WARNING: This post contains little science, but lots of speculation and sarcasm. If you are easily offended (i.e. a Vegetarian/Vegan/Fundamentalist Paleo dieter) or confused (i.e. a meat eater that has not formerly been a Vegetarian), please switch to another blog that reaffirms your world views now.

Image: Rawich / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Although there are no definitive figures, it seems that many Paleo dieters had previously dabbled in Vegetarianism or Veganism:

  • A number of notable bloggers in the Paleosphere, for example Rob Wolff, Melissa McKewan, Angelo Coppola, Chris Masterjohn, and Denise Minger to name but a few, were either vegetarian or vegan for a time (or so I believe, apologies if I’m mistaken)
  • A show of hands at one of the Ancestral Health Symposium talks indicated a high proportion of the audience were former Veggies (though of course the topic of the talk could have influenced this statistic heavily)
  • David Csonka’s 2011 Paleo Community Survey indicates that 30-40% of Paleo dieters were either veggie or vegan in a former life (of course online surveys aren’t worth the paper they’re not even printed on, but you get my point).

To further add to this indisputable proof, I too had experimented with all forms of vegetarianism over a period of 13 years, mostly lacto-ovo/pescatarian but with a brief (1 year) stint of Veganism towards the end, before discovering the Paleo Diet.

Now firmly back in the meat eating camp, you can imagine my distress when I learned that it has been “scientifically proven” that vegetarians are more intelligent than meat eaters.

What does this mean for myself and my fellow former veggie bloggers? Have our IQs dropped dramatically since we started to chow down on flesh again? (Actually, as all the bloggers I mentioned are American, where vegetarians aren’t significantly more intelligent than meat eaters, they probably don’t have to worry).

Of course, one could point out that the study is completely flawed. For example, they forgot to take into account that “meat eaters” fall into many different categories. Surely if they had divided people into three groups: SAD (Standard American Diet – I know we’re in the UK, but it’s just a better acronym than SUKD), Veggie, and Paleo, they would have come out with average IQs of 100, 109 and 150+…

I heard about this study whilst listening to a podcast debate on the Rationality of Vegetarianism that I randomly stumbled across on t’internet.

The podcast was very painful to listen to – There is nothing worse than listening to two people try and have a debate around a subject of which they clearly have little or no knowledge, and are both generally on the same side (Both were “pro-vegetarianism”, though in practice one was an omnivore that ate little meat, the other a “utilitarian vegan” that ate grass fed beef and organic eggs from farmer’s markets from time to time…)

Regardless of diet, my IQ is most likely lower after hearing that podcast (not least from the number of times I had to bang my head against the wall).

Why would you subject yourself to such pain you might ask?

Well, though it may be painful at times, I do believe it is extremely important to keep an open mind, and listen to people with opinions different than your own.

As is often the case in these situations, despite having to resist the urge to keep yelling at the computer, the podcast certainly got me thinking, and inspired me to write this post.

What the podcast made me consider, was if, as my theory predicts, we ex-vegetarian Paleo-ish dieters are the most intelligent people on the earth, (destined to devolve into a physically and mentally superior race and take over the world, planet of the apes style), should we not have learnt something from our vegetarian days? Well, aside from the fact it’s generally not a good idea to abstain from eating animal products of course.

Unfortunately it appears that there could be a problem with my theory, as it is becoming apparent to me that many “Paleotarians” tend to make the same mistakes as vegetarians when defending their diet.

Here are a few examples of common vegetarian arguments which Paleo dieters take great pleasure in tearing apart, before often then going on to make an equally flawed argument to make their own case:

    Common Vegetarian Argument No. 1

– Humans don’t have sharp teeth or claws, nor strong enough digestion to eat meat.

The Paleo advocate smugly points out that we developed tools with which to butcher carcasses, and cooking to make the nutrients more readily digestible. You vegetarians aren’t so smart after all!

    Parallel Paleo Argument No. 1

– Humans don’t have the necessary digestive systems or gut ecosystem with which to properly break down hard to digest plant foods such as grains and legumes, and the anti-nutrients within.

But Mr Paleotarian – Have you forgotten about the food preparation tools and techniques we have developed in order to make previously indigestible foods more palatable? What about soaking, sprouting, fermenting and grinding?

    Common Vegetarian Argument No. 2

– Vegetarians tend to be healthier than meat eaters and live longer, therefore we should all eat a vegetarian diet to improve our longevity.

Paleo Rebuttal – This is flawed observational evidence. Vegetarians are less likely to smoke or drink excessively, and are more likely to exercise and generally take care of their health. It should also be noted that vegans have reduced life expectancy, even when compared to individuals on the SAD diet.

    Parallel Paleo Argument No. 2

– Traditional Cultures that followed a Paleo Diet were free from the Diseases of Civilisation, therefore we should eat the same.

But hang on – Surely this is also flawed observational evidence? Traditional people were also less likely to smoke (ok, not always) and drink excessively, were much more physically active, and didn’t have stressful desk jobs or two hour commutes in rush hour traffic. Or BPAs, pollution, electric light, etc, etc.

    Common Vegetarian Argument No. 3

– Meat production is bad for the environment and exploits animals. The grain used to produce one steak, could feed several families. Large amounts of rain forest are cleared to grow cattle feed, and water is diverted from impoverished communities. Meat is Murder!

Paleo man – Ah, but you’re referring to intensive farming. Grass fed beef does not take food out of people’s mouths, as people can’t eat grass. On the contrary, it makes more efficient use of land, as food can be produced with minimal use of fossil fuels, on land too poor to produce crops suitable for human consumption. It makes me so angry when people throw up this straw man argument – Meat production is not synonymous with intensive farming.

    Parallel Paleo Argument No. 3

– Annual Monocrops such as corn, wheat and soy require massive amounts of fossil fuels for machinery, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, and transport and processing. They decrease biodiversity, as all other species that would naturally live in the area, whether plant, animal or invertebrate are annihilated. It results in not only animal suffering, but extinction! It is not sustainable, as it will ultimately lead to soil erosion and desertification. Wheat is murder!

Plant food production is not synonymous with industrial agriculture either though. In fact you can grow veg in your back garden organically with little risk of widespread desertification, habitat destruction and species extinction.

    Common Vegetarian Argument No. 4

– Red Meat is bad for your health. It will clog your arteries with saturated fat, increase your risk of cancer, and is full of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria and hormones. Don’t you know meat literally rots in your stomach?

Modern Caveman – There is no evidence for red meat causing either heart disease or cancer. While there may be some correlations between meat consumption and specific diseases, no mechanism has ever been shown, and overall there is a correlation between meat consumption and longer life expectancy. Well managed, free range animals do not require the routine use of antibiotics or hormones. Meat rotting in the stomach is a myth, the truth is that beans rot in your stomach, what do you think causes gas?

    Parallel Paleo Argument No. 4

– Red meat and saturated fat are essential to health, and grass fed beef should be a staple of the diet.

It is undeniable that Human beings are obligate omnivores – We require vitamin B12 which is only available in animal foods, and many people are inefficient at converting betacarotene to vitamin A and short chain omega 3 fatty acids (found in plants) to longer chain omega 3 fatty acids (found in animal products).

While this does mean that strict Veganism is out, it does not necessarily rule out vegetarianism where some animal products are consumed. Vitamins A,D and K, Cholesterol and Choline, Vitamin B12 and essential fatty acids and amino acids are all vital, but only in relatively small amounts. Amounts that can easily be attained from moderate consumption of good quality eggs, dairy and/or seafood. It could even be argued that these are all in fact better sources of these nutrients than muscle meat of ruminants, even if they are grass fed.

    Common Vegetarian Argument No. 5

– Facon and tofu burgers taste just as good as the real thing, I’m not in the least tempted when I smell someone cooking an English Breakfast, and I never even like meat that much anyway…

Yeah right!

    Parallel Paleo Argument No. 5

– Paleoish Grain Free Cakes and Pastries taste just as good as the real thing, I’m not in the least tempted when I smell fresh bread being baked, and I never liked cakes much anyway…

Yeah right!

When placed side by side, the parallels between the common faulty arguments of the two dietary dichotomies become readily apparent. Is it possible that Paleo dieters have learned nothing from their former dietary follies?

Looking back at the list of former vegetarian bloggers I mentioned at the start of this article, for the most part they are all very non-dogmatic in their views on Paleo, or in some cases may not actually apply the label of Paleo to themselves at all.

I think it is more likely that it is Paleo dieters who have not previously been vegetarians, or followed any other specific diet in the past for that matter, that are more likely to become dogmatic in their views and claims about Paleo.

Switch from the SAD to Paleo, and you will most certainly see dramatic results – Your physique will improve, your health will get better, you will become energised and more athletic. It is human nature to want to spread the word, but also, unfortunately to fall victim to confirmation bias.

Switching from SAD to Raw Veganism will also more than likely produce very similar dramatic results, however. There are countless anecdotes of people losing weight and curing chronic diseases such as auto-immune conditions after going Raw Vegan.

Vegans and Vegetarians are every bit as convinced by both their own personal experiences, and the scientific evidence for their diets, as Paleo dieters are, and while we can only speculate about their relative intelligence compared to modern cavemen, they are certainly not stupid, being more intelligent than the average Joe.

Unfortunately, it seems that once you have had a life changing experience, and formed strong beliefs based on these experiences, that facts are not effective at changing those beliefs.

In part II of this article, I am going to look at:

    a) Why diet is an area particularly prone to the formation of these sorts of very strong, very passionate (aka dogmatic) beliefs, and why this can be a problem even if the diet itself is nutritionally sound.

    b) The problems with Paleo science and nutritional science as a whole, and why we should recognise its limitations, but cannot ignore it.

    c) The pros and cons of N=1 experimentation

    d) A second look at all of the above Veggie v Paleo arguments, from a non-dogmatic, unbiased (as far as I can manage) perspective.

To be continued…

3 thoughts on “Diet Debate: Is Paleo the New Vegetarianism? Did We Learn Anything?”

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