Can the meat-heavy Paleo diet combined with veganism help you lose weight? I wanted to find out.
If you’ve never heard of the Pegan Diet, you’re probably not alone. It’s a relatively new diet that was coined in 2015 by Dr. Mark Hyman, and people are just starting to get wind of it—in fact, Pinterest searches are up by more than 300 percent since last year. At first glance, the concept sounds pretty absurd—it’s essentially the meat-heavy Paleo diet combined with meat-shunning veganism.
The Pegan Diet can be confusing because there are different schools of thought as to what’s allowed on the Paleo diet (basically, only foods that predate agriculture), and of course, vegans don’t consume anything that comes from a living creature. Remember, the Pegan diet is a blend of the two. I’ll do my best to summarize:
What to Eat on the Pegan Diet
- Plants, plants, plants! One-half to three-quarters of your plate should be plants—the more colorful, the better.
- Grass-fed, organic, and sustainably raised meat, poultry, and eggs. Dr. Hyman calls the portion size “condi-meats,” suggesting these proteins become more of a side dish than the main event.
- Sustainably raised or harvested seafood with low mercury levels (such as salmon, shrimp, or oysters)
- Healthy fats found in nuts, seeds, coconuts, avocados, and olives (including olive oil)
What to Avoid on the Pegan Diet
- Canola, soybean, grapeseed, or corn oils
- Chemical additives, including pesticides, hormones, artificial sweeteners, dyes, GMOs, antibiotics, and preservatives. Basically, if you can’t buy it for your kitchen, you can’t eat it.
Other Rules on the Pegan Diet
- Limit starchy veggies such as potatoes or winter squash (no more than ½ cup per day), and stick to lower-sugar fruits such as berries and kiwi. Beans should be eaten sparingly (less than 1 cup per day.)
- Non-gluten-containing whole grains (teff, black rice, quinoa, amaranth) may be eaten sparingly (½ cup per meal.)
- Sugar in the form of maple syrup or honey may be had as an occasional treat.
- Occasional grass-fed, organic cow’s milk dairy products such as ghee or kefir may be eaten, if they do not cause discomfort; sheep’s milk and goat’s milk products may also be enjoyed.
- Foods should be minimally processed and as close to their whole-food form as possible.
- While there’s no specific mention of alcohol, it is generally forbidden on the Paleo diet.
Confused yet? While both the Paleo and vegan diets restrict certain food groups, I consider the Pegan diet to be more Paleo with a “vegful” twist. But let’s be clear: there is nothing vegan about it. So, what’s the big draw?
“What I think is positive about the Pegan diet is that it’s another so-called ‘clean eating’ approach,” says Cooking Light nutritionist Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD. “There’s an emphasis on whole foods, less processed foods, and real food, rather than foods with added sugars or added fat that may be less healthy. And I really like the emphasis on fruit and vegetables,” she says. “It’s going to be lower in sodium than the typical American diet, and I like that it’s a little more liberal than Paleo.”
A little backstory: I actually went vegan in the ‘90s and switched to vegetarian because I enjoy dairy too much (it’s the Wisconsin girl in me). But I was one of those “bad” vegetarians—the pasta and potatoes kind. I gained about 30 pounds in very little time, then shed it by going on the then-new South Beach Diet. But I eventually gained most of it back. I got older (and so did my metabolism), had a baby, and worked in a kitchen where I nibbled all day.
Needless to say, I was ready for a change. That’s where the Pegan Diet came in. Even though it was a little bit confusing, I decided that since a low-carb, protein-rich diet had worked for me in the past, I would give it a whirl. I honestly didn’t know what results I was expecting, but I was curious what would happen. So I tried it for 3 weeks—here’s what happened.
Preparing to Go Pegan
The day before I started, I alerted my family to this impending new diet. When I said “pegan,” my son asked if it’ll be a “vegan pea diet”...although, come to think of it, since he’s 8, he probably meant “vegan pee.”
I prepared them for the potential “carb crazies”—the uncontrollable fatigue, headache, irritability, and cravings often associated with dropping carbs from the diet—and my husband asked how they’ll know the difference. (Funny guy, that one.)
I developed a couple days’ worth of a meal plan and a grocery list based on this starter list of recipes, treated myself throughout the day to that box of chocolates sitting on my dining room table, and had a glass of wine with my dinner of pierogies. (Don’t judge me. It’s called moral licensing, and it’s a thing.)
My Experience on the Pegan Diet
My first grocery shopping trip was daunting. Luckily, a lot of my paleo pantry was already set up: liquid aminos (to replace soy sauce), toasted sesame oil, and rice vinegar are already parts of my diet, but buying ghee, avocado oil, and grass-fed meats added up quickly. And while I tend to buy select organic, whole, added-sugar-free products, checking the labels on everything got old fast.
I also found myself hyper-confused about what constituted “minimally processed.” Obviously, a cashew didn’t start its life as yogurt. But a grass-fed hamburger started as ground beef, so isn’t that kind of the same thing? I noticed I was wrestling with what was processed, and what was an additive.
“There’s no real definition of ‘clean’ and no real definition of ‘processed,’ says Dr. Williams. “Even if you buy cow’s milk or raw chicken breasts, there’s some sort of processing behind it. Even extra-virgin olive oil is technically processed. I try to steer people toward minimally processed, choosing foods as close to how they are in nature. When I look at the ingredients list, I think: If I were making this at home, would it have these ingredients in it? I’m looking for chemicals or colorings or added sugars, more industrialized chemicals that aren’t necessarily required for the food. They don’t provide nutrients or play a key role in stabilizing the product.” This advice made me feel better about deciphering labels.
As with any diet, the first couple days were the hardest. I became preoccupied with food—probably because I wasn’t giving in to any and all snack cravings throughout the day. I felt as if I went to bed hungry. Was this normal?
Dr. Williams notes, “If you regularly eat a highly processed diet with a lot of added sugars, a lot of caffeine, and all of a sudden you go to all these whole foods, you’re going to feel different. You might also notice digestive changes, particularly from the increased fiber. Once you give it a few days, I would think you’d start to see your blood sugar become more stable, and you won’t see those drops in energy.” So, it’s an adjustment, and she was right: I did feel better in a couple days.
To make up for the lack of ready-made snacks, I munched on olives, homemade guac and veggies, and—I’ll be honest here—spoonfuls of almond butter. It felt a little sinful eating all that fat for snacks. “The focus of the Pegan diet is on healthy fats, specifically omega-3 rich fats,” says Dr. Williams. “A lot of us grew up in that fat-free age where fat was the big bad thing. What research is now suggesting is that weight and health are more related to your carb intake—the quality of those carbs, whether they’re refined or whole, or whether there are added sugars. Certainly, fat impacts health, but ‘low-fat’ isn’t really considered the ideal approach for health anymore. We were so used to minimizing fats, so it feels wrong when we have it. Now I feel as if half an avocado is healthier, and it also gives me more satiety than eating a bowl of pasta.”
I wasn’t happy about reintroducing meat into my diet, so I started with seafood. Then I added chicken, and eventually pork. I reserved beef for one of those organic, build-your-own-broth bowl places. Not every meal had meat in it, but I noticed that when I ate the meals that did, I ate them voraciously. It wasn’t the taste necessarily, but more like my body had been craving it, and I hadn’t even realized it.
Even though the Pegan approach is a perfectly natural way to cook—fresh produce, whole proteins—I sort of felt stuck. I had let myself, a trained chef and recipe developer, become so reliant on packaged foods that it was almost as if I didn’t know how to cook anymore. Some choices weren’t inherently bad, like tortillas or packages of ready-made grains, but some were not good. Homemade chicken nuggets gave way to frozen “natural” ones, which paved the way for things like restaurant-branded BBQ-glazed boneless wings. Before I knew it, I had a freezer full of pizzas and a pantry full of potato chips and cream-filled sandwich cookies. Perhaps this was actually the root cause of my weight gain and overall malaise, not my age or metabolism.
“A lot of things in our modern diet cause a low-level inflammation in the body,” notes Dr. Williams. “Low-grade inflammation is at the root of a lot of diseases, from gut health to brain health. It can cascade into other conditions. Cutting out things like dairy and gluten for a couple weeks can be a good thing to let the body calm down and give it a break. For most people, if you let your body calm down, you might find that you don’t have a sensitivity to it.”
After a few days, I started to feel a little less out of sorts and a little more in control. I combed through Cooking Light's collection of Paleo recipes and made extra veggies on the side. I knew things with gluten and sugar were off the table, so I substituted. I bought goat’s milk for my coffee, and lentil pasta for dinner. If I cooked a grain, I kept my own portion size small. I added chickpeas to salads, but in a lesser quantity. I swapped ghee and avocado oil for butter. (I am amazed that I went through nearly 9 ounces of both in 3 weeks!)
Within a week, I noticed I wasn’t hungry between meals anymore. By the second week, I wasn’t craving sweets the way I had been, and if the mood did strike, apple wedges with almond butter satisfied. (I’m very glad I didn’t follow my impulse to tear into my husband when he waltzed into the kitchen brandishing an Oreo McFlurry…)
Dr. Williams confirms, “Most of the easy-to-reach-for items in the pantry, freezer, drive thru, and vending machines are carb-based, and they’re not the best forms of carbs. Adding that extra bit of healthy fat and cutting out some of the less-healthy carbs allows you to listen to your body better and allows you to make better choices when you’re not driven by constant blood sugar highs and lows.”
By the end of the three weeks, I’d lost 5 pounds and 2 inches from my waist. I was no longer preoccupied with food or hungry between meals. I didn’t necessarily have more energy or a less-foggy brain, but I definitely noticed less overall GI discomfort and belly bloat and fewer headaches.
When I added certain things back into my diet, such as dairy and alcohol, I found that I didn’t feel good. Gluten didn’t bother me, but I now affirm that I shouldn’t be indulging in lunches comprised entirely of thick slices of sourdough bread topped with tomatoes and olive oil. It just isn’t as healthy as a large salad or bowl of vegetable soup.
Dr. Williams adds, “When you do reintroduce gluten, eat the actual grain and not the highly processed bread or the flour tortilla. Eat the brown rice. Keep going with minimally processed [choices].”
I was hoping for a magic bullet. I wanted it to be simple, as if cutting out gluten would change my life. Turns out my inability to lose weight was probably just my junky food choices and habits. Eating a convenient bowl of cereal for breakfast—even organic cereal with organic milk—was so rote that I didn’t put any more thought into it. I couldn’t even be bothered to toss some berries or sliced banana on top. Certainly, that kind of breakfast is far less nutritious (and filling) than the egg cooked with a handful of greens, mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes I’d been eating while on the diet. Though it’s true I felt as if I spent my entire day either at the stove or doing dishes, it was this attention to my food that made me look at it in a different light.
So, while I am no longer on the Pegan diet, I will take away a few things. Eating more veggies is an all-around good idea, as is reducing the amount of processed carbs and sugar my entire family eats. I’m going to eat whatever fruit I want, however, and if a big bowl of beans and rice calls to me, I’m going to eat that too. And I will continue to incorporate moderate amounts of animal-based protein. I’ll also decide which food additives and preservatives I’m willing to live with, aiming for minimally processed, rather than being paralyzed by food-label confusion.
I like what Dr. Williams had to say in the end. “Remember that these are not scientifically-based diets. That’s the big difference between the DASH diet the Mediterranean diet—they were designed around research. Right now, until we get more data and research, most of it is taking a little bit of science but wrapping it up in someone’s opinion or beliefs based on their own health.”
I say, forget the rules and eat how Michael Pollan suggests in In Defense of Food: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” If gluten bothers you, don’t eat it. If dairy bothers you, avoid it. And if eating animal products bothers you for ethical reasons, then skip the Pegan diet.