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Don't compare paleo to vegan

Ashley Williams is a holistic healing coach and vegan lifestyle expert. Ashley works with women to heal chronic health issues and make more ethical food choices. GreenlightHH.com

There really is no fair comparison of a current food trend to an ethical movement that’s been building for decades.

Few things send me into a blind rage more quickly than people telling me they’re “paleo”. Can you "be" paleo? Are you “a paleo?” So confusing.

Also, please don’t try to tell me it’s the way to be eating. As if the coining of a catchy phrase equates to the sudden discovery of some cure-all that’ll help you manage your weight, look amazing, and eat more ethically than ever before.

Why does the paleo crowd, which has taken over this country (and my Facebook feed), make me nuts? Where do I even begin?

Most of the people who think paleo is the Second Coming of Diets were probably really into Atkins before that. Or was it The Dukan Diet? Maybe South Beach? Raw food? Cabbage soup? Or maybe they even joined all those celebs in trying to go veg?

In my experience, the people that are most into paleo now, are food trend jumpers of the first degree. The words “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” come to mind when I think of my paleo friends.

So before anyone spends time proselytizing the virtues of paleo to me, I’m gonna need their entire food history before I'll actually take them seriously.

I read a very nice blog about how vegans and “paleos” have more in common than they’d think.

I had anxiety just from the title itself.

Comparing a diet trend to an ethical and moral stance is one of the more offensive things I’ve read on the internet.

And please also don’t get into the whole caveman “our ancestors have been eating this way for centuries” thing. As food author Michael Pollan points out, our ancestors likely ate meat only when they could find and kill it. And then they’d gorge on it. So unless we’re doing laborious work to maintain our tribal community, can start a fire from sticks and the men go out hunting for our meat... I really can’t see how eating like a caveman is even remotely possible.

Why? Because it’s 2014.

We spend the majority of our time sedentary. Our meat is filled with hormones, genetically modified corn and soy, the animals are beaten, brutalized and left to live in filth. Not to mention the ones that aren’t able to turn around in the prisons in which they’ll spend their entire lives. Or the ones that are being fed the young of their own species. Or the ones that are scalded alive because the knocker that’s supposed to render them unconscious failed.

And yes, I realize that people who follow the paleo diet try to consume “grass-fed meat”, but is every single paleo devotee seeking out, budgeting for, or even able to find local, grass-fed meats? “Grass-fed meat” producers in the U.S. are responsible for just 0.005 percent of beef (as of 2009) on the market. Consumers are far more likely to encounter meat from a factory farm than they are a cow who actually lived out its life eating grass.

And while there are aspects of the paleo diet that I’m in total agreement with: cutting out processed foods, modern wheat, dairy, and heavily processed oils, there are also foods being strictly avoided in the paleo diet that are nourishing, appropriate alternatives to modern meats. Beans, tempeh (fermented soy beans), quinoa, nuts and seeds are all great sources of protein. Foods like buckwheat and chia seeds or a combination of brown rice and beans eaten together are even complete proteins.

My bigger issue isn’t even so much with the diet itself, but with people who argue that it's in the same category as veganism.

Sure, some people follow a plant-based diet or raw foods diet to lose weight or manage a specific health issue. But veganism is not a diet or a trend that will go away anytime soon. Veganism is no more a trend than being anti-slavery or pro-human rights. Being vegan is a moral and ethical code, which reaches far beyond the dinner table.

Among the other big-picture considerations that vegans take into account are animal testing of household products, and animal byproducts in everything from OTC medications to ladies' razors. Vegans protest the circus for their violent beatings of baby elephants. We bring about legislation on behalf of whales at Sea World and fundraise in support of undercover investigators' right to expose animal cruelty. We believe cows' milk is for their babies and not for fattening up ours. We use our fashion statements as a political statement.

See where I’m going with this? There really is no fair comparison of a current food trend to an ethical movement that’s been building for decades. A movement will survive celebrity trends and cookbook best sellers lists.

While I can agree with the paleo directive to cut out processed foods and return to a more natural way of eating, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to consume meat that is comparable to what our paleolithic ancestors were hunting. Our lifestyles certainly don’t emulate theirs in any way. And most of all the moral and ethical issues around animals in our modern food system far outweigh any health benefits of eating paleo long term.

What do you think? Are the benefits of the paleo diet really just side effects from cutting out processed, junky foods? Is it really possible to eat ethically raised meat all the time? And is it inherently unethical to take a life for food when we have plenty of other options to eat?

Photo credit: Ashley Williams, photographed at Farm Sanctuary, 2011, all rights reserved.
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