A Vegetarian Goes Rogue: Considering the Benefits of a Paleo Diet

Image by Martin Cathrae. Licensed through Creative Commons.

It started with a pointed finger.

“Now, you,” said my cousin, Mike, disapprovingly, “I think your lifestyle is absolutely the worst!”

It was about time someone in the family confronted my life choices. Three years had already gone by—long enough for what seemed like a passing fad to solidify into an actual threat. This was the last straw. I had flown in the face of convention, I had alienated my loved ones, and now my membership in the Cult Vegetarian had actually warranted an intervention.

“Look at your diet,” Mike continued, “it’s incredibly dangerous. You eat like a rabbit to maintain your energy. Our bodies aren’t meant to process food this way.”

Vegetarians and lawyers share a commonality in that they’ve heard every dumb joke and every poorly-constructed argument against their case. Mike, a failed stand-up comedian, was an accomplished medical professional—a back specialist whose credits have earned him to the right to proselytize the holy gospel of fad diet du jour. His wasn’t the first argument I had heard for my dietary salvation, but it was certainly the most confrontational.

Why someone’s choice in food warranted a lengthy conversation was beyond me—but, then, my family was the type to have long conversations about food. Hell, we watch the Food Network in between courses. We take more photos of the dessert spread at special gatherings than of each other.

My choice to go veg was based purely on its health benefits. Adult-onset diabetes runs in my family—the disease is one of the most prevalent afflicting Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in the United States—and I thought a change in diet and lifestyle might nip it in the bud. The benefits to Vegetarianism—a decreased carbon footprint and the potential to lower US spending on diabetes in this econ-challenged time—seemed an added bonus. Silly me.

Mike lectured on, which is to say my mind glazed over to the sounds of muted trombones a la Charlie Brown; but somewhere in that mix, Mike mentioned the teachings of Gary Taube and passed along a little red book entitled, Why We Get Fat. (It is, sadly, to his credit that Mike saved this discussion until the self-esteem issues associated with female adolescence had fully matured—which is to say that I could brush the whole thing off as him being an asshole.)

For years now, Taube has been touting the benefits of the Paleolithic diet, which is what some lazily describe as, “Kind of like Atkins.” The diet is different for many people. Like any religion, including Vegetarianism, there are boundaries for what people are comfortable choking down. The main tenants of the Paleo diet revolve around consuming more meat, more dark, leafy veggies, more fat; and less carbs and sugars. The science, which is described in insultingly simple terms in Why We Get Fat (best to read Taube’s Good Calories, Bad Calories), asserts that our bodies have evolved to process meat and fat for energy and that the carb-friendly diets promoted by the National Institutes of Health are flawed and outdated.

It was at this point in the lecture that Mike swayed my boyfriend, Matt, who had been penitently standing by my side, to join Paleolithicism.

The weeks that followed housed what can only be described as the polite discussions of a non-married couple either too self-aware to brawl over such insignificant things as food or too weak because of their respective diets to one-up each other in an argument. Suffice it to say, these food-related tête-à-têtes skirted the line of affective, loving communication.

What bothered me most about Mike’s intervention and the evangelical fanaticism of his newly-recruited disciple was the surety and cockiness of their attacks. It’s one thing to advocate a diet, but does doing so require such personal condemnation? Why must Paleos undermine research promoting vegetarian diets in order to assert their diet as an equal alternative?

Vegetarian diets, after all, have been linked to reducing the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and forms of cancer.

You’d expect a high fat diet to increase cholesterol—and the research is about 50/50 on that front—but you don’t expect someone to get a big head over something as insignificant as a salad. I chalk up the chauvinism, and indeed it was, to a hormonal imbalance resulting from the Paleo diet (high fat diets have been linked to a rise in the production of testosterone).

There are benefits to living life Paleo, though. The hormonal imbalance that I loathe, actually benefits the dieter—increased testosterone has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. The Paleo diet has also been shown to cut waistlines (obesity has been linked to diabetes) and lower glucose levels.

Both Matt and Mike enjoyed a noticeable boost in energy and significant weight loss after their conversion. Still, I can’t fully promote the Paleo diet as an across-the-board healthy alternative. Diets with a high intake of animal protein and fat have been shown to prompt conditions that cause kidney problems in diabetics, increase insulin resistance, cause hypoglycemia for those on insulin therapy, and exacerbate an intestinal environment that leaves the dieter vulnerable to heart disease, weight gain, and, again, certain forms of cancer.

There are just too many factors worth considering before jumping aboard the Paleo diet—chief among them are age, gender, ethnicity, income, family history, and lifestyle.

We may never know which diet reigns supreme—this discussion between spoiled children on the benefits of not eating something blathers on. Still, with thirteen percent of the world’s population going hungry, count us both lucky for having more than our foot to shovel down our throats.