiatric and neurological conditions and obesity. Many of these conditions have now been linked to alterations in microbial composition – which is, to a large degree, dependent on our diet. It is hypothesised that certain food components such as dairy, grains and legumes have the potential to alter the gut microbiota and trigger inflammation, autoimmune conditions and food intolerances. While research regarding the detrimental effects of grains has been inconclusive, many people do report bloating, fluid retention, fatigue, joint pain, mood swings and cravings after consuming these foods and resolution of symptoms when they avoid them.
There are several factors that may explain these effects.
Firstly, the human body has only 17 genes for digesting dietary fibre which is present in produce such as wholegrains and legumes. The microbiome has up to 100,000 genes responsible for digesting fibre, so we rely on it for this purpose. If the gut microbiota is disrupted by a processed diet, stress or certain medications, digestion of dietary fibres is impaired, and this can lead to a range of symptoms.
In addition, when it comes to grains, research shows that gliadin, a peptide of gluten, triggers the production of a molecule in the gut wall, called Zonulin. Zonulin has been shown to damage bonds between the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract, and this leads to leaky gut and inflammation (see image below). It appears this effect may be quite common as it is estimated that approximately 45 percent of adults have reported a range of symptoms associated with gluten consumption, even in the absence of Coeliac disease. This type of sensitivity is termed non-coeliac gluten intolerance.
Fig 1. Mechanisms of gliadin-induced zonulin release, increased intestinal permeability, and onset of autoimmunity. Tsintavis P et al. The connection between gluten, zonulin and increased permeability in disease. Dep Nutr Sci & Diet, International Hellenic University, 2019
More evidence in support of the Paleo diet is that our ability to digest lactose is greatly reduced after about 6 months of age due to a reduction in enzymes responsible for its digestion. It is estimated that approximately 75 percent of adults have difficulty digesting milk-based products and, as a result, experience a range of symptoms such as hay fever and allergies.
Research comparing the Paleo diet to commonly recommended diets such as the Mediterranean diet, have found that the Paleo diet is associated with improved appetite control, higher levels of weight loss and improvements in metabolic markers such as lower blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol. These benefits appear, in part, to be due to a lower carbohydrate intake compared to the Mediterranean diet, which advocates a moderate to high intake of wholegrains, starchy vegetables and fruit.
Opponents of the Paleo diet feel that it is too restrictive, too costly (as it advises organic and grass-fed over conventional produce) and too high in animal protein and saturated fats.
Animal protein has been shown to produce a detrimental microbial composition which is linked to cardiovascular disease. Saturated fats from animal sources have been linked to altered gut microbiota, leaky gut as well as systemic and organ inflammation. These pathological processes are the underlying cause of many common medical conditions such as obesity, insulin resistance and autoimmune diseases. There is no denying that a diet high in animal products is not ideal for health.
There is also much concern and criticism of Paleo diets that promote packaged “paleo” products such as bars and baked goods, highly processed milk-alternatives, condiments and processed meats – all of which can be very high in various forms of sugars and additives that are loosely placed under the “paleo” banner. Many of the ingredients in these products are likely to disrupt the gut microbiota.
The Plant-based diet
Technically, the Plant-based diet is really just another term for the Vegan Diet and is based on food that derives only from plants. It has become increasingly popular as more research is revealing the many antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing benefits of polyphenols and flavonoids found in plant foods.
The diet includes any food that is derived from plants such as vegetables, fruits, grains (including those that contain gluten), legumes, nuts and seeds. It excludes animal products such as dairy, meat and eggs.
As with the Paleo diet, there are many different versions of the Plant-based diet. The term “plant-based” is vague and up for interpretation. Many interpret the term as a diet that is based mainly on plant foods and not entirely on plant foods. Such plans allow for a certain percentage of the intake to come from animal products, therefore making it similar to the Mediterranean diet.
The premise is that plant-based foods are associated with many health benefits, while animal products contribute to inflammation and diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
In favour of…
When it comes to health, the evidence is unequivocal – polyphenols found in brightly coloured and green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, seeds and legumes are associated with a range healthy benefits such as lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other metabolic disorders. Some studies have found that these polyphenols can even switch off certain genes responsible for ageing and cancer.
There is also a strong movement towards plant-based foods from an ethical and environmental standpoint – both of which are valid reasons to avoid animal products.
As with the Paleo diet there are many versions of the diet, some with very questionable recommendations. It’s common to see plant-based recipes that include sugar, gluten and food additives and café menus that include “vegan” pizza, chips, donuts and cocktails. These are usually cooked in canola oil, which is from a plant source, yet is one of the most damaging food products available.
There is also the concern that the diet lacks certain vitamins and minerals and can therefore lead to deficiencies such as B12, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, calcium and iron. Those who attempt the 100% plant-based diet without seeking assistance from a health professional are more likely to experience fatigue, insomnia and brain fog after a couple of months.
Which one is best??
It really depends on which version of the diet you choose to follow.
Some Paleo diets include more vegetables and fruits and even allow legumes and kefir, while some versions of the Plant-based diet include certain animal products such as eggs and fish. Therefore, the only real difference between these diets is whether or not grains are included.
Healthy versions of these diets promote real foods such as vegetables, lean proteins, fruits and healthy fats. There is no doubt that these are beneficial for health and should form the majority of your intake. It’s not about whether you’re with following a particular “diet” plan but rather about eating real food.
Each meal should contain a good-sized serving of brightly coloured vegetables and green leafy vegetables, a small serving of plant or animal protein and some healthy fats. Avoid processed foods, food additives, gluten, vegetable oils, refined grains, sugars and sweeteners, and any foods that aggravate your symptoms. Both the Paleo and Plant-based diets can be adapted to provide the right food combination for you.
Whether or not to include foods such as wholegrains, dairy, legumes or animal proteins should be based on how they make you feel and not whether they’re included in a specific diet plan. If you experience adverse symptoms when consuming these or any other food product, it is best to avoid them.
If you decide to follow a 100% plant-based diet, it is best that you seek help from a health professional who can formulate a well-balanced diet and supplement plan to avoid vitamin deficiencies.
If you’re uncertain on how to proceed in order to achieve your health and weight loss goals, BiomeMD™ might be a good kick-start. It is based on a low carbohydrate, gluten and dairy-free Mediterranean-style diet that incorporates intermittent fasting and intermittent ketosis to help with rapid fat loss. It also includes three compounded nutrient formulations designed to improve the gut microbiome and support the physiological processes that are essential for rebalancing the body. In doing so, the protocol helps you enjoy effortless fat loss and long-term success.
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