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Credit: Flickr/Stefan Kloo

Is the paleo diet better than a vegan diet?

Diets like veganism and the paleo diet swing from one extreme to another when it comes to rules to eat by. But you can cherry pick the best advice from all of them to create a truly healthy approach to eating

The paleo diet proposes that we eat like our ancestors and stick to basic foods like meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Dairy, sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes and processed oils are all on the banned list. No chocolate and no beer? Not a very fun diet.

On the other end of the spectrum, veganism eliminates all food or food products that are derived from animals including meat, fish, eggs, dairy and honey. At least vegans are allowed to drink beer so score one up for them.

Both camps and all the various diets in between make claims that this is the way humans are supposed to eat and that by following their rules we'll experience vibrant health, lose weight and become extremely attractive. I may be kidding about that last part but die-hard nutrition "experts" for any of these diets make pretty strong assertions that their diets provide miraculous results.

Can Fad Diets Back Their Claims?

It's beyond the scope of a blog post to go through a point by point critique of any specific diet. But as the saying goes: "Feed a man a fish and you feed him a meal. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." (Unless you're vegan then you're out of luck). So I'm going to teach you how to fish for a good diet.

There's a lot of pseudo-science in almost every popular diet. But sometimes the so-called experts making these claims may not be all they seem. (For more on this topic, watch the recent CBC documentary called "The Trouble With Experts".)

Claiming that one specific food group, like carbs, is the culprit of all the modern world's health problems is a stretch at best. And saying that humans aren't designed to eat meat ignores a lot of the evolutionary evidence to the contrary. The academics and forum trolls can debate and argue but I think they're all missing the point.

The Best Diet

Instead of looking at how different each diet is, I like to look at the similarities between different ways of eating. If you look at Paleo, veganism, the Mediterranean Diet, the Ornish Diet and many other diets, you'll notice some common elements.

1. Reduce processed foods: First, they all emphasize reducing the amount of processed food you eat; that's good. A lot of processed food, even if it's organic, can add up to a lot of calories without a lot of nutrition.

2. Eat more fruits and veggies: Another common element is the inclusion of a lot of vegetables and fruits. I don't care whether or not you eat meat, getting in a lot of veggies and fruit is smart. These are nutrient-dense foods that in general are also not very high in calories. 

3. Eat meat, if you want: Your decision about eating meat should be based on ethical, philosophical or religious reasons, not necessarily health. Meat and fish provide essential nutrients, though you can also get those nutrients following a meatless diet. Of course I'm not advocating you stuff yourself full of bologna and hot dogs if you do eat meat. Like other foods, look for minimally processed and lean meats.

4. Include fats: Many health-conscious diets encourage the consumption of different types of fats for good health. We need a bit of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and even saturated fats.

Avoid Dietary Extremes

I think it's best to avoid dietary extremes unless you have specific health concerns like celiac disease. The best diet for most people is one in which real food forms the basis and includes a lot of fruits and vegetables, some lean protein (either meat or not) and healthy fats. But I wouldn't panic if you eat processed foods like pasta, cheese, ice cream or alcohol occasionally.

In the modern world we eat for more than just survival. Eating is a social activity and can also be one of life's great pleasures, so enjoy your meals with good friends and family. That may be just as important as what you're eating.

(For more on this, CBC aired another interesting documentary called "Eat, Cook, Love" that looked at nutrition from this broader perspective.)