Paleo vs. Vegan: Does Your Diet Matter? 

Liz Biscevic

Is eating like a caveman actually better for the environment? Or do yogis have it right with their cruelty-free tendencies? Both paleo and vegan dieters have made claims that their lifestyle is better for the environment, but does one have an edge? And carbon footprint aside, will either of these diets help you save money?

Paleo | Carbon-Farting Animals and Imported Nuts

The Paleo diet is based on the supposed eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The diet focuses on eating whole, unprocessed food like meat, fish, eggs, veggies, and nuts. Grains, legumes, dairy, processed oils, and sugar are all out. Some purists even avoid fruit due to its natural high sugar content. It’s a popular weight-loss diet due to its high-protein, high-fat, low-carb ratio, but advocates say it’s a lifestyle more than a diet—a way to revert back to a less-toxic way of life.

In an interview with Prevention Magazine, Arsy Vartanian of paleo lifestyle blog Rubies & Radishes said that people who eat paleo tend to be more environmentally friendly, as they focus on eating “happy food.” Vartanian explained that “‘happy food’ means animals that are raised in their natural environment, living a happy life. This means cows, chickens, and pigs raised on pasture, eating grass, insects, and farm scraps and vegetables grown free of pesticides on sustainable farms. “We also focus on eating local, which is a great help to the environment, by decreasing the carbon footprint.”

From an environmental standpoint, however, a diet focused on eating lots of carbon-emitting animals, even “happy” carbon-farting animals, is far from carbon neutral. And raising “happy food” for slaughter still has a negative environmental impact, as slow-growing animals consume more resources than those pumped with growth hormones and antibiotics. Also, though carbon sequestration—the process in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and turned into a liquid or a solid—is higher on small, sustainable farms, grass-fed livestock often produces more methane than their grain-fed counterparts on larger ranches.

In addition to organic vegetables, the diet relies heavily on coconut—which is native to South America and Thailand—and almonds—which are native to California—as both on-the-go snacks and convenient dairy substitutes. These, and other nuts, are usually transported to their destinations by way of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, which can mean a long, carbon-intensive journey from nut tree to plate. For Americans, the one exception to this might be almonds, but they have their own environmental issues.

Not many people can afford the paleo diet average of $75 a week on groceries for just one person—all that protein adds up. No matter where you shop, grass-fed, free-range meat is considered a splurge compared to its counterpart, and nuts are notoriously expensive snacks. Even those high-protein entrees at your favorite chain restaurant likely cost more than other dishes featuring more carbs.

Some thrifty paleo eaters try to eat “snout to tail,” which generates less waste and leads to more sustainable habits. For example, rather than tossing beef bones, they make a protein-rich bone broth with them. Buying nuts from the bulk bin may help shave a few dollars off your weekly grocery bill, but with organic almonds going for nearly $15 a pound, that might be cold comfort.

Cavemen didn’t have the means to cross oceans for convenient dairy substitutes—they foraged for nuts and produce where they could find it—and it’s highly unlikely they ate meat every day. Instead, our ancestors ate what they could, when they could, mostly trying to get enough calories for the day to survive, which isn’t the same methodology as the Crossfit-going dieters today. Besides, the average age of a caveman was 35, and though advocates for the paleo lifestyle claim that infant mortality and violent death are behind this low number, maybe our ancestors’ innards would’ve benefitted from an occasional burrito or slice of bread.

Veganism | Plants with a Side of Pesticides

Veganism is a strict vegetarian diet people pursue for either health, environmental, or ethical reasons. In addition to the normal vegetarian rules cutting out meat and poultry, vegans do not consume fish or animal byproducts, including dairy, honey, and eggs. Most vegans claim that their lifestyle promotes a more humane and caring world by taking into account environmental sustainability and animal rights.

Though many vegans would argue that living entirely on a plant-based diet decreases your carbon footprint, experts disagree. For one thing, the industrial farming of row crops like wheat, corn, and soy depends on crude oil throughout the entire process—from planting to processing, packaging, and transporting the produce to your local grocery.

Most vegans rely heavily on soy, wheat, and corn as staples in their diet, which often require importing from the Midwest. Likewise, popular legumes like lentils and chickpeas are rarely grown in the United States and therefore rack up quite a carbon footprint during importing. Same thing for meat substitutes like tempeh, tofu, and seitan.

And the pervasive use of chemicals and pesticides in industrial farming is harming the planet and your body. Modern agriculture corporations destroy natural ecosystems—like topsoil, streams, and rivers—that are home to wildlife.

Though eating only local, organic veggies would help mitigate the environmental impact, even growing organically can take a toll on the Earth. A 2015 study from Carnegie Mellon University found that eating lettuce is more than three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon. “Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think. Eggplant, celery, and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken,” researcher Paul Fischbeck said in a news release announcing the study findings.

And buying organic and local isn’t always financially feasible, as this produce tends to be more expensive than what’s grown on industrial farms. For example, on Amazon Fresh, a pound of Brussel sprouts costs $2.60, and a can of black beans costs 99 cents. However, a pound of organic Brussel sprouts costs $4.20, and a can of organic black beans costs $2.29.

Even without the organic produce, the baseline cost of being vegan is often more than people anticipate. That’s because, though rice and beans are cheaper than meat and cheese, many would-be vegans crave animal-based foods, and their substitutes aren’t cheap. Vegan cheeses usually run around $2 more than their dairy counterpart, and vegan baked treats and creamy desserts are almost always more expensive, no matter where you shop.

So, which is better?

From both a financial and environmental standpoint, eating plants is more sustainable than eating meat. No matter how much water and energy it takes to grow your food, it doesn’t compare to the amount of energy, food, and water it takes to raise animals for the meat industry. On a calorie-for-calorie basis, some meat does use less resources than some vegetables, but those are a handful of veggies out of more than 400 produce options.

Perhaps a more realistic idea than going either full-on vegan or protein-rich paleo is to simply limit your meat consumption and opt for a plant-heavy diet featuring as much locally grown, organic fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat as possible. Skipping meat regularly will make room in your budget for pricier produce and the occasional splurge on grass-fed beef and free-range eggs. Research indicates this may be one of the best ways to feed the most people, and it gives you flexibility at the grocery store, too.