Curious about a pegan diet? What it is…and whether it’s even a good idea? As a registered dietitian who follows a plant-based diet, I too was curious when I first heard of this paleo-vegan hybrid so I thought I’d give it a try and share my thoughts with you because you KNOW the internet is going to be coming at you hard on this one.
Dr. Mark Hyman coined the term pegan way back in 2015…and he’s just released a book on this paleo-vegan hybrid so it’s getting a lot of press once again. This dietitian is gonna be straight with you: restrictive fad diets are not my cup of tea. But in theory, a pegan diet is about eating whole foods so I thought, why not? Let me use myself as a guinea pig and try it out.
I lasted one day.
All your questions about the pegan diet, answered!
Dr Mark Hyman’s Pegan Diet is a cross between the paleo and vegan eating plans – the idea being that both paleo and vegan eating (when done well) put a lot of whole, fresh plant foods front and centre.
I’m all for plant-based eating. Plant-based eating patterns are associated with a host of health benefits such as decreasing risk and supporting positive outcomes in heart disease and diabetes.
What a pegan diet really is, though, is a ‘healthier’ form of paleo with slightly less meat. The marketing for the book claims that even those on a vegan diet can do a pegan diet, but I’ve also read interviews where Dr Hyman cautions against protein deficiency on a vegan/pegan diet.
Let’s be clear: it’s the pegan diet restrictions that make protein deficiency more likely. If you follow an unrestricted vegan way of eating, protein deficiency is almost unheard of. For example, in one trial, plant-based protein accounted for about 15% of total caloric intake of vegans in the study.
I don’t like any diet plan that tells you to restrict foods, because it breeds food fear and can really damage your relationship to food. Also, do you really think you’re going to go the rest of your life without ice cream? That’s a hard no for me.
Where I start to get even more nervous is that paleo diets typically eschew whole grains and beans, two foods that are strongly associated with health benefits in the research. Learn more about the benefits of whole grains here. Paleo advocates cite anti-nutrients as one of the reasons why you should avoid them, which is a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense.
So what can you eat on the pegan diet? According to Dr Hyman’s original 2014 definition (which might have changed in the new book):
– Lots of fruits and vegetables. Ideally 3/4 of your plate.
– Healthy fats from nuts, seeds, olives and avocados
– A small amount of gluten-free psuedograins (1/2 cup per meal)
– No more than 1 cup of beans per day
– Small amounts of organic meat, poultry and eggs
The avoids on a pegan diet seem small…but they loom large considering how we actually eat these days. These avoids also reinforce the harmful clean eating stereotypes that gluten, dairy and sugar are somehow toxic.
– No hyper-processed foods
– No sugar
– No dairy
– No gluten
– No vegetable oils
On the surface, it seems quite reasonable. Just eat real food, right? No dietitian is going to tell you to eat more hyper-processed foods.
And if you’re not feeling ready to go fully plant-based, minimizing your intake of animal foods (meat as a condiment) is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Except that the restrictions it places on plant foods (minimizing beans and whole grains) are not based in science. And if you’re minimizing meat AND whole grains AND beans, where are you supposed to get the plant-based protein you need to stay full, support your immune system and keep your blood sugars steady?
So, why would Dr Hyman, a well-respected physician do this? Because extreme food restriction works, in the short term, to drop pounds fast. And weight loss sells books. Honestly, this book is a weight loss diet wrapped up in a wellness message. So if you’re plant-based, it’s unlikely that you can stick to this diet for the long-term, meaning any weight you lose will come back. Which means you’ll need another diet book. And considering that Dr Hyman is pumping them out at a rate of at least one every two years, this loss/regain cycle will keep you coming back for more.
Possible benefits to this diet? If you eat the standard American diet, mostly hyper-processed and few fruits and vegetables, I’m not gonna lie, you could feel better in the short term (if you’re a meat eater). Start eating whole foods and your body will literally be singing from all the nutrients.
It also focuses on more food choice as opposed to calories, macros or food amount (for the most part)…which is also a good idea. Because calorie counting and restrictive portions is a horrible way to live.
Possible risks? Well, if you’re vegan, you could starve. So that’s a big red flag. If you are an endurance athlete, you also want to take care with restricting starchy foods for your performance.
You need to watch calcium if you forgo dairy and are limiting beans – you are going to need plant-based milk alternatives. Protein is going to be an issue if you don’t plan for it, especially because beans and grains could make up a hearty dose if they weren’t restricted. But if you eat meat, it is less of a worry.
Oh, and also, restrictive diets cause food fear and damage your relationship with food. That’s the biggest red flag of them all.
Here is what I ate on Dr Mark Hyman’s Pegan Diet
Back in 2016 when I tried it, I was a bit more tolerant of restrictive meal plans than I am now, so a pegan diet didn’t seem that unreasonable to me – as long as you ate meat – because I have always held that meat should be a condiment…not a main event. Also, unlike the paleo diet, you still “get to” eat some healthy whole grains and beans everyday.
Should be easy, I figured. I wanted this to be a real world trial, so I didn’t do any meal planning or extra groceries to see how feasible it would be. I tried to keep my grains and beans as low as I could, a nod to the paleo heritage of the plan.
My (Vegan) Pegan Breakfast:
- Chia pudding with frozen berries, coconut milk and NO maple syrup. Plain coffee.
- One hour later, in place of eating my arm: A banana with a 1/4 cup of peanut butter. Missing grains already!
My (Vegan) Pegan Lunch:
- Leftovers (thank god!): Sautéed garlic kale and roasted sweet potatoes (bit of maple on them)
- Baked tofu (breaded in gluten free flour mix, which is probably verboten because it’s ‘refined’) and a drizzle of miso sesame sauce
(Vegan) Pegan Snack:
- raw almonds (a handful)
- two kiwis
My (Vegan) Pegan Dinner:
My “I’m done with pegan” Snack:
- Air-popped popcorn with a bit of butter
How I felt eating a (vegan) pegan diet for a day
How did I feel most of the day? Hungry. My breakfast probably only had five grams of plant-based protein so I was going nuts until I ate the peanut butter, which filled me up. But I had to eat a whole 1/4 cup of it to get full.
In trying to keep with the grain-free experiment, I went over my one cup of beans by lunch with the tofu but getting my protein up would have been impossible without doing so (cuz as much as I love em, I cannot sit down to cups of hemp seeds).
On the surface, it wasn’t totally out there in comparison to how I eat…it was just a less well-balanced version minus the grains. How big of a deal is that lack of balance? Well, after dinner, I got a massive headache…and I never get headaches. It tanked my energy that night and I still had a lingering headache the next morning. And I was STARVING. I didn’t feel right until lunchtime that next day. So yep, the little things really do count. That’s nutrition for ya.
Should you try a pegan diet?
I’m here to tell you that you don’t need a restrictive fad diet to reach your healthiest self. Actually, following a fad diet makes it harder to get healthy for the long term. Diets fail, leaving you thinking it was you who messed up when really, it was the crummy diet’s fault.
If you’re not feeling your best, know that a saner, less restrictive plant-focused eating plan really can help you feel better for life. Consider signing up for a nutrition consultation so you can customize the best possible diet strategy for your unique needs.
I originally wrote this post in 2016 so I have updated in to reflect the release of the new Pegan Diet book as well as new research and advice (evidence-informed practice is always evolving!).