The Pegan Diet claims to help you live longer, lower inflammation and save the planet. The man behind it is one of the world's leading nutrition doctors. Is this how we should all be eating?
What do you get if you cross a vegan diet with a paleo diet? And is it even possible? One involves animal protein and the other avoids it at all costs. Welcome to the Pegan Diet, a portmanteau coined by US physician Dr Mark Hyman. He came up with the concept after being caught in the middle of a discussion between a paleo devotee and a follower of the vegan diet. Dr Hyman realised his own healthy way of eating was a combination of the two, fusing a wealth of plants (vegan) with high-welfare meat, fish and eggs (AKA paleo). This month, he brings it all together in his latest book The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World, out 25 February, £14.99
What is the Pegan Diet?
It may sound like never the twain shall meet, but the two diets are surprisingly compatible. The 'paleo' way our ancestors ate contained a surprising number of plants. As Dr Hyman explains it’s more about what they have in common rather than their differences, a “focus on real, whole, fresh food that is sustainably raised” to balance health and environmental needs and concerns. If you're giving up meat for ethical reasons though, it's obviously not for you.
It’s a yes to abundant veg (except corn and white potatoes), and to high-welfare protein (organic, pasture-raised meat and eggs, wild-caught or sustainably farmed fish, although it shouldn’t be the main proportion of your meal). There are limited carbs as well as healthy fats with every meal such as nuts or avocado. Out are grains (apart from quinoa) and dairy (other than grass-fed butter and ghee) and sugar.
This ‘food as medicine’ way of eating is designed to help us live longer, lower inflammation and slow climate change. There’s an elimination phase to help identify foods that cause ‘FLC’ (Feel Like Crap) syndrome. If you struggle with veganism, and want to do your bit for your body and the planet, this is the diet for you.
Now Dr Hyman has put everything you need to know about following a pegan diet into a book, which launches later this month. The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World , £14.99, includes meal plans, shopping lists and 30 recipes.
What's in the Pegan Diet book?
First, you'll find 21 principles to follow while on the Pegan Diet, such as encouraging your kids to eat what you eat as opposed to processed 'children's food', how to eat for gut health, how to eat to boost your mood and how to make healthy habits stick. Dr Hyman is big on the idea of personalised nutrition - tailoring your diet to suit what makes you feel your best, something he encourages his own patients to do.
You begin your pegan journey with the elimination diet, which encourages you to cut out certain trigger foods that can cause headaches bloating and brain fog. "Certain foods cause an array of symptoms, or what I call FLC (feel like crap) syndrome, " he says. "Bloating, eczema, allergies, fatigues, brain food, headaches, autoimmune disease, and systematic inflammation. They can include gluten, wheat, dairy, soy, grains, beans, nightshades, eggs, sugar, and caffeinated beverages. These are not problematic for everyone, but the key is to identify if they are a trigger for you."
You reintroduce them one at a time, wait 24-hours to see if you react. "If you know that other foods bother you, then stop those too. If you’re unsure where to start, remove gluten, wheat, dairy, and sugar first,' he advises. It's a long process, but according to Dr Hyman it's the "gold standard to personalise [your] diet".
After your three-week elimination phase, you're given a road map for following the plan. You are instructed to simply "eat a variety of colourful plant foods throughout the day, add a serving or two of healthy fats to each meal." Avoid conventional dairy, gluten and sugar, he adds, food with labels (crisps have labels, avocados don't, for example), anything with ingredients you can't pronounce such as additives and preservatives and to stick to the periphery of the supermarket – the inner aisles can be a labyrinth of processed foods. Don't be too hard on yourself, he adds, and follow his Pegan Cheat Sheet.
You're shown how to prep food the Pegan Diet way, with advice on how to cook vegetables to make them tasty (no flavourless mush here), and the importance of neither overdoing or undercooking your protein. The recipes are divided up into breakfast, soups and salads, mains, sides, snacks and desserts, with meals including quinoa berry bake, chai pancakes with coconut whipped cream, creamy lemon and basil soup, spicy grain-free steak tacos and black bean brownies.
What does an independent expert think? If you can look past the lengthy guidelines and catchy name, it has substance, says nutritional therapist Daniel O’Shaughnessy. “It’s actually a very healthy diet," he says. "It offers up the best bits of Paleo and veganism while giving people extra flexibility. Think of it as a type of flexitarianism . “If you’re trying veganism and aren’t coping, then this is the diet for you.”
Being low-sugar and rich in plant-based nutrients and anti-inflammatory omega-3s, it also offers up benefits that stretch into the long-term. And indeed lowering inflammation and living long are two of the Pegan Diet's main aims. “It’s not designed for weight loss (although, you’ll shed the pounds), but more for health and longevity,” Daniel adds, “Everything is in moderation and nothing is extreme such as zero carbs or animal foods.”
What can you eat on a pegan diet?
Lots of fruit and veg: the greater the variety, the better, to increase your phytonutrient intake. They should form 75 per cent of your diet and plate, says Dr Hyman.
Grass-fed and sustainably sourced meat: rich in omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A and D and of course, protein. Meat should be viewed as a side-dish rather than the main event on this diet.
Low mercury fish such as sardines and wild salmon: rich in omega 3s. Dr Hyman specifically singles out sardines and wild salmon because they’re less likely to be contaminated by mercury emitted by coal-burning power plants and factories. Dr Hyman notes that mercury overload can be risky for children and women around childbearing age. Sardines are also a great source of vitamin D3.
Seeds: such as flax, chia, hemp, sesame and pumpkin which contain protein, minerals and good fats.
Nuts: except peanuts, because they're considered legumes
Chocolate: While the diet largely suggests avoiding sugar as it's 'not a necessary food group' according to Dr Hyman, he enjoys a little dark chocolate every day and says dessert a couple of times a week is fine.
Alcohol: Dr Hyman says as long as you don't depend on alcohol to help you wind down, enjoying a glass every so often while on the Pegan Diet is no issue. "An occasional glass of alcohol is fine but daily can be problematic," he writes. "Stick to one serving three or four times a week at most. A serving is 25ml of hard liquor, 125ml of wine or 250ml of beer."
What can’t you eat (or eat a lot of)?
Dairy: the main reasons for this are tolerance-related (most people in Dr Hyman's experience can’t tolerate dairy) and lack of evidence surrounding dairy’s benefits. In his Got Proof blog , Dr Hyman highlights studies that indicate that it can contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer and increase (not decrease) the risk of osteoporosis. Grass-fed butter and ghee are exceptions.
Wholegrains with gluten in them: another controversial one, included in the ‘avoid’ list because of the spikes in blood sugar that they can cause and their association with digestive disorders. Small portions (half a cup at a meal) of low glycaemic grains like black rice and quinoa are fine eaten sparingly though (as they still raise blood sugar).
Beans: another one to eat sparingly due to their fibre content which can cause digestive problems in some. Dr Hyman recommends limiting your portion to one cup a day. Lentils are best.
Sugar: again, best to have as an occasional treat.
The cons of the Pegan Diet
As you’ve probably gleaned from the above, the diet’s pretty restrictive. And, as Daniel highlights, it can take a little getting used to. “In the initial stages, there will be some planning needed. Some may fret over eating out, but it can be done easily - you just have to forgo the bread basket and high carb dishes.”
Another factor is cost. Grain-free and dairy-free alternatives aren’t cheap.
The low-grain aspect is certain to divide opinion too, especially in light of new findings published in the Lancet Medical Journal highlighting the wide-ranging health benefits of eating high-fibre foods (such as wholegrains). “Going grain-free doesn’t suit everyone and there are some marvellous benefits that some grains and legumes give us,” says Daniel. That being said though, he explains that due to the high volume of plant fibre consumed on a pegan diet, you’re unlikely to need a fibre supplement. Those worried about losing out on calcium due to avoiding dairy can also substitute it with vegan sources such as sesame seeds and certain fruits.
Finally, critics of eating pegan have expressed concerns about how people might interpret the guidelines. Originally designed to be adapted to your own needs, it’s feared that those who try it might adhere to them too strictly. It’s also been called confusing and due to its stance on dairy, gluten and grains, said to fuel the abundance of mixed messaging when it comes to healthy diets.
The bottom line
If you’re interested in veganism, but don’t want to go completely meat-free, this could offer a viable alternative provided that the guidelines are adapted to suit your particular needs and lifestyle. It is pretty tricky though and so won’t be for everyone, with its stance on grains sure to ruffle a few feathers in light of new findings. That being said though, because some gluten-free grains are included, it is less restrictive than a traditional Paleo diet.