Our nutritionist weighs in on the latest trendy diet plan.
First introduced by Dr. Mark Hyman in 2015, the Pegan Diet is a new approach to eating that combines principles of the Paleo diet with vegan diet principles—a combination that sounds counterintuitive and, frankly, close to impossible. How could the protein-heavy, caveman-inspired Paleo diet find any middle ground with a diet that restricts all animal foods—ghee included?
But surprisingly, the Pegan Diet works by taking strengths from Paleo and vegan principles to create a new plan, one that is not only more moderate, but also healthier, than either plan individually. And after digging into the research, I started viewing the diet mashup as a fairly sensible eating approach and a definite improvement to the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet).
What Do You Eat on the Pegan Diet?
Fruits and Vegetables
- How Much? Plant foods, namely vegetables and fruits, should make up approximately 75% of your food intake. If this seems overwhelming, then think of it in terms of getting 2 to 3 produce servings per meal or letting produce and plant foods make up ⅔ to ¾ of your plate.
- Which ones to eat? Pretty much all fresh or minimally processed produce. Start with your non-starchy veggies, and then fill in the gaps with starchy ones and fruit.
- Other Tips: Focus on variety and color!
- How Much? First, go back to the 75% plant food rule. We often forget that there’s protein in plants like nuts, seeds, and legumes, as well as a little in vegetables, so focus on incorporating these sources first. Then, add in some animal-based proteins to meet the other 25% of your protein needs.
- Which ones to eat? Nuts, seeds, beans and other plant-based protein foods. For animal proteins, choose grass-fed, sustainably-raised meat, poultry, and eggs, and fish with lower mercury levels, but avoid all animal-based dairy products.
- Other Tips: Think of serving sizes for animal proteins in terms of a side dish or condiment. Avoid grain-fed meat and poultry.
The Right Fats
- How Much? The thinking is that we shouldn’t be afraid to get 25 to 35% of calories from fat if we’re getting it from the “right” fat sources.
- Which ones to eat? Focus on omega-3-rich fat sources like fatty fish and flaxseed, as well as nuts, avocados, olives, and associated oils. A little saturated fat from coconut sources and grass-fed animal foods is okay too.
- Other Tips: Cut out vegetable oils high in omega-6’s like canola, soybean, and corn oil by substituting with omega-3-rich sources.
Other (More Controversial) Components
- Avoid gluten, and limit gluten-free grains. No consumption of any wheat or other gluten-containing grain and flour. In addition, gluten-free grains like quinoa, brown rice, oats, and amaranth should be eaten sparingly and in small amounts (1/2 cup or less at a meal).
- No dairy. Avoid all cow’s milk, butter, cheese, yogurt and other animal dairy products should be avoided. Vegan, plant-based milk products and yogurts are fine.
- Limit bean intake. Legume and bean intakes should be kept to 1 cup or less per day.
- Eat as “clean” as possible. Choose local, organic foods when possible. Avoid chemicals, additives, pesticides, preservatives, and artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners as much as possible. Added sugars should be an occasional treat.
Pegan Diet Pros
Some of the biggest positives in a Pegan Diet eating approach are these:
Emphasis on whole plant foods
If there’s something that Paleo, vegan, and now Pegan eating styles have right, it’s their emphasis on whole, minimally processed foods and plant foods. Not only are these choices more nutrient-dense, but they typically have very minimal, if any, additives like sugar, fat, and artificial flavorings and colorings. Also, research seems to come out daily in support of a plant-centric diet for overall health and disease prevention.
Vegan diets can be low in protein, as well as key nutrients like B-12 and iron. On the flip side, Paleo diets are often heavy in animal protein and saturated fat. I like that the Pegan Diet strikes a healthy, realistic compromise between the two. Some have questioned if the Pegan Diets provides adequate protein, but I think most individuals (unless they have higher than normal energy or protein needs) can meet needs by consuming a variety of plant and animal protein foods.
Emphasis on glycemic load
Added sugars get the bad rap for shooting up glucose levels, but the reality is that all carbohydrate foods increase glucose. And while we may be choosing healthier carbs like whole grains and fruits, eating large amounts of even these impacts glucose, appetite, cravings, and fat storage. While I can’t get on board fully with limiting beans and whole grains, I do think approaching carb intake by focusing on vegetables, beans, and fruits first, and then filling in gaps with whole grains, could improve overall intake.
Pegan Diet Cons
Despite the benefits, the concerns I have about some of the Pegan Diet recommendations are these:
Complete avoidance of dairy
Avoiding dairy due to allergy, intolerance, or dislike is one thing, but if you don’t fall into one of these categories, there’s little research to support that shunning dairy improves health or reduced inflammation. In fact, contrary to popular belief, moderate intake of dairy products—especially yogurts—have an anti-inflammatory effect in most people. Avoiding dairy also increases risk of inadequate intake of key nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, magnesium and phosphorus and eliminates dairy as a source of protein and probiotics.
Restrictions on grain and bean intake
Most Americans overeat grains, so I agree that most could benefit from substituting some grains, even whole ones, for vegetables. However, there’s no denying the plethora of research suggesting the positive health benefits that fiber, phytochemicals, and other nutrients in whole grains have. I I also can’t rationalize limiting legumes to 1 cup or less in healthy individuals, and I couldn’t find much research to support it.
Concerns for Athletes and Those With Higher Needs
The average person could likely meet their nutrient needs on the Pegan Diet with proper meal planning and food variety. However, it would be really difficult for individuals like athletes that have higher energy, carbohydrate, and protein needs. Reliance on plant food for 75% of protein needs gets harder as needs go up, and limiting whole grains to ½ cup or less per meal and beans to 1 cup or less daily could easily mean inadequate energy, carbs, vitamins, and minerals.
Pegan Diet Verdict
I have to confess that after learning more about the Pegan Diet that I am pleasantly surprised, and I would probably recommend this approach over Paleo or vegan diets. Most of the principles (with a few exceptions) are research-based, align with health recommendations, and are eating approaches that I try to follow. With that being said, the Pegan Diet principles aren’t that different than those in the Mediterranean Diet, anti-inflammatory protocols, and even our eating philosophy here at Cooking Light. All emphasize whole foods, a more plant-centric diet, and limiting chemicals, toxins and unnecessary compounds when possible.
Wanting to give the Pegan Diet a try? All of these recipes follow Pegan Diet guidelines, or the “lovechild of Paleo and vegan”, as one website describes it.