A Reformed Vegetarian Goes Paleo

Don’t get me wrong, there are those among us who choose not to eat meat for genuine ethical reasons (that I totally don’t understand) or who live a meat-free lifestyle and eat pretty damn well (but could do a lot better).

I’ve had my own forays into meatlessness, though my willpower sucked and they never lasted very long so I gave up all attempts completely after I went to college.  My younger sister went vegetarian as a teenager and remained so for four-ish years.  To this day I still don’t really get it, but I give her a lot of credit for sticking to her guns.  (At least she didn’t get knocked up or thrown in jail…to my knowledge).

She started re-introducing some meat back into her diet a little over a year ago, so I suggested Paleo.  After trying it for shorter spurts of time, lo and behold, she felt and looked better.  She hasn’t exactly bought into it for keeps, but I’m working on it 😉

Anyhow, the other day she sent me a FitDay report comparing a typical day of food from when she was a vegetarian to one following a Paleo diet.  She asked me to have a looksee (she was wondering specifically why her iron levels appeared to have dropped on Paleo) and if I had anything to say about “why I should be eating Paleo if some of my veg numbers were so much better.
First of all, what jumped out to me the most on the vegetarian diet, ironically, was a lack of fruits and vegetables.  Most of her calories were coming from pasta and bread…she was consuming about three times as many carbohydrates as is generally recommended for optimum health in most Paleo/Primal circles and had a serious lack of dietary fat…
On her Paleo day, there’s a definite improvement in her macronutrient profiles:
mmmm…delicious fat
My only concern with her Paleo day was that she wasn’t eating enough.  More on that in a sec…
Her main concern, as I mentioned before, was why some of her micronutrient levels seem to have dropped off.  Below is her FitDay micronutrient analysis for the vegetarian day:
And for her Paleo day:
What jumps out at me is the dramatic increase in natural B-vitamins.  (Yay for beef!)  But what about the calcium and iron?
The answer, from my perspective, is actually pretty simple.  One, there’s not enough food variety here to ensure a well-rounded intake of micronutrients.  Two, she’s simply not eating enough.  Bam!
If we’re looking at iron in particular, she was getting more as a vegetarian thanks to the obscene wheat intake.  Not only is wheat a rich source of iron, a lot of breads and pastas are fortified with even more.  The best sources of any vitamins are whole foods, not those that have been fortified, so her best bet is to keep doing what she’s doing with the meat and dark leafy greens, just eat a little more.  Same goes for the calcium.  Make sure you get some meat and greens at every meal and you’re good to go.  I would also say overall caloric intake ought to be a little higher, too, since she’s pretty active.
Oh, and I should also mention that, even if she appears to be getting less iron in her diet now, my sister has been able to donate blood consistently for the last year.  As a vegetarian, she had been turned away a number of times due to a low blood-iron content–this seems to indicate better and proper absorption of iron since her re-introduction of meat.
In my sister’s defense, she explained that the lack of culinary variety and produce was due in large part to the seasonal availability of a lot of good fruit and veggies (a true locavore!) and the monetary burden of buying a lot of meat.  She lives in a small college town in rural VA that relies heavily on the local agricultural economy and large grocery stores are few and far between.
As far as seasonal lack of produce goes, my advice would be to buy and eat as much as possible of what is available.  If that means eating an ass-ton of greens, then so be it.  Some of us have the luxury of having larger stores that sell organic mangoes year-round and some of us don’t, so you just need to make do with what you’ve got.  Again, veggies at every meal is a great rule of thumb, even if it’s spinach and broccoli every time.
Finally, I’ll be the first one to admit that yes, meat can be expensive.  I get it.  But that’s not a deal-breaker at all.  Invest in cheaper cuts of meat.  Buy meat in bulk quantities.  Go for organ meats.  Go beyond beef and look for pork, poultry, and game meats.  Bite the bullet and pick up some grain-fed meat from time to time (just make sure you’re supplementing your Omega-3s).  If you absolutely CANNOT afford more meat, get more animal-based fat and protein from eggs and organic, full-fat dairy.
There are plenty of resources available (Like this blog!  Tell your friends!) as well, so do a little digging and find out what works for you.  We’re not all blessed with oodles of money and a Whole Foods next door, but a little (or a lot) or effort is always worth it when it comes to lifelong health.
Please be aware that I am not a professional and that all of the nutritional advice given in this post–and on the site as a whole–is based on my own knowledge and opinions.  

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