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What Paleo and Vegetarians Can Learn From Each Other

Maybe you've noticed your Instagram feed lighting up with photos of health coaches sipping bone broth, when only yesterday they were broadcasting evidence of their latest vegetarian feast. Many a highly educated wellness advocate has embraced a regimented eating plan for the sake of health, but it can be confusing when those plans appear to contradict each other.

Paleo Vegetarian

In looking at Paleo and vegetarian options in particular, these eating regimens have vocal and loyal followings that tout their way of consuming nutrients, each with valid health support.

Up until my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, I was a vegetarian (verging on total veganism), but I adopted a Paleo eating plan to mitigate internal inflammation and its effects on my immune system. Having played for both teams, I've seen the benefits of each personally, and while on the surface they may appear to be diametrically opposed, certain tenets do benefit the other while not betraying their core beliefs.

Paleo Lessons That Benefit Vegetarians

1. Inflammation. Gluten and dairy proteins (casein), known inflammatory agents, are banished on a Paleo protocol. Many who practice Paleo are doing so with an eye toward managing inflammation within the body (yours truly included). Vegetarians who want to avoid inflammatory agents but stay true to their humane eating can indulge in a bevy of palate-pleasing gluten-free grains, such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet and wild rice and casein-free "milks" and "cheeses" derived from almonds, coconuts and cashews.

2. Watch sugars in all forms. Numerous dietary programs advocate minimizing sugars and carbs for better overall health because high blood-glucose levels are damaging to the body, and carbohydrates are often the culprits causing blood sugar to rise .

But while carbohydrate-containing foods convert to sugar in the body, they do so in varying degrees. The starchier ones (think russet potatoes) convert faster and more easily, while the more fibrous (like dark leafy greens) become sugar more slowly. 

Those going Paleo may do so as a way to manage their sugar levels because meats do not convert to sugar or raise blood glucose levels. So while friends of Paleo are vigilant about sugars, they aren't the only ones who should be. Vegetarians who want to keep their sugar conversion as low as possible should consider doubling up on leafy greens and passing on the easily converted sugars like breads, potatoes and rice.

3. All oils are not the same. Paleo forums get heated on the topic of cooking oil. Why so particular? Well, liquids turn to vapor when heated, meaning they smoke. And as oil approaches it's boiling point, it begins to decompose. Thus, oils have different "smoke points," or points at which they start to deteriorate once heated.

When getting ready to mix up a veggie stir-fry, it's important to reach for the avocado or grape-seed variety, so that the oil maintains its integrity through to the end of your meal.

Vegetarian Lessons for Friends of Paleo

1. Take a breather from the meat. While some Paleo food sites feel like homages to bacon, it's not a mandate that thou must consume animal protein at the exclusion of other vital foodstuffs like, say, vegetables. Any good eating plan will include a variety of foods forming a comprehensive, nutrient-dense diet, so make sure that plate is full of more vitamin-filled veggies than meat. (Hey, vegetarians, remember to get your vegetables too! Don't let yourself become a bread-and-cheesetarian.)

2. Respect the animal. That statement will mean different things to a Paleo eater versus a vegetarian, but carnivores will do well to consider the welfare of the animal before it made its way to the plate. Where did it come from? How did it live? What did it eat? To quote Michael Pollan: "You are what you eat eats," meaning the food, hormones and antibiotics consumed by or given to a cow or pig will be ingested by the end consumer. Since Paleolithic eaters consume meat regularly, choosing organic, grass-fed and responsibly raised varieties will help ensure that the food product served up is simply the best it can be for your body.

3. Nutritional yeast. Found in many vegetarian pantries, fortified nutritional yeast is a great way to supplement vitamin B, minerals and protein for vegetarians. Meat eaters benefit from it too, as nutritional yeast is a fermented food with live cultures that arms the gut with lactobacillus -- beneficial for the digestive system of those getting regular amounts of meat.

For Anyone and Everyone

1. Get your veggies close to home, but if not...Locally grown veggies are ideal not just because you can support your community, but because vegetables lose their nutrition as they travel long distances. If local produce isn't available or is out of season, stock up on organic frozen veggies, which are frozen at their peak. They still pack a nutrient-dense punch, last longer and can be easier on your wallet.

2. Make a conscious decision. Whatever way you choose to eat, make it a choice. At their best, any eating program brings conscious awareness to what we put in our body. You have the ability to make it unique to you and your unique body. Whatever the "rules," be willing to let your manner of eating ultimately be dictated by your biofeedback, and keep an open mind to finding what actually works for you.

Food is our fuel and can be a vehicle to better health. While not everyone views daily meals as a health plan, know that they could be. You are an active participant in your body's performance because what you put in your body will create an effect -- positive or negative. Be empowered to shift the way you feel through your proactive and positive food choices.


Readers -- Do you follow a specific way of eating, such as Paleo, vegan or vegetarian? What are the benefits of the diet that you follow? Do you think following more than one way of eating is better than following any single diet? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Mary Joan Cunningham is creator of and is on a mission to empower individuals to see their diagnoses differently. A health-and-wellness activist and meditation guide, she's been featured on HuffPost Live, and her tips for releasing fear around personal finances are included in The Credit Cleanup Book.

Host of Meditation Foundations workshops, monthlong meditation master classes for Love + Business, and the Gratitude meditation series, Mary also works with clients via Skype in transformational one-on-one sessions that produce increased focus, relaxation and empowerment. Her purpose is to enable everyone to find and harness his or her unique, innate healing power.

Connect with Mary on Thrive with MS, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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