The vegetarian/paleo debate has gone toxic

Healthy snack or bowlful of toxins? One paleo writer would have you believe that vegans and vegetarians eat toxic, diabetes-inducing foods, but is that claim supported by any evidence?

Of vegetarians’ many opponents, some of the most vocal are in the paleo crowd. Consider, for example, this article arguing that the paleo diet is better for your health and the environment than a vegetarian or vegan diet. In fact, this writer argues that vegetarian/vegan diets are outright bad for you.

Here is the nub of his argument against the supposed health benefits of vegetarianism:

“Vegetarians and vegans have to get the bulk of their calories from other sources than meat and often end up eating larger portions of soy, wheat or other grain based products. Tofu, soy milk, breads, pastas, rice, … Those products are toxic and lead to a high carbohydrate load which could lead to chronically high insulin levels, weight gain and diabetes in the long run.”

I’m sure you’ve seen this type of argument before, as it is a standard line of attack. However, before engaging with the relative merits of a paleo versus vegetarian lifestyle, it is best to analyze the argument itself. So let’s take a closer look.

The first thing to note is that these health questions ought to be borne out by the academic literature. If you’re making a scientific claim, why not look to the science?

With that in mind, here is a study from the NIH website which concludes that people who eat less animal products are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. As a vegetarian, their results suggest, you are also likely to have a lower BMI.

The order in both cases, from lowest to highest, went vegan, ovo-lacto vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, then semi-vegetarian, leaving the non-vegetarians with the highest incidence of type 2 diabetes and the highest overall BMI at 28.8 kg/m2 versus 23.6 kg/m2 for vegans.

I have looked for competing research which contradicts these results, but found none (This one, which concludes that vegetarians and vegans should increase their omega-3 and B12 intake, is the closest thing I could find). If you have access to any such studies, I welcome them.

In their absence, however, I must conclude that the comments from our paleo friend are entirely unfounded. As such, they add nothing to the conversation, but merely heap bad information onto the pile.

And what about the word “toxic”? As a word, it is extremely powerful and conjures fear when dropped into a conversation. But what is it actually supposed to mean? I don’t see a lot of vegetarians dropping dead in the streets from legume poisoning, so it isn’t immediately clear what is supposed to be toxic.

A bit of research reveals that the main “toxins” of concern are phytates and phytic acid. Phytic acid is a compound plants use to store phosphorus and a phytate is what it is called after it reacts and becomes a salt. The concern is that phytic acid, found primarily in grains, nuts, and legumes, tends to bind minerals into salts, making them less bioavailable. In other words, phytates and phytic acid take the minerals from your food and render them useless.

If this is true, then it is indeed a concern. However, this is not exactly a case of toxicity. Toxic things are poisonous, like arsenic and lead. Phytic acid, as it is being portrayed, is better called an antinutrient. This might seem like a petty difference, but it speak to intellectual honesty.

But even then, the science does not clearly support the paleo argument. Yes, phytic acid can function as an antinutrient. But it can also function as an antioxidant and has demonstrated anti-cancer properties. Some of its negative properties are also mitigated by soaking, sprouting, and/or fermenting the grains, nuts or legumes before cooking. You could also eat less of them or take a mineral supplement.

I’ll come back to the phytic acid problem another time. The issue is complex and deserves a robust treatment, something which is not accomplished by holding it up as some toxic phyto-boogyman.

As much as it would be nice if things were simple, they aren’t. Last time, I mentioned that being a competent vegetarian entails adjusting the way you think about food. Some of your most basic ideas will require revision. Unfortunately, there is not enough space here to explore it fully. That discussion is forthcoming. But it bears repeating that being vegetarian forces you to engage more intellectually with your food. The old recipe won’t work, so you need to be a good student if you want to be a successful vegetarian.

Anyone ought to admit that an omnivorous diet is the easiest. But the easiest things aren’t always best. Whatever you choose, the worst thing you can do is to lob unfounded assertions into the mix, disguising them as science, and packing them with undefined and emotionally charged words like “toxic”. That conversation is not healthy for anyone.

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