This new buzz-diet is taking the wellness space by storm and could potentially be the next big thing. Paleo was thriving five years ago, but it’s slowly on the decline. On the other hand, the vegan lifestyle is booming, and Australia is the third fastest growing vegan market in the world.
But if Paleo prides itself on a diet of heavy meat consumption and veganism is far from it, does combining these opposites make us better off, or worse?
What is the Pegan diet?
The Pegan diet is relatively new, founded by Dr Mark Hyman in 2015. Dr Hyman preaches that “food [is] more powerful than any drug to reverse disease.”
Dr Hyman explains that by taking the ‘hunter-gatherer’ style of eating from the Paleo diet, avoiding processed foods and adding in plenty of the plant-based options the vegan diet is well-known for, you get the ultimate health hybrid.
The diet is currently most popular in the US, including supporters like Bill Clinton, and is slowly spreading to Australian shores.
What’s in and what’s out on the Pegan diet?
Peganism is based on the 75/25 rule.
Fruit and vegetables make up the bulk of the diet and the remaining 25 per cent is a combination of protein and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
Dr Hyman encourages you to include mostly non-starchy vegetables (avoiding starchy veggies like potato, sweet potato, corn) and go for plenty of variety and colour.
When choosing protein, a combination of animal and plant-based sources are suggested. Where possible, the preferred animal sources are grass-fed, sustainably sourced meat, poultry, eggs and low mercury fish.
Healthy fats are the final food group to include, mainly omega-3 rich sources, which are naturally occurring in fatty fish, nuts, olive oil and avocado.
If the above is in, then everything else is, more or less, out.
Dairy, gluten, legumes and anything processed or packaged is off the list or only allowed in small amounts. Same as the vegan diet, all dairy (milk, butter, cheese and yogurt) is excluded.
However, plant-based milk products and dairy alternatives are allowed (think things like almond milk and soy yoghurt), but these are allowed at roughly one serve a day.
Given this, I’d recommend you opt for alternatives which are fortified with calcium and vitamin B12 to ensure you aren't missing essential nutrients.
Gluten is also off the menu. Any wheat-based product is excluded and gluten free grains (like quinoa and brown rice) are allowed but only sparingly, so no more than half a cup at any meal.
Consistent with Paleo, all processed goods are out - cavemen didn't have Coco Pops back in the prehistoric times, so Pegans can't either.
Dr Hyman envisions the Pegan lifestyle to be as clean as possible - free from chemicals, preservatives, artificial colours, flavours and sweeteners. Finally, it is encouraged to pick local, organic and sustainably sourced foods when possible.
Pros of the Pegan diet
Following the vegan diet places you at a higher risk of calcium, iron and vitamin B12 deficiency, as animal products, namely dairy and meat are the richest sources for these nutrients.
The Pegan diet includes animal protein sources, in hope to counteract this; however, it is not as heavily focused on meat as the Paleo diet, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
There’s a growing body of research on the danger of heavy meat consumption, placing you at an increased risk of bowel cancer and heart disease, so a moderated approach (as found with the Pegan diet) is likely to be best.
Hyman recognises the importance of low glycemic (GI) foods and this is another strength of the Pegan diet. Choosing low GI foods is based on the principle that some carbohydrates have a different effect on your blood glucose levels than others.
Low GI carbs break down slowly during digestion, reducing glucose gradually, and more steadily into the bloodstream. Stable blood sugar levels are proven to have positive associations for appetite control, weight loss and energy levels.
Cons of the Pegan diet
I'm cautious of any diet that completely excludes food groups and there's little research to support total dairy restriction, except for those who are allergic or intolerant.
Dairy is rich in calcium and vitamin D, both of which are essential for strong bone health, preventing osteoporosis and contrary to popular belief, a moderate dairy intake has also been found to decrease inflammation levels.
While dairy isn't the only source for calcium, it is the most convenient and affordable way reach your recommended dietary intake for calcium over plant sources such as spinach or brussel sprouts.
Yes, the diet does allow plant-based milk alternatives, roughly one serve a day, so I suggest you opt for fortified options. You might also want to consider calcium supplementation. But even so, I’d still prefer to see dairy included.
The Paleo diet is known for its small allowance of carbohydrates, whereas the vegan diet which is much more liberal. The Pegan diet recommends severe restriction of all wholegrains, likely because these also contain gluten.
Whilst many diets are on the gluten-free bandwagon, there’s limited research to support the benefit of this exclusion if you aren’t a coeliac. It’s quite possible that the opposite is true, as whole-grains are in high in fibre, nutrient rich and are relatively low energy density.
Dr Hyman recommends choosing food which is both organic and sustainably sourced, however these choices do come at a cost, up to three times the price of regular produce. The jury is still out if organic fruit and vegetables are more nutritious. It may be true for some foods but given natural variation and seasonal fluctuation, it is hard to conclusively say.
There is conflicting evidence out there and ultimately, choosing organic is an individual choice. Rather than focusing on the possibility of extra antioxidants from organic produce, I’d rather ensure you are eating plenty of fruit and veg. If you can afford the extra cost and want to, by all means go organic.
Recent research into the Pegan diet
As the Pegan diet is relatively fresh, there is minimal research out there to either support or oppose it. Like Paleo, it hasn't been around long enough to sufficiently analyse the long-term effects.
When we look at key principles of the diet in isolation, some components are well supported by research. There is adequate information proving the benefit of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, moderate meat consumption and minimal processed foods.
However, these three principles aren’t at all exclusive to the Pegan diet and to be honest, they are the foundation of many common dietary approaches.
The verdict of the Pegan diet
I'll be honest, initially I was skeptical. However, once you delve deeper into it, the Pegan diet does have a lot going for it.
Nutritionally speaking, you’re better off going choosing Pegan than following the Paleo diet.
It also holds potential to be more nutritionally balanced than the Vegan diet, but I would like to point out that a Vegan diet is often selected due to a combination of factors, including ethics and sustainability, so this recommendation is purely based on nutritive value.
Ultimately, the Pegan diet is relatively balanced, and despite the absence of dairy and minimal wholegrains, it isn’t too far off the mark.
If you were to choose the Pegan diet, my one recommendation would be to consider calcium and vitamin B12 supplementation. If you are considering giving Pegan a go, it’s best to speak to a health care professional before commencing.
Rachel Scoular is a dietitian and the founder of Healthy Happy Habits.
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