Cleveland Clinic doctor and bestselling author Mark Hyman, MD, appeared on CBS News earlier this week championing an eating pattern he calls the “pegan diet.” And although this sounds like it could be a diet based in religion or witchcraft, it’s really just a combination of two already well-known lifestyles: paleo and vegan.
On the surface, paleo and vegan diets may seem like they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum: The former is meat-heavy, based on the concept that if a hunter-gatherer caveman didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either. The latter, on the other hand, includes no animal products whatsoever.
So what does it mean to combine the two—and is it an overall good eating strategy? We dug into the diet a little further, and checked in with Cynthia Sass, RD, Health’s contributing nutrition editor, to find out.
What defines a pegan diet?
Dr. Hyman describes the pegan diet in this way: “It’s really simple,” he told NBC News. “Eat foods low in sugar and starch. Eat lots of plant foods. If you're going to eat animal foods, eat sustainably grown or harvested foods. Have foods that have lots of good fat, like nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocados.”
He doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty, like exactly how much of each food groups to eat. But Carolyn Williams, RD, recently broke down the diet into more detail for Cooking Light: Plant foods, she says, should make up about 75% of your food intake; that includes mainly fruits and vegetables, but also plant-based proteins and those aforementioned healthy fats.
Your remaining food for the day can include animal-based protein, like sustainably raised meat, poultry, and fish. Then there are a few other rules: Avoid wheat, gluten, and all dairy, and limit legumes, beans, and gluten-free grains. Added sugars, she says, “should be an occasional treat.”
How does the pegan diet measure up?
The diet really does incorporate some of the healthiest elements of both paleo and vegan diets, says Sass. Both diets, for example, encourage lots of fruits and vegetables. The paleo diet also discourages processed and packaged foods, which weren’t around in caveman-times. (Vegan diets don’t, by definition, exclude processed products, but they do rule out a large segment of junk food made with dairy or animal fats.)
Sass also supports Dr. Hyman’s recommendation for eating animal products from sustainably raised livestock. “Grass-fed beef is leaner than its conventional counterpart, higher in nutrients, and contains anti-inflammatory fats,” she says. “Pasture-raised eggs and organic dairy have been shown to contain more nutrients, and provide omega-3 fatty acids.”
Plus, she adds, sustainably grown animal-based foods expose the body to fewer chemicals, which may impact metabolism and overall health. Currently, Dr. Hyman told NBC News, Americans eat 3 to 5 pounds of chemicals a year from food, “not to mention hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides.”
Sass says the diet’s focus on produce and healthy fats has similarities to the Mediterranean diet, which tied for the healthiest diet of 2018 in the U.S. News and World Report's January rankings. “But Mediterranean also includes whole grains and pulses—beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas—while paleo does not,” she says.
Are there any downsides?
Sass doesn’t love the blanket recommendation to avoid starches, a classification that can include a wide variety of plant-based foods. She thinks it’s better to match a person’s intake of starches with his or her energy and calorie demands, rather than cutting them out completely.
“I would not lump all starches into one category,” she says. “The quality of the starch, as well as the portion, in relation to your body's energy needs, are all important considerations, and I don't think everyone does well on a diet that eliminates whole grains and pulses like paleo does.”
She recommends eating whole-food starches, such as sweet potato and squash; whole grains like quinoa and brown rice; and pulses like lentils, black beans, and chickpeas. But you'll want to modify your portions based on your activity level, she says.
“If you’re heading right to work and will be sitting at a desk all morning, you shouldn’t eat the same breakfast as someone who is going to Spin class before work,” she says. “That said, nobody should be eating sugary cereal or a doughnut for breakfast.”
Over at Cooking Light, Williams also expresses concern about the diet’s dairy-free policy. “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 reduces inflammation,” she writes.
Plus, she adds, dairy is a good sources of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, magnesium, phosphorus, protein, and probiotics (present in yogurt and kefir). And while vegan (and pegan) diets can be healthy, it does take some extra work to get those nutrients from other sources.
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The bottom line
When describing his ideal diet, Dr. Hyman also likes to tell people, “If God made it, eat it. If man made it, leave it.” Sass says that overall she likes that philosophy, but it does pose some important questions.
“Does that mean a sweet potato is OK but quinoa from a bag—where the only ingredient is quinoa—isn’t?” she says. “When it comes to packaged foods, I think ingredients are key.” She advises her clients to steer clear of artificial ingredients, “but I think minimal processing, like buying almond milk made with natural ingredients, is fine.”
Sass says the degree of processing—how far away a food is from the way it’s grown or raised in nature—is a key factor. So is what’s being taken away (like important nutrients) or added (like preservatives or sugars).
Williams also appreciates the whole-foods, best-of-both-worlds approach to Dr. Hyman’s hybrid diet. “I have to confess that after learning more about the pegan diet that I am pleasantly surprised,” she wrote. “I would probably recommend this approach over paleo or vegan diets.”