Is a Paleo-Vegetarian Diet Setting Yourself Up for Failure?

The popularity of Vegetarian and Paleolithic diets is on the rise. But that might be the understatement of the century. Vegetarianism has a long history, stretching back thousands of years in some regions, and the last several decades seem to have been on a steady incline for adopting the vegetarian diet as information about ethical and healthy eating practices becomes more widely available. But when it comes to the Paleo diet, it might be more accurate to say that the interest in this diet has skyrocketed in the last several years.

Loren Cordain, an exercise scientist and nutritional expert, published his book, The Paleo Diet, in 2002. The book heralded a hunter-gatherer style of eating, positing it as the diet of the Paleolithic era when people did not have access to farmed and processed foods. Then, once Paleo hit the CrossFit community, its reputation exploded, and by 2013 it was the most commonly searched diet on Google. Both diets are in vogue — and due to their potential health benefits, many athletes are adopting them to support optimal performance. But typically, athletes choose one or the other – not both.

In the vegetarian community, there is a divide between those who abstain from meat due to health benefits, and those who do so for ethical reasons. Both groups have risen in numbers, with more information generated every day about the lamentable practices of the slaughterhouse industry and the high incidence of health complications engendered by high-cholesterol diets laden with unhealthy fats.

Before we go on, we’d better break down what exactly “vegetarianism” means. While vegetarianism is merely foregoing meat in one’s diet, there are some variations. Many vegetarians also exclude eggs, and some eschew the consumption of dairy. Others cut out both. Pescatarians, who are often classified as vegetarians, don’t eat meat but allow for fish and seafood. While abstinence from meat has shown numerous health benefits, it is still common for a vegetarian diet to be nutritionally weak in some areas for some people, as it bears no restrictions on processed foods, bad fats or refined carbohydrates.

The Paleo world is more uniform, in that most who choose the Paleo route do so strictly for health reasons. However, the strictures of Paleo are more complicated than vegetarianism. The idea is to eat only foods that would have been available to humans during the Paleolithic era. Meats, vegetables, fruits and nuts all get the green light. But on the no-eat list are grains, refined sugars, legumes, seed oils, processed foods and gluten. In the athletic arena, the reasons for the diet are obvious to the diet-conscious. Paleo provides heaps of quality protein and carbohydrate sources — crucial for supporting any intense physical regimen — while eliminating foods that encourage fat gains and wreak havoc on the body’s digestive and cardiovascular systems.

Venn Diagram of What Paleo & Vegetarians Won't Eat
Can you live in the overlap of what Vegetarian and Paleo eaters won’t eat?

Both the Vegetarian and Paleo diets have been used by athletes successfully. But quite rare among athletes — or the population in general — is the Paleo-Vegetarian diet, which follows Paleo rules while also refraining from meat. Given that a central pillar of Paleo tends to be meat such as bacon and lean grass-fed beef, these two diets can be very challenging to combine. With the communities taking interest in each other — Paleo enthusiasts who wish to nix the meat from their diets, and vegetarians looking to optimize their health — the question has to be asked: can a diet geared for top athletic performance be both Paleo and Vegetarian?

In a word, yes. It is certainly possible to take a Paleo diet and cut out the meat. However, whether it is an optimal plan for an active lifestyle is less certain. It also means following a number of complex rules, so it requires someone who is both knowledgeable and committed.

Paleo takes a huge chunk of the typical Western diet and shoes it away. Without grains, refined sugars, legumes and seed oils, one is already going against the societal norm. Meals have to be planned and prepared ahead of time, because the fast food menu and the pizza night at the neighbors’ cannot accommodate a Paleo eater.

Since Paleo relies heavily on meat for protein, it is easy to see that making it vegetarian-friendly presents difficulties. Vegetarians typically obtain high quantities of protein from dairy and legumes — both of which are prohibited by Paleo. So what’s left? Those who wish to marry the two diets will be compelled to rely primarily on nuts and eggs for protein. While this is feasible, it certainly limits one’s options. And limited meal options means getting bored or being left unsatisfied, which in turn often means giving up on the diet. Athletes looking to encourage muscle gains with a high protein intake may find the restrictions of a Paleo-Vegetarian life quite imposing.

Paleo Vegetarian Athlete Eating

It is not all bad from here, though. Adding more eggs and nuts into one’s diet is simple enough, and after a few weeks of adjustment it can begin to feel natural. Many Paleo-Vegetarians also rely heavily on protein powders and supplements to round out their protein needs. One who is truly committed to a Paleo-Vegetarian diet can make it work with a lot of planning and a strict grocery list.

But for those who are willing to make just one compromise from the Paleo diet, things become much easier. Since legumes are proven to have excellent nutritional benefits and provide a great source of protein and complex carbohydrates, it is sensible for most vegetarians to stick with legumes while giving a nod to Paleo by dropping refined sugars, grains, dairy and gluten. This slightly modified Paleo-Vegetarian diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs and legumes, provides plenty of quality carbohydrates, fats and protein. We know it isn’t a perfect Paleo-Vegetarian solution, but this ensures that those with full exercise schedules you can get all the nutrients you require without relying on nearly all of the foods that Paleo purists are so keen on avoiding.

In the end, everyone has to decide which diet — or hybrid diet —will work for them. A meat-free Paleo diet including legumes — think “Paleo-Vegetarian with breathing room” — provides plenty of cuisine options and still jettisons problem foods like refined sugars, seed oils and gluten. As for those who wish to forego legumes and embrace a strictly Paleo-Vegetarian life, it is certainly doable. It will just require a little extra effort — and plenty of patience for eggs and nuts.

13 Vegetarian/Vegan Olympic Athletes Who Inspire Us

Vegetarians and their diets are frequently stigmatized by others: “Not eating meat is unnatural! It’s weird! Vegetarians must be so weak and unhealthy!”

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Vegetarian diets are not just a frequent staple of healthy living, but are enjoyed by some of the fittest people on our planet. With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi just on the horizon, we are reminded that it is not only possible, but quite common to compete at the highest level of athletic excellence while remaining completely vegetarian.

U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO

Here are just some of the greatest Olympic athletes from around the world, past and present, who all reached their athletic success while living the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle:

    • Alexey Voyevoda – Russian bobsledder Alexey Voyevoda is a mountain of a man and a two-time Olympic medalist. He credits raw vegetarianism and healthy living to his high fitness level, and all eyes will be on this Sochi native this February.
    • Hannah Teter – Hannah Teter is a talented American halfpipe snowboarder who is Sochi-bound this year. This, after already medaling in each of the last two Olympic games. Teter has attributed her plant-based diet to giving her the renewed strength and energy to reach and stay at the highest possible competitive level in her sport.
Edwin Moses - Photo by
Edwin Moses – Photo by
  • Edwin Moses – Edwin Moses completely dominated the sport of running for eight solid years, from 1977 to 1987. Winning an unprecedented 122 consecutive races and more than his share of medals, Moses did it all on a plant-based diet.
  • Charlene Wong – Charlene Wong is a very accomplished figure skater, winning four silver medals at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships – all while meat-free. “It all started with my desire to be as lean and healthy as possible as a teenager around seventeen years old,” she confided in a 2012 interview.
  • Carl Lewis – Many are familiar with track and field legend Carl Lewis. Lewis’s storied career spanned multiple decades and multiple Olympic games. By the end of his career, Carl Lewis had won an astonishing 10 Olympic medals, nine of which were gold, and cemented his legacy as one of the fastest men to ever live. Carl Lewis is a devout vegetarian.
  • Ronda Rousey – Ronda Rousey is one of the toughest women in sports today, a heavy hitter in the UFC and judo Olympian. Rousey is the current number one pound-for-pound female mixed martial arts fighter in the world. Yet few are aware that she was also a strict vegan at when she made it big in athletics. However, Rousey has since begun eating meat as part of the Dolce Diet. That said, Rousey’s ongoing commitment to healthy eating has given her the edge to be one of MMA’s most dominant competitors, if not one of its most intriguing personalities.
  • Surya Bonaly – French-American figure skater Surya Bonaly is another athlete who adheres to a vegetarian diet. Bonaly was an unbeatable force on the ice throughout most of the 1990s, winning medal after medal, including five gold medals in the European Championships.
  • Chris Campbell – From his 700-pound leg presses to his crushing holds, Chris Campbell was the epitome of athletic excellence in 1992, when he became one of the oldest men to win an Olympic medal in wrestling. Campbell was just a few months away from his 38th birthday at the time, and credits ample helpings of his favorite dish – tofu stroganoff – for his great longevity in the sport.
  • Bode Miller – Skier Bode Miller won our hearts in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, and again in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. But he also won five Olympic medals as well, all while being a strict vegetarian. In fact, Bode Miller has been vegetarian since birth, and is a leading advocate for sustainable organic farming.
  • Debbi Lawrence – Debbi Lawrence was a compelling figure in an often overlooked sport called racewalking. A three-time Olympian, Lawrence is proof that vegetarianism can benefit athletes from all “walks” of life, spanning all manner of sports.
  • Dylan Wykes – Canadian runner Dylan Wykes is one of the best distance athletes his country has ever produced. Preferring a diet rich in quinoa and lentils, Wykes does not eat meat due to ethical concerns.
  • Lizzie Arimtstead - Olympic Cyclist
    Lizzie Armisted – Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Murray Rose – Murray Rose’s swimming feats in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics established Australia as one of the world’s most dominating swimming powers. A winner of six medals, Rose was a vegan throughout his career and throughout his life, while openly crediting all of his success to his diet.

  • Lizzie Armitstead – Like Bode Miller, British cyclist Lizzie Armistead has been vegetarian since birth. Armistead was the pride of her nation during the 2008 Olympics in London, when she won a coveted cycling medal. All without, as she puts it, “eating corpses.”

As these athletes have demonstrated, athletic excellence is in no way contingent on the consumption of meat. As vegetarianism and veganism become increasingly commonplace, many athletes are finding that plant-based diets are not only possible, but can even give them that extra edge they need to succeed in high-intensity and demanding events like the Olympics. All of us at Vegetarian Nation wish the athletes – vegetarian and otherwise – the best of luck in Sochi next month!