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April 9, 2014

Is a paleo vegetarian diet possible?

— Q: Is it possible to follow a paleo vegetarian eating plan?

A: The short answer is that it's possible. But in entertaining this eating plan, you've got to examine your health goals, the plan's nutritional soundness and whether you can follow it long-term.

Let's unpack each part of the plan and look at the research and the nutritional pluses and minuses.

               

Paleo diet defined

This diet, also called the caveman or Stone Age diet, has recently become popular, mainly through books, the Internet and social media buzz. The premise: It's our highly processed, grain-focused food choices that are causing our rampant rate of chronic diseases. Eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the Paleolithic time will help us lose weight, minimize heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and live longer.

In: Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits.

Out: Grains, dairy foods, legumes (beans and peas), processed foods and foods containing refined sugars.

Research rundown: "If you search for controlled studies on the paleo diet, meaning it was tested against another diet, you'll find a couple of short-term studies each done with a relatively small number of people," says Brie Turner-McGrievy, an assistant professor and registered dietitian in health promotion, education and behavior at the University of South Carolina. Like many diet studies, these show slightly more weight loss and some improvement in chronic disease indicators for the paleo plan. But a few short-term studies don't constitute an evidence base.

In U.S. News and World Report's 2014 ranking of Best Diets Overall (compiled with the help of top health and nutrition experts), paleo tied for last in a group of 32 diets, with this comment: "Experts took issue with the diet on every measure. Regardless of the goal - weight loss, heart health, or finding a diet that's easy to follow - most experts concluded that it would be better for dieters to look elsewhere." No. 1? The government-developed DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.

Paleo advocates recommend eating meat and avoiding all grains, saying the grains we eat today have been dramatically changed with modern agricultural techniques. One problem they cite is greater gluten content. "The notion that our ancestors ate more meat than grains is not based in fact. Our ancestors were constantly gathering grain-based foods," says Julie Miller Jones, a professor emeritus in nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., who has studied grains extensively. Jones adds, "Though the hunt for meat was pretty constant, the kill was rare. They didn't sit down to Tyrannosaurus steaks every day."

As for the gluten claim, Jones points to research sampling century-old wheat showing that the amount of gluten hasn't changed. But she acknowledges a small increase in the population of people with gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, as well as other autoimmune diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes. "A lot has changed in our environment. Perhaps it's changes in our grains, the gut, use of antibiotics or countless other factors," Jones says.

Is it wise to omit grains? "Absolutely not. We need a variety of whole grains, as well as legumes, fruits and vegetables, to get the gamut of dietary fibers for their unique effects on the heart, digestive system and insulin and glucose control." Plus, Jones adds, grains' and legumes' different types of fibers and amino acids make them a perfect nutritional match.

Nutrition pitfalls: Eliminating whole grains and legumes might leave people deficient in iron and zinc and some B vitamins. Deleting dairy could make getting enough potassium a challenge. And going heavy on animal-based proteins, which take center stage in the paleo diet, could raise saturated fat and cholesterol intake.

               

Vegetarian diet defined

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