Vegetarian vs. Vegan vs. Paleo? (Stop the Debate, Get the Facts)

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.


Vegetarian vs. Vegan vs. Paleo: Which one is better? Is there a right answer? The MAIN THING IS TO KEEP THE MAIN THING THE MAIN THING. Find out how…


There are three conversation topics that get people fired up:


  • Politics
  • Religion
  • And, nutrition


Proceed with caution.


Particularly when it comes to this subject: Meat or no meat—which one is healthier?



It’s a debate seemingly unsolved!


Similar to other nutrition debates, like:

  • Low-fat vs. low carb;
  • Whey protein post-workout—effective or not?; and,
  • Eating late at night—good or bad?


…There are varying camps on the topic.


Ask a vegetarian or vegan why they choose to go meat-free and they will share:

  • How much healthier they feel;
  • Why eating meat causes cancer;
  • How much more connected to the earth and animals they are; or,
  • How their diet is like a spiritual or religious experience.


Ask an omnivore their thoughts on incorporating protein in their diet, and they will report:

  • “I need it to build muscle”; or,
  • “I’m a meat and potatoes kinda gal”; or,
  • “I feel more energy, satiated and/or balanced with my blood sugar.”


In other words: People are pretty fixed on how they eat.


I totally get it!


Having followed every type of diet under the sun: Vegetarianism to low-fat, South Beach, Atkins’, a re-feeding diet of processed foods in eating disorder treatment, the food guide pyramid, no/low-carb, Mediterranean, 1200-calories-or-less, body-building, ‘clean eating’, ketogenic, fasting, ‘perfect Paleo’, and now, REAL FOOD, I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of believing MY WAY was the right way.



Nevertheless…No matter which camp you fall into, there’s no denying the fact that every human body needs a mix of carbs, fats and proteins to optimally function, and, when we neglect a food group (like protein), we miss out on this balance.


UNFORTUNATELY…Trying to explain this to anyone who does not believe it is a tough nut to crack:


What can you say to a vegan or vegetarian who believes protein is not a ‘fundamental building block’ of human health?!


Read on:


Exhibit A: Recently, a vegan sat down with me to address some digestive dysfunction she’d been experiencing—frequent bloating, abdominal pain, water retention.


As our conversation ensued and we explored current nutrition and lifestyle factors, she asked me what my personal food philosophy was.


I disclosed my belief that, after years spent dieting, I think every human body needs balance.


Flabbergasted, she responded: “You mean you’re telling me, you don’t believe in veganism?!”—as if it were a religion (This, coming from a gal who got her daily fuel solely from raw fruits, veggies, juices and smoothies).


I responded, “I don’t not or do believe in veganism—I don’t see it as a religion…all I am saying is that you and I—all humans—were designed to need nutrients from a balanced diet—protein, fats and carbs, and the most ideal way to do just that is to eat the actual sources of each of those (protein=meat, fish, poultry, eggs; fats=nuts/seeds, oils and fats; carbs=primarily fresh fruits and veggies, with moderate starch—depending on energy expenditure).”


“Hmm…That’s great for you, but I feel so clean and alive,” she went on, talking in euphoria about her vegan lifestyle. (Then WHY she was struggling with bloating, abdominal cramps and water retention on a daily basis?).


One more instance: a gal in her mid-20’s who had been following a strict vegetarian diet for most of her life connected to work on improving her health and lifestyle.


Her goals?


  • Conquer her eating disorder
  • Improve digestion
  • Deal and learn to cope with her stress and anxiety
  • Stop obsessing about food so much
  • Develop a healthy relationship with exercise (i.e. stop the chronic cardio)
  • Build a lean, toned body she felt confident in
  • Uncover her passions and career endeavors


All wonderful goals!


She admitted her life was not where she wanted it to be—she was not fully thriving or happy, and was open to making some changes—or at least learning some simple solutions for dealing with her current stressors.


The one thing we would not touch upon though:


“I feel better being a vegetarian and I cannot imagine eating meat,” she said.


Despite educating her around the importance of balance (protein included) in our diets, I totally respected her apprehensions to any dietary changes, and yes, do agree that a switch of any sort from a vegetarian diet would be difficult—particularly in the beginning.


However, after an initial week spent simply logging her food and mood—to create awareness around how her food made her feel…she was shocked.


Digestive distress to the max!


After a breakfast of greek yogurt, granola and berries…then a lunch of tons of raw veggies, quiona, and sweet potatoes, or a large rice bowl with lots of veggies and perhaps some tofu …a snack of hummus and crackers…and a dinner of more sweet potatoes, black beans and veggies…she noted bloating and gas after most every meal in her food log; difficulty digesting her food.


Feelings of guilt were also often accompanied after meals—mostly feeling like she had over-consumed or eaten too much, with a distended belly, trying to break down all those veggies and grains.


From a nutrition perspective, I could completely see why—her body was not fully digesting her food well because it was lacking…balance. It needed some protein to help usher that food along.


Mentally, however, this gal felt great—about herself. Like the low-carb dieters who find an ego boost in their ability to deny themselves carbs (even when their energy is lacking…or their hormones are out of whack…), there was something about her vegetarian lifestyle in which she found a sense of: identity.


More than anything, I think this is where the decision to be a vegan…or vegetarian…or paleo…or keto…or any other diet you affiliate with can be a rocky road to explore ‘life outside’ of our own box—when our diet becomes our identity.


We can let our diets identify how we feel about ourselves and our self-worth.


This is another topic for another day, but if you find yourself wondering if you really are thriving in your life (with ANY habit: from your current diet to your alcohol or sugar consumption…your binge TV watching…your lack of sleep…your addiction to work, etc.)—or if you are giving yourself and your body everything it truly needs and deserves, identity in your habits can play a HUGE role in our ability to even SEE that maybe (just maybe), there ARE some things in our current lifestyle holding us back…



[See a couple other stories of folks who found their identities and dietary philosophies rooted in vegetarianism and veganism and found health through a more balanced approach here and here].


In the case of vegetarianism and veganism, while these diets do claim you can get your protein through secondary sources like beans and rice, nuts and seeds, and even broccoli, it’d be like a meat eater, trying to get all their carbs from proteins (i.e. the Atkins’ diet).



Although this can work in a short-term (and the body CAN extract energy—like glucose—from proteins…it’s not the ideal situation long-term; think: constipation, bloating, gas. Carbs are necessary for digestion and fiber if anything!).


In conclusion: the MOST ideal way to get the total 10 essential amino acids your body needs to thrive is straight from the sources themselves: Meat, poultry, eggs, pork and fish.



That being said, ultimately, the ‘debate’ between Omnivorism vs. Vegan vs. Vegetarianism will continue to ensue…and ultimately, the choice is yours—and yours alone—to make.


As a believer in balance for myself, I imagine my claim that ‘protein sources’ are necessary for EVERYONE (including vegans and vegetarians)—would be like some new, shocking, crazy study claiming that:


Eating real food is crazy! The real way to eat and thrive is through Big Macs and Ben & Jerry’s. These foods have been proven to cure cancer, aid in digestion, and build lean muscle. (i.e. I’d think the person telling me this was crazy too, because I affiliate with feeling amazing by eating a balanced diet of real food).


If you find yourself talking to a vegan or vegetarian…or you are a vegan or vegetarian yourself, here are some simple facts about protein, addressing these three questions:

  • WHY do we need amino acids and protein in the first place?


  • What are the drawbacks to a vegetarian and vegan diet—from a health perspective?


  • And, how, if vegetarianism or veganism is ‘for you’, can you adhere to it in a healthy way?



WHY do we need amino acids and protein in the first place?

Protein is often called the “fundamental building block” of our body, functioning as the structural “skeleton” for our cells.


What the heck does that mean?!


In layman’s terms: Protein is in EVERY one of our cells and necessary for everything our cells are up to (from digestion…to thermal heating and cooling…muscle movement and contraction…hair and nail growth…growth in general…preventing bone and muscle loss…giving us energy).


Protein is composed of a total of 22 naturally occurring amino acids—10 of these are considered ESSENTIAL—meaning, we can only get them from food (we can’t make them ourselves).


Moreover, unlike glucose (which your body can synthesize if you aren’t eating carbohydrates), you can’t manufacture protein from other sources.


If you don’t consume enough essential amino acids, your body will start breaking down your muscles and stripping your body (and energy levels) down to get them.


Although, you can technically eat the bare minimum of protein sources (about 10%) to get the bare minimum of amino acids you need…you are going to fail to thrive in comparison to a diet that contains at least 20-30% of protein.


Check out what all protein does for you:

10 Reasons We Need Protein


Healthy Immune System- Proteins contain antibodies that circulate in your blood to protect you against viruses


Bone Health & Integrity– primarily proteins, with calcium, magnesium and phosphate;


Digestive Aid- Proteins come in the form of enzymes, which make every chemical process in your body happen (break down food for absorption; to regulate the entry of nutrients through cell walls, and the removal of waste-products; to grow, develop, move, reproduce.  (Many enzymes also need specific vitamins and minerals to function);


Healthy Cells- The protein hemoglobin partners with iron, carries oxygen around your body;


Shiny and Strong Nails & Hair—Thankyou keratin (protein)


Healthy Hormones- Proteins are a part of your hormonal structure, which send chemical messages between nerve cells and to regulate metabolism;


Energy-Proteins are the basic building blocks of life…and for that life, they promote ENERGY! (Specifically B12 and iron). The bioavailability of the iron in plant foods is much lower than in animal foods.


Supporting Muscle Growth & Repair- Protein feeds tissue that’s been broken down—particularly muscle tissue from exercise. It also preserves muscle from being lost as we age and continue to train.


Satisfies hunger. Protein slows down digestion making us more satisfied


Anxiety. Protein is the framework that holds nerves together. Your nervous system (brain) is responsible for your mood and emotions.



How much protein do I need?

Great question! Every body is different, but general guidelines are 0.8 grams/per kilogram of bodyweight, or about 0.5 grams for every pound of body weight. For athletes and active individuals, this increases:

  • Light activity – 0.7g/lb of LBM
  • Moderate – 0.9g/lb of LBM
  • High – 1.1g/lb of LBM
  • Intensive – 1.3g/lb of LBM


The bottom line: Every function of your cells, organs and entire body is controlled by proteins.



What are the drawbacks to a vegetarian or vegan diet?

 I am not speaking to the folks who are compelled to adhere to a vegan or vegetarian protocol out of religious reasons or animal rights’ reasons (Although, consider this: in nature, animals eat animals—it’s the way of the beast…how are humans any different to consume animals? Living, eating and dying is a natural design of all living creatures).


I am speaking to those who choose a vegetarian or vegan diet under the impression that it’s a healthier choice from a nutritional perspective.


The GOOD news about veganism and vegetarianism is the emphasis on lots of nutrients from fruits and veggies—all of which pack a vitamin, mineral and nutrient punch!


The BAD news?


A few things:


Getting your energy from packaged, processed products, grains and dairy. Ironically vegan and vegetarian diets may not include many veggies at all! Just like going ‘gluten-free’ doesn’t necessarily mean eating foods from real food sources (i.e. gluten free cookies, breads, pastas, etc.), vegan and vegetarian diets can fall into the same trap (frozen fake meat products, overprocessed soy and tofu products, grains and breads, cereals, bars, etc.). The letters “veg” in vegan and vegetarian diets does not imply these folks are eating real food—and thus fueling up with a Standard American processed food diet.


Missing out on key nutrients. Some of the more common deficiencies vegan and vegetarian diets present with include low: iron, zinc, B12 (i.e. energy), long-chain fatty acids EPA & DHA, calcium (and the ability to absorb calcium) and fat-soluble vitamins like A & D. For a closer look into the role of each of these, Chris Kresser has a great article here


Digestive Distress. As mentioned above, vegan and vegetarian diets can pose threat to digestion (and ease of digestion) due to the fact that proteins are not as available to help carry your food through your system and break it down. In effort to get your fill, and feel satisfied from your food, you load up on more raw veggies, fruits, grains or other packaged and processed veggie replacements—when in actuality, your body is craving balance from a little bit of protein in your life. Fiber in general can be harder to break down, and foods like grains, dairy, nuts and seeds, and legumes (beans) are well-known gut-irritants.


The Bottom Line: More than eating meat or not eating meat…how does your food make you feel? And are you getting in quality nutrition through foods with the vitamins and minerals you need?


Side note: What are the drawbacks to a Paleolithic or meat-based diet?


I won’t leave these folks out of the equation—and will briefly touch on this.


Just like vegetarian diets can lend to deficiencies…other ways of eating can lead to deficiencies TOO when we lose sight of the BIGGER picture (Repeat after me: Balance).


First example: Processed & Sugar-fix Paleo. Many of us know those folks who ‘go paleo’—only to complexly use their new diet as a way to justify eating more…


  • Bacon
  • Nutbutter
  • Butter
  • Butter coffee
  • Paleo ‘treats’
  • Paleo pizza
  • Paleo waffles and pancakes
  • Paleo muffins
  • Paleo crackers


In other words: stocking up on all the ‘good stuff’ or imitations of old standby American Standard Diet staples.

Adherents still find ways to justify their pre-conditioned cravings for sugar…and processed foods, masked in a ‘paleo’ or ‘real food’ disguise.


Secondly, not all proteins are created equal. Perhaps a person does eat protein—and lots of it. However, if the source of protein is from a hormone-infested cow or sickly chicken, you are really not getting the biggest nutrition bang for your “healthy eating” buck. Just like eating a plant, bathed in a shower of pesticides, is harmful for our health, so is eating cows fed corn, soy and candy wrappers, when they were meant to live and eat from green pastures; or eating chickens, pumped with antibiotics and hormones to make them plumper and grow faster than nature intended. We eat what our animals ate…buyer be ware. Organic, grass-fed and pasture-raised not only is healthier, but tastes better!



Lastly, extreme dieting sometimes happens. You get stoked for the latest health kick and experiment: intermittent fasting…ketosis…carb cycling…which one to follow? Which one is best?


While these various methods and ‘hacks’ for eating can serve a purpose for a particular season or goals…if adhered to in the long term, just like our vegetarian and vegan friends eating all the soy, processed fake meats, and gut-irritating grains and dairy…we miss out on the BASICS of balance (protein, fat and carbs…protein, fat and carbs)…



How can you get what your body needs through a vegetarian or vegan diet?


If you still find that a vegetarian or vegan diet IS for you, to each his or her own! Ultimately, a healthy diet goes far beyond if you are just eating meat or not—it really is about:


Are you getting what your body needs to thrive—a diet chock-full of nutrients?


And honestly, with some strategy, you can still do so!


Here are some optimal sources of vegetarian or vegan proteins you may find you can be open to incorporating…knowing, that protein can be like broccoli, or kale, or liver or Brussels sprouts—something that you may not love, but you know is good for you:



  • Fish (wild caught salmon, cod, snapper, tuna, ahi, arctic char)
  • Shrimp, oysters, scallops
  • Canned tuna/wild salmon
  • Pasture-raised eggs
  • Hemp protein
  • Whey protein, Goat protein, Egg white protein
  • Vegan protein (without extra additives or sweeteners)
  • Collagen and gelatin (Vital Proteins is awesome)
  • Bone broth
  • Properly prepared beans, quiona and lentils (pre-soak before cooking) (Check out these methods for soaking your legumes, for instance)
  • Full fat, plain, raw organic Greek yogurt
  • Sunflower seeds, hemp seeds
  • Tempeh
  • Fermented tofu
  • Liver (and/or liver capsules/tabs)
  • Organic dairy



The conclusion? If you decide vegetarianism or veganism is the way for you, avoiding meat is only ONE part of the picture.


Just like extreme protein eaters who avoid carbs at all costs (think back to the Atkins’ diet here folks)—eventually…if not cared for (i.e. if your nutrient needs are met)…your body eventually suffers. A healthy vegetarian or vegan diet should be stacked-full of foods with known benefits.



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