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The pegan diet: What is it and does it really work?

Vegan and paleo = the pegan diet. Learn what foods you can eat, the benefits and downsides, and who should try it.

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Getty Images/Ekaterina Markelova

What do you get if you borrow the plants from veganism and the meat from paleo? The pegan diet. Pegan dieting blends a vegan and paleo diet, creating what followers think is the most balanced diet out there. But it might just be the most trendy. Here's what you need to know about pegan dieting. 

What is the pegan diet?

The paleo diet limits eaters to only foods that were available in the Paleolithic era -- meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Veganism requires a plant-based diet and restricts all animal products and byproducts. So what's the best way to combine these two diets together? That's a fair question.

It's not vegan, and it's not paleo. Many like to think of it as an approach to clean eating. Founded in 2015 by Dr. Mark Hyman, pegan dieting focuses on whole foods and eliminates as many foods with high sugar and sodium content as possible. 

The pegan diet comes with its own set of do's and don'ts -- it roughly shakes out to 75% fruits and veggies and 25% meat and eggs. Here's the basic pegan diet food list. 

What you can eat:

  • Fruits 
  • Vegetables --But not starchy vegetables like potatoes and parsnips.
  • Whole grains -- Such as quinoa and wild rice. No refined grains like white rice or white bread. 
  • Healthy fats -- Think avocados and nuts.
  • Meats and fish -- Specifically grass-fed or sustainably raised meat. 
  • Eggs

What you can't eat:

  • Gluten 
  • Dairy -- That's right, no milk, cheese or yogurt. 
  • Legumes 
  • Additives and preservatives -- Artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners.
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Oscar Wong/Getty

Health benefits of the pegan diet

Hyman's book, The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World, claims that peganism offers a solution for serious health problems like metabolic dysfunction and insulin resistance.

We want to point out that because the pegan diet is relatively new, there aren't in-depth studies on the benefits of the pegan diet as a lifestyle. However, parts of the pegan diet are known to provide tangible body benefits. 

Plant-based diets are richer in vitamins and fiber, thanks to the increased intake of fruits and vegetables. Despite knowing that we should eat a healthy portion of fruits and vegetables, most Americans don't eat enough. A diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables has been linked to lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease or strokes and lower risk of digestive problems. 

Cutting down on heavily processed foods -- ones that are high in sugar, sodium, saturated fats and artificial additives -- is always good. Generally, these foods make up over half of what we eat. A comprehensive review of 20 studies found that eating high amounts of "ultraprocessed foods" is associated with hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, depression and irritable bowel syndrome. 

Pegan dieting is good for the environment 

One of Hyman's main pillars of the pegan diet is environmental impact. With 75% of the diet reserved for plant-based food, we consider pegan dieting eco-friendly. 

"By eating less meat, we can drastically lower the amount of greenhouse gasses that are needed to produce our food. Greenhouse gasses cause climate change which results in many negative impacts on our health that we are already seeing today in the US, like reduced air quality to heat-related illness," says Carrie Durward, Ph.D., RD, extension nutrition specialist and associate professor at Utah State University

Can the pegan diet help you lose weight?

Maybe. The fundamental parts of the pegan diet can do good things for your body. And remember, any diet will help you lose weight if you're burning more calories than you eat. The pegan diet cuts out many of the most high-calorie foods that we eat, which could help introduce a calorie deficit

The key to dieting is to do it in a healthy way. And for some people, that means that they can't fully restrict food groups. Sustainable weight loss comes with a healthy and realistic approach. 

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Anna Blazhuk/Getty

Potential downsides of pegan dieting

Pegan dieting restricts things that can be good for you

The pegan diet eliminates some foods that are a part of a healthy diet. The USDA's 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines state that a balanced diet has a variety of nutrient-dense foods, including low-fat dairy products and legumes, both of which the pegan diet eliminates. 

Entirely excluding dairy from your diet means you could potentially be depriving your body of things like calcium and vitamin D. "It's more difficult to get all of the nutrients you need if you eliminate or restrict entire food groups. If you want to eliminate dairy from your diet, you need to actively think about how to meet your calcium, potassium, Vitamin D and protein needs," Durward explains.

Beans and legumes are excellent sources of iron and protein, which are crucial for building muscle. You can get these nutrients from meat. However, you only get a 25% allotment of meat on the pegan diet. With legumes restricted and meat limited, the chances of a deficiency increase. Your body needs iron -- it's used to produce hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells. Without enough iron, your muscles and tissues won't get enough oxygen and you'll be tired and short of breath.

Also, sometimes the restriction of food groups isn't necessary. "Most people do not need to remove gluten from their diets. If you do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, there is no reason to avoid these foods. Whole wheat kernels are just as healthy for you as brown rice or quinoa," Durward adds.

If you're going to try the pegan diet, you may need to supplement with vitamins or be very intentional about what you eat. You can stay within the limitations of the pegan diet and still be healthy and meet the dietary guidelines; it will just take a lot of understanding and planning. 

It's not exactly affordable

Under the pegan diet, there is a huge emphasis on minimally processed and organic foods. While that's great in theory, those products almost always come with a higher price tag. To do the pegan diet as advised, you have to be able to afford it. And there is no sugar-coating it; that's expensive. 

"As our food system is currently set up, these foods may not be accessible to many consumers. The focus on avoiding processed foods means that most individuals will need to dedicate more time to meal prep and cooking. Processed foods are also really important tools to help us achieve a healthy diet when we are under time or budget constraints," says Durward.

Living a pegan lifestyle requires a significant amount of time and prep work. The pegan diet involves an amount of luxury that's just not available to everyone. 

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Getty Images/Chris Ryan

Should you try the pegan diet?

Maybe:

If pegan dieting sounds like something you'd like to try, then you should feel empowered to do so. It can be a good thing if it fits your needs and lifestyle. You also don't have to commit to the pegan diet fully; you can borrow parts of it to make positive changes in your diet. 

Durward suggests you speak to a medical provider first if you're interested in the pegan diet or any diet that cuts out food groups. They will help you make sure you're not missing out on any essential nutrients your body needs. 

Maybe not:

Pegan dieting is pretty limiting. Restrictive dieting tends to be hard to follow and discouraging if you fall off the wagon. If you try pegan dieting, remember that your worth is not tied to your ability to stick to a diet. 

"I would caution against a pegan diet because it requires eliminating entire food groups and, therefore, is lacking in some key nutrients. For people with various health conditions, it could exacerbate adverse effects," says Tricia L. Psota, Ph.D., RDN. 

Too long, didn't read?

If you're not entirely sold on the pegan diet, there are certain parts that you can adapt for your present diet to get the health benefits, customizing the pegan diet to your needs and your lifestyle. Even if it's as simple as increasing how much fruit and vegetables you eat or cutting down on your processed sugar intake, you can make elements of pegan dieting work for you. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.