THE BLOG
09/16/2013 01:09 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Why Vegans and Paleos Should Stop Hating Each Other

Last week after I wrote a post called 10 Foods Worth Eating Every Single Day, something interesting dawned on me:

Most of the foods that I eat -- and those in a typical healthy vegan diet (as opposed to the junk-food variety) -- are Paleo.

Sure, the seeds are iffy. And I probably eat beans three or four times a week, and even wheat once in a while, which Paleos wouldn't do.

But beyond that, the foods on my list, by and large, could have been eaten by a caveman.

Guess what? The converse is true, too. Most (yes, most) of a Paleo dieter's foods are vegan. They're whole foods, including a ton of vegetables and nuts, a fair amount of fruits, and no dairy.

Though we focus on the differences in our diets, and fight like pissed-off hornets as a result, the healthy versions of both Paleo and vegan diets look an awful lot alike.

Here are just a few of the things we agree on:

  • Vegetables are good, and organic vegetables are better.
  • Nuts are good.
  • Fruits are good (with some qualifications).
  • Fast food is awful.
  • It isn't natural or healthy for adult humans to drink milk meant for baby cows.
  • Whole food is crucial; we should eat food as close to its natural state as possible.
  • Processed food is evil, and there's something very wrong with the system that is foisting it upon us.

Do you realize what a small minority these shared beliefs put us in?

Each day, one in four Americans eats fast food. Forty-four percent eat it once per week!

Only about a quarter of Americans never eat fast food, so we've got a lot in common already, without even considering our common avoidance of dairy. I can't find a figure for how exclusive a group it is that doesn't consume dairy, but and as New York Times columnist and Vegan Before 6 advocate Mark Bittman puts it, "Drinking milk is as American as Mom and apple pie."

And we still haven't even cordoned ourselves off from the masses who buy mostly processed, packaged foods to eat at home -- the vast majority of whoever remains after we eliminate fast food and dairy, I'm sure.

Essentially, those of us who avoid fast food, pass on milk, and choose whole foods are the weirdos, in a world of processed food and rapidly expanding waistlines.

Even when it comes to meat -- the "staple" of the Paleo diet (more on this in a second) -- I think most Paleos would agree that what our factory farm system produces, whether due to the way the animals are confined or what they're fed or what's injected into them, is not healthy.

And the healthiest vegan athletes, by my judgment anyway, advocate limiting grains or avoiding them entirely. Very often they rely on pseudo-grains like quinoa (technically seeds) instead, which don't jive with Paleo, but I think most Paleos would agree that seeds trump wheat and grains any day.

Basically: we're far more alike than we are different.

So why do we hate each other?

I get that the ethical issues muddy things up a bit. Vegans hate that Paleos so proudly eat meat; Paleos hate that vegans try to tell them something that humans have done throughout our history is suddenly wrong.

But for now, let's put that aside, and acknowledge that if all meat-eaters ate meat raised the way the Paleo diet specifies it should be, our food system would be a heck of a lot more humane (and healthy) than it currently is.

Speaking of meat, I asked my online-buddy Joel Runyon, what he thought about the vegan/Paleo feud, he had this to say:

The biggest misconception about the Paleo diet is that it's all about eating meat. Not true! Paleo is about eating whole, real food that hasn't been processed a thousand times and packed with tons of sugar.

And as he explains on his new site, Ultimate Paleo Guide,

... that means no Twinkies, Oreos or your favorite breakfast cereal. Sorry, but we're not sorry... if it's got a bunch of chemicals that you can't pronounce in it, it's probably not Paleo -- sorry!

Gee, sounds a lot like how I eat.

We can argue forever over which diet is better. Guess what? Nobody is going to convince anyone to switch sides; the argument just entrenches each camp even more.

Who is to say what "better" even means? Do we look at pro athletes and see what they're eating? Okay, in which sports -- endurance, or speed and strength sports? Or should we instead choose not to look at the healthiest, most genetically gifted individuals on the planet, and instead focus on the masses of people who just want to stay reasonably fit and live to see their grandkids graduate high school?

Do we theorize about how humans are meant to eat, or should we look at empirical studies of how humans on these diets have actually fared? (Of which, unfortunately, there are few that isolate the variables we want and span a significant length of time.)

There's no right answer. Sorry. But in the face of the obesity epidemic our processed-food society faces, it doesn't matter.

That's right -- when you set ethics aside and talk about health, my view is that is that the distinction between Paleo and vegan is completely insignificant.

As time goes on and more research is done, it'll be nice to have a clearer picture of which of these two diets leads to long-term disease prevention and health. That I wholeheartedly concede.

But most people -- indeed, the 35 percent of Americans who are obese -- don't need to worry about which is better right now. They need to worry about not being obese, soon, so that the "long term" even matters for them.

And for those people, people who are overwhelmed with the conflicting information out there and don't know where to even begin, our blog posts and articles that trash one diet in favor of the other don't help. Instead, they confuse, to the point of inaction.

Vegan ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll had an interesting discussion about this same topic last week on his podcast, where he talked to Andy Bellatti, MS, RD about the pointlessness of the Paleo/vegan feud. Before they even got to it, Rich mentioned a friend of his who wanted to get in shape.

Like any friend of one of Men's Fitness magazine's 25 Fittest Guys in the World would do, this friend called Rich. He wanted to pick Rich's brain about exercise. Aerobic or anaerobic? ... along with other specific questions.

Rich's answer? Get yourself outside and go for a walk. That's how you get started. That's as much as you need to worry about right now.

And that's really the point I want to make with this post. Ignoring ethical arguments, which don't have a place in a discussion that's purely about health, the message that people who don't know how to eat healthily need to hear is as simple as the dietary equivalent of a walk in the sunshine.

It's a recommendation that Paleos and vegans alike will agree on: Eat whole foods.

What we could do instead of fighting

We want so many of the same things.

We want people to be healthy. We want farming to be separate from the word "factory." We want our food system to provide us with real food, and to treat people, animals, and the earth with respect.

So instead of fighting, let's do some things together.

The posts on No Meat Athlete about plant-based Paleo diets are a start. Dena Harris went further with it by creating PaleoVegetarians.com.

But these aren't even what I'm referring to -- these simply make Paleo fit into a vegetarian/vegan-shaped mold. They're as Paleo as possible while still being strictly vegan or vegetarian.

Why not throw away the mold entirely? I think Vegan Before 6 is great. Why isn't there a podcast with vegan and Paleo co-hosts, who get along and have intelligent discussions and promote eating whole foods above all else? How about a blogger who eats vegan during the week and Paleo on the weekends? How about vegan at home, Paleo at restaurants?

(If any these things exist, which they might, I'd love to hear about them. I'd probably be a fan.)

I'm not suggesting we throw away the labels. Vegan means a lot to me, for ethical reasons and for health-related ones too. I'm sure Paleos feel the same about their tribe. I'm just saying let's work together, instead of against each other, for the good of everyone who simply wants to learn to be healthy, and doesn't care how.

I understand that some vegans will be turned off by this post (Paleos too, but that's no surprise, given the very rift I'm writing about!). We've taught ourselves to disdain everything Paleo, and I've met plenty of vegans for whom it's vegan or nothing -- flexitarian, pescetarian, vegetarian... none of them is any good if it's not 100 percent vegan.

This is where I'm different. I'd rather see 100 people go mostly vegan than 25 people go all the way. A thousand people go Vegan Before 6 than 100 go vegan. And I'd take a million Paleos over a million Standard American Dieters any day. This is why I don't hate the Paleo diet, or its legions of adherents.

Oh yeah, and there's a more personal reason I don't want to hate Paleos. My dad has gone Paleo (or Primal, really) in the past year, and I've been happy to see the improvements -- yes, improvements -- in his diet and his health since he started. Which is convenient, since I really didn't want to fight my dad anyway.

Before Paleo, he ate like most people did. Now, he pays attention to what he eats, making sure to have a salad every day, bringing fruit and a homemade sandwich to work, cooking most of his food, and avoiding most dairy and wheat. He eats meat, of course, but no more than he used to, at least as far as I can tell, and he cares about how the animals it comes from were fed and raised. He gets eggs directly from a small local farm you can go visit, and has even mentioned wanting to raise his own chickens.

I don't think I need to point out that I'm not arguing for Paleo. I'm arguing for whole food, food that is easy to pronounce and prepare and doesn't make a secret of where it came from. Call it whatever you want.

That's what will make the difference in people's health and in our food system, and it's neither Paleo nor vegan. Whole food is both, and that common ground, along with tremendous passion we all have for healthy eating, is something we should leverage if we want to make a real difference.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.