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Nutrition

What exactly is the pegan diet?

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Nutrition experts explain and weigh in.

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It’s hard to keep track of all the fad diets out there, what with half your friends posting Whole30 grocery store hauls and the other half sharing before and after keto diet transformations. So let’s talk about the latest one: the pegan diet.

Mark Hyman, M.D., director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and author of FOOD: What the Heck Should I Eat?, first dropped the term on his blog in 2014. Since then, interest has peaked, with Pinterest sharing that searches for the pegan diet jumped 337 percent in the past year. Here’s everything you need to know.

So, what exactly is the pegan diet?

The pegan diet is a combination of the vegan diet and the Paleo diet. There’s been a lot of research into the benefits of the vegan diet, which excludes all animal products and byproducts, including fish, eggs, cheese, yogurt, and honey. Some studies have found it may lower blood sugar levels, may lower your risk of developing cancer or heart disease, and may help with weight loss. But totally avoiding all animal products can be tough to maintain in the long-term, and “vegans tend to be at risk for low intakes of iron, vitamin B12, zinc, Vitamin D, calcium, and protein,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, R.D., a nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition. “Some vegan diets also revolve around too many processed foods, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates and not enough vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains.”

The Paleo diet includes focuses on foods with a low-glycemic index and includes foods supposedly available in the Paleolithic era, like vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, and meat, and restricts all processed foods. One small study found it may help to lower cholesterol and another showed it could potentially lead to weight loss, but most research has only looked at the short term. In addition, “the Paleo diet cuts out legumes, many grains, and dairy, which also can result in low intakes of some B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D,” Moreno says.

Pegans mix what’s best about the two approaches. “The pegan diet combines an emphasis on fruits and vegetables—vegan—with the idea of removing processed foods and products from modern agriculture—Paleo,” explains Kelli McGrane, a registered dietitian for the food-tracking app Lose It!. “In fact, about 75 percent of what you eat on the pegan diet should be fruits and vegetables while the remaining 25 percent can come from meat, eggs, and healthy fats, such as nuts and seeds.”

What can and can’t you eat on the pegan diet?

Fortunately, the pegan diet isn’t quite as restrictive as the vegan or Paleo diet alone, which gives you a few more healthy eating options, and may make you more likely to stick to it in the long-term. Unlike with Paleo, “legumes, such as beans and lentils, are allowed—but they’re limited to no more than one cup per day and up to a half cup of gluten-free grains, such as quinoa, is allowed per meal,” McGrane says. “All gluten-containing grains are strictly off-limits, though.”

Animal products are OK for pegans, too, although “only grass-fed beef and butter, organic chicken, pasture-raised eggs, fatty fish, and goats or sheep's milk are allowed,” McGrane says. Additional healthy fats can come from nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives, she adds, but not processed vegetable oils like canola oil.

While all fruits and vegetables are technically allowed, “the pegan diet emphasizes choosing more low-glycemic fruits and vegetables, which are often lower in sugar and total carbohydrates; for example, berries rather than bananas and zucchini rather than corn,” McGrane explains. Except for fruits, the pegan diet “recommends avoiding both natural and processed sources of sugar most of the time,” she says.

Is the pegan diet good for you?

The main gist of the pegan diet is to eat a more plant-based diet and cut back on all the bad-for-you processed foods—and that’s never a bad idea. “As a dietitian, I like the diet’s emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats,” McGrane says. “I think that it can also be a more realistic way for individuals to eat less animal products and more plant-based foods compared to the paleo or vegan diets on their own.”

But, as with any diet that limits the intake of certain foods, there can be drawbacks. “I find the limited intake of legumes questionable, as diets high in legumes have been associated with decreased risk of heart disease and cancer risk as well as better weight management thanks to their high fiber and antioxidant concentrations,” McGrane says.

“It still restricts too many food groups, cutting out dairy, grains, and legumes,” Moreno agrees. And, like any restrictive diet, “my additional concern is that psychologically it can lead to food anxiety or obsession, and falsely assigning morality to food,” she says. “There’s no scientific basis to support cutting our consumption of dairy, grains, and legumes, which are wonderfully nutrient-dense foods.”

Rather than falling for yet another fad diet, Moreno and McGrane both recommend an all foods in moderation mentality—and if you are concerned about your diet or want to make a drastic change, make sure to talk to a nutritionist to figure out what’s right for your body.