Most paleo dieters relish red meat, but give Ellen Jaffe Jones a big head of broccoli any day. A nationally ranked masters runner and PETA’s reigning Sexiest Vegan Over 50, Jones began to notice an increasing number of friends giving up veganism to take up paleo. Intrigued and a little disturbed by the exodus, Jones started reading up on the diet, which she says at first “sounded a lot like Atkins, South Beach, and other high-protein diets, but a little cleaned up with unprocessed foods.”
“I was like, okay,” says Jones, “I need to do a vegan version of paleo so that people who want to stay vegan and want to do paleo can do it.”
The result is Jones’ third cookbook, Paleo Vegan: Plant-Based Primal Recipes. Co-authored with chef Alan Roettinger, the book takes the paleo paradigm—a meat- and plant-based diet—and turns it on its head, stripping out meat and seafood to focus on recipes like grilled portobello mushrooms with smoky lime cream and purple kohlrabi salad with walnuts.
On its face, this is a radical idea: Take one famously restrictive diet (veganism), pair it with another (paleo), and eat only what falls in the overlap. Herbivores who go paleo face some additional obstacles that neither vegans nor the mainstream paleo community have to deal with. For example, while there are plenty of vegan sources of protein, some of the most plentiful and convenient—soy, legumes, and “pseudograins” like quinoa—are banned under most interpretations of the paleo diet because they ban grains. What’s left is a relatively slim selection of nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and some vegetables—a hard sell for athletes trying to down enough protein to fuel muscle growth.
“Many of us did evolve to be able to digest beans just fine. Same thing with grains: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Jones’ solution is simple: cheat. Paleo programs, including paleo godfather Loren Cordain’s Paleo Diet for Athletes, allow adherents to eat non-paleo foods for 15 to 20 percent of their diet to prevent burnout and reduce feelings of deprivation. While carnivorous paleo dieters might spend their cheats on a couple of beers or a bowl of ice cream, Jones encourages paleo-vegans to use theirs to take in tempeh, beans, and other plant-based power foods.
“Many of us did evolve to be able to digest beans just fine,” says Jones. “Same thing with grains: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Statements like that may make paleo traditionalists cringe. Not to mention this whole lack-of-meat approach. But just how essential is meat to athletes who want to eat like our ancestors? The science is far from settled. Modern hunter-gatherers’ diets vary as drastically as their habitats, from Inuit communities who traditionally subsisted entirely on the fat, muscle, and organs of animals to the Yekuana of the Amazon, whose staple food, cassava, is a starchy, carbohydrate-rich tuber.
Cordain and others point to early hominids’ adoption of animals as a food source as a key point in the evolution of modern humans. The theory is that eating calorically dense meat allowed our ancestors to survive with a smaller digestive system, freeing up energy to power a larger brain. But that theory isn’t universally accepted. Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, posits that we owe our minds instead to the discovery of flame, which made both plant and animal foods easier to process.
In short, there just isn’t enough evidence to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions about exactly how we’re genetically predisposed to eat. But according to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and frequent commentator on the politics of food, “Largely plant-based diets are demonstrably better for the health of people and the planet. Humans evolved to be omnivores, and it is possible to put together healthful diets from astonishingly varied food sources.”
So if paleo is the diet of humanity’s past, Jones thinks that veganism is the diet of its future. She hopes that giving vegans a chance to partake in one of nutrition’s biggest trends will keep them in the tribe. Skeptical? Try this delicious recipe straight out of Jones’ cookbook.
Butternut Squash with Hazelnuts
1 medium butternut squash (about 3 1/2 pounds)
1 teaspoon extra-virgin coconut oil
1/4 cup flax oil
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed Aleppo pepper (optional)
1 cup hazelnuts, roasted, peeled, and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives, for garnish
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Rub a sheet of parchment paper with the coconut oil and place on a baking sheet, oil side up. Put the squash on the parchment, cut side down. Bake for 45 minutes. Decrease oven temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and continue baking for 30 minutes. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and discard. Scoop the flesh into a large bowl and mash with a potato masher or silicone spatula. Add the flax oil, allspice, salt, pepper, and optional Aleppo pepper and stir until well combined. Reserve 1/4 cup of hazelnuts; stir the remaining 3/4 cup of hazelnuts into the squash until well distributed.
- Divide the squash among four bowls. Sprinkle with the reserved hazelnuts and garnish with the chives. Serve immediately.