Pegan Diet: Sensible Alternative or Just Another Fad?

Bridging two trendy diets, a new meal plan steps into the spotlight.

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Is it just me, or do most groundbreaking new diets take a scorched-earth approach to what’s on the dinner table? Fad diets seem to be all or nothing affairs, leaving many with a distinct feeling of either meager satisfaction at mealtime (the Raw Food Diet) or unbridled gluttony that doesn’t pay off long-term (the Atkins Diet).

While some may experience a quick weight loss or improved health, often the real winners are telegenic health gurus who promote these cure-alls.

Picking up steam this year, the Pegan Diet is a new one that caught our eye. It’s a hybrid of two dietary trends—Paleo and Vegan—that have legions of fans, as well as notable limitations.

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A Paleo Diet is focused on the menu we ate when man first went upright millions of years ago: lean meats, nuts, and most veggies, while eschewing dairy, sugar, grains, and starchy vegetables. The Vegan Diet excludes all meat, as well as foods produced by animals, such as eggs, dairy products, and honey.

While there are sound health benefits to both approaches, there are also disadvantages. Paleos are heavily reliant on meat, and most meat products aren’t as lean as they were in caveman days. The annual U.S. News and World Report diet report ranked Paleo dead last among 35 diets evaluated in 2015. And a Vegan Diet, while terrific for those facing heart disease, requires strict discipline and doesn’t reward with a complete roster of nutrients. Both diets may be hard to sustain for an extended period (i.e., your lifespan).

In addition to Vegan's full roster of plants, nuts and seeds, the Pegan diet incorporates eggs and modest amounts of meat and fish.

Introduced by Dr. Mark Hyman, bestselling author and a practicing family physician, the Pegan concept ditches processed food products to focus on sustainably raised, whole, fresh foods. Like the Paleo and Vegan regimens, the Pegan diet also shuns dairy.

But unlike Veganism, the Pegan diet avoids gluten, and recommends eating gluten-free whole grains only sparingly. Legumes (beans)—which the Vegan diet relies heavily on for protein—should be eaten in moderation.

And as with the Paleo diet, Pegans embrace eggs, and meat and fish is allowed, though in smaller quantities, not as the main course. As Dr. Hyman explains:

“Eating sustainably raised, clean meat, poultry and lamb and other esoteric meats such as ostrich, bison or venison as part a healthy diet is not likely harmful and is very helpful in reducing triglycerides, raising HDL (or good cholesterol), lowering blood sugar, reducing belly fat, reducing appetite, raising testosterone and increasing muscle mass. On the other hand, eating a lot of meat puts pressure on the planet—more water use, more climate change, and more energy inputs. Eat meat as a side dish or condiment, and only consume grass-fed and sustainably raised.”

You’ll find the details of Dr. Hyman’s recommended Pegan Diet on his website, but the major tenants are:

  • Focus on the glycemic load of your diet.
  • Eat the right fats—avoid most vegetable oils and focus on omega 3 fats.
  • Eat mostly plants—lots of low glycemic vegetables and fruits.
  • Focus on nuts and seeds.
  • Avoid dairy—try goat or sheep products for occasional treats.
  • Avoid gluten, and eat gluten-free whole grains only sparingly.
  • Eat beans in moderation—lentils are best, and avoid starchy beans.
  • Eat meat or animal products as a condiment, not a main course.
  • Use sugar only occasionally and sparingly.

“This way of eating makes the most sense for our health and the health of our planet,” Hyman writes. “It is sustainable and kinder to animals.”

The Pegan Diet relies on lots of vegetables. "The deeper the colors, the more variety, the better," says Dr. Hyman.

While there has been some support from nutrition experts and dietitians for the Pegan regimen, a few have taken issue with the reduced intake of whole grain and legumes, and the elimination of dairy altogether.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) includes whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy, and legumes as part of a healthful dietary pattern. Whole grains, in particular, are known to be a great source of dietary fiber, and may help reduce risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

In its overview of the Pegan Diet, Today’s Dietitian quotes several experts in the field, including Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who wrote: “I disagree with the recommendation of avoiding or minimizing grains, limiting intake of beans, and avoiding dairy as part of an overall eating pattern. These foods have been associated with positive health benefits.”

In truth, no one diet is perfect for every body. Whether because of limited access or the cost of obtaining certain foods, or due to all-or-nothing approaches that don’t take into account our varying dietary needs, searching for cure-alls may be a fruitless task. But the Pegan Diet does offer an intriguing new path for Paleos tired of that diet’s reliance on meat, or for Vegans looking to reintroduce meat into their meals.

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