Can you do a vegan "paleo" diet?

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 This year I did a vegan(and later semi-vegan) paleo self-experiment that I never wrote up. I guess I never wrote it up because it wasn't terribly successful and I didn't finish the run I wanted to try. I wanted to go for a month on this diet, but I only made it a week on totally vegan and two more weeks on a modified version. 

Why did I do this to myself? Is curiousity a good enough reason? After all, a similar diet is eaten by most of the Melanesian foragers popular in the paleo community. I also had a fantastic amount of access to amazing and cheap sources of starch in NYC. There are other reasons, but I feel they would weigh this post down with too many details about my personal life at the time.

The original diet was based on fruit, roots, nuts, coconut, tubers, and other assorted vegetables. At the local market I could get ten green plantains for a dollar. I could get a massive true yam as big as my head for about two dollars.

From the outset I was limited by my own food sensitivities, which limit vegetables, particularly brassica vegetables. These contain large amounts of galactans and raffinose, so-called FODMAPs that wreck me, but for vegans they are one of the best sources of calcium. I also seem to be sensitive to something in nuts, so I tried to limit them.

So my diet was mainly:

  • Coconut milk, cream, and oil
  • Cocoyam, cassava, plantains, taro, true yam, and Okinawan sweet potatoes
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables like carrots and spinach
  • A limited amount of nuts

A typical meal was chopped starch boiled in coconut milk with some vegetables and a serving of fruit on the side. I focused on fruits and vegetables high in Vitamin A because I knew I would need more since I am a poor convertor of beta-carotene to retinol.

Where is the protein? I thought perhaps I wouldn't need much if I were only eating this way short term, but after a couple of days I felt a little off and I figured it would make a difference. I added skinless urad dal, the rare legume that doesn't upset my stomach. I stopped buying cocoyam because it was mediocre and taro because it was too hard to cook. The major issue I seemed to suffer from was just not feeling very energetic, so I gave up on the vegan angle and added in shellfish and then regular fish. 

Oh great, another taro-ble meal

The shrimp-spinach-coconut milk curry from Primal Blueprint Quick and Easy Meals became a staple. But even while eating fairly energy-dense dishes like this, I still was usually getting fewer calories a day than I was used to. When I read about the two low-reward food self-experiments at Whole Health Source, in hindsight I realize that I was on a pretty low-reward diet. Lots of plain bland boring starches. Even when I tried to make them more exciting with spices I seemed to make it worse since most spices tend to dampen my appetite. I started making smoothies towards the end because it was just so hard for me to eat enough starch. And I knew that if I didn't get enough calories I would feel tired and irritable. 

Don't get me wrong, I love plantains. I love them fried in bacon fat. But boiled in coconut milk I got sick of them pretty quickly. If there is one lesson I learned from this is that you can make some pretty cheap and delicious meals out of starch cooked in leftover animal fat. And really, did it make sense for me to stuff myself in imported coconut products and shrimp when I had local meat? This plus issues with low energy led me to end the experiment about a week early. I had similar, but worse, problems on a raw vegan diet.

Perhaps this diet would be a good one for someone who wants to save a lot of money or lose weight? I also think it could be hacked by fermenting some of the starches, which would increase their caloric value and some fermented starches (like fufu) are quite tasty. A low-meat diet based on traditional African recipes that involve starches with animal broths and fermented fish sauces would also be a lot more delicious. I also didn't try supplementing the diet with DHA, taurine, and carnitine - nutrient candidates that might be the missing piece in understanding why some do not do particularly well on plant-based diets.

Self Experiment Results

Losers:

  • Me (I lost five pounds that I didn't really want to lose since I'm quite happy with my weight.)
  • Coconut
  • Cocoyam
  • Willpower

Winners:

  • Bacon
  • Plantains cooked in bacon
  • My bank account (it's pretty sad that imported coconut milk from Thailand is cheaper than local meat in NYC)