A whole foods approach to eating helps provide the body with necessary vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and phytonutrients. But which ‘whole foods’ approach to eating is the best? The answer varies from person to person, due to biochemical individuality. But the best place to start for a balanced, anti-inflammatory approach to eating is with the pegan diet, an eating philosophy created by Dr. Mark Hyman. A pegan diet is a hybrid of two very popular styles of eating, the paleo diet and the vegan diet. Instead of getting caught up in questioning ‘which diet is better’, the pegan diet combines the best attributes of each eating philosophy to provide an anti-inflammatory approach to food. Read more about the research on the vegan diet and the paleo diet and the framework of the pegan diet.
It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘which is best’ mindset. Is paleo better or is vegan better? And the easiest answer is that they both have benefits but each separately can be very restrictive. Outside of getting optimal nutrition, there are two things that matter most when creating a long-term nutrition plan: looking at what is the most sustainable for you and considering your personal dietary needs.
One study published in JAMA in 2005 compared the Atkins Diet with the Ornish Diet, Weight Watchers, and the Zone Diet for weight loss and risk of heart disease. The authors conducted a one year randomized control trial on the dietary components of the Atkins, Zone, Weight Watchers, and Ornish plans with the goal of identifying the effectiveness and sustainability of these diets for weight loss and cardiac risk. The authors concluded: ‘Each popular diet modestly reduced body weight and several cardiac risk factors after one year. Overall dietary adherence rates were low, although increased adherence was associated with greater weight loss and cardiac risk factor reductions for each diet group.’ The takeaway message is that it’s important to find something that you can sustain if you are looking for long-term results.
The second thing to consider is that nutrition is not one size fits all. A person’s nutritional needs vary from person to person. In determining what works best for each you, start with identifying your goals. If you have heart disease and certain religious beliefs, they you may do better on a vegan plan but a person trying to improve fatigue, digestive issues, or decrease inflammation may do better with a paleo approach. It’s also important to consider genetic predispositions, food sensitivities, macronutrient requirements, timing of meals, the status of your microbiome, hormones, nutrient deficiencies and your relationship with food.
When accounting for what nutrition plan is best for you, keep in mind the importance of finding a plan that is sustainable and one that you are able to personalize. The pegan diet can provide a great foundation point to help you accomplish both of these things. Before we dive into the specifics of the pegan diet, let’s review go over some of the research that exists in favor of the vegan diet and the paleo diet.
The Vegan Diet
There is substantial research that demonstrates many benefits associated with eating a vegan diet. The benefits are often far reaching and include lower levels of inflammation, improved cardiovascular outcomes, decreased risk of cancer, increased weight loss, and improved insulin sensitivity.
Foods to Include: fruits, vegetables, legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, plant-based oils, whole grains and dairy alternatives
Foods to Exclude: meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and fish
Nutritional Considerations: Calcium, Vitamin D, Protein, Heme Iron, Iodine, Glycemic Index/Load, and Sugar Consumption
A vegan diet has been shown to work well for people that have severe Cardiovascular Disease and there is good research to show that it can lead to the reversal of heart disease, however this way of eating does not work for everyone. In fact, I’ve worked with many individuals that feel much better after incorporating lean and clean sources of animal protein back into their diets. Vegans can have a difficult time getting adequate protein, eating low in the glycemic index since most foods include carbohydrates, improving digestive issues, and limiting sugar consumption because there are no sugar recommendations on a traditional vegan diet. Other symptoms that are fairly common include digestive issues, fatigue, anemia, acne, and brain fog.
The Paleo Diet
The paleo diet is not as well researched as the vegan diet but it has shown to also reduce risk of disease and lower levels of inflammation. One smaller study identified that following a paleo diet for just ten days led to improved blood pressure and glucose tolerance, decreased insulin section, and improved lipid profiles without weight loss in healthy sedentary individuals. Another 2015 study identified that a paleo diet compared to a diabetes diet for type 2 diabetics helped to improve glucose control and lipid profiles in participants. A 2017 study compared the Mediterranean Diet with a Paleo Diet and found both were effective in lowering levels of inflammation and all-cause and cause-specific mortality.
Foods to Include: Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Seeds, Healthy Oils, Dairy Alternatives, Organic Meat and Poultry, Fish, Eggs
Foods to Exclude: Legumes, Whole Grains, Soy, Dairy, Gluten, Processed Sugar
Nutritional Considerations: Calcium, Vitamin D, B vitamins, High in Animal Protein, Inadequate fiber
While the paleo diet restricts a variety of foods it can be effective for improving digestive issues, reducing blood sugar levels, optimizing weight loss, increasing energy levels and improving autoimmune symptoms. Some of the concerns surrounding the paleo diet include not getting enough fiber from whole grains and beans so in order for this diet to work well it requires eating a lot of vegetables and fruits. It’s also easy to overdo the protein, specifically beef, bacon and other kinds of meats. I generally recommend incorporating a lot of fish and lean sources of protein and occasional grass-fed beef. Like vegan diets, many paleo diets and recipes also go overboard on the added sugar. The good thing about paleo is that it restricts processed sugar however you could technically follow a paleo diet and eat honey and maple syrup all day. It’s important to limit any kind of added sugar for best results, including honey and maple syrup.
The Pegan Philosophy
While I do not subscribe to one way of eating, there are foundational pieces that work best for most people, regardless of whether you are eating paleo and vegan. The pegan diet is effective for many individuals because it focuses on incorporating commonalities from the paleo and vegan diets that provide a solid nutrition foundation. The basic principles from the pegan diet that are universally important include: eating whole foods that are minimally processed, limiting added sugar intake, ramping up on vegetables, and eating a diet high in fiber. The other advantage of this plan is that it’s less restrictive than paleo and vegan diets.
Vegetables and Fruits: The pegan diet is all about the produce, with the majority of foods coming from non-starchy vegetables, starchy vegetables. Fruits are also encouraged as this is a great way to get antioxidants and polyphenols into your diet but don’t overdo it with the fruits.
Meat & Eggs: Include high quality meat and eggs. The recommendations are to consume lean, organic poultry and grass-fed and organic meat and organic eggs. The quality of these foods makes a big difference on inflammation, digestion and disease outcomes. Limit to a palm size with your meal.
Gluten-free: Like the paleo diet, the pegan diet is based on the avoidance of all gluten which is found in wheat, barley and rye.
Dairy Alternatives: Like the vegan and paleo diet, the pegan diet promotes avoidance of or limited quantities of dairy products. This includes milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream and butter. Instead you can try incorporating almond yogurt (unsweetened), coconut milk, almond milk and cashew cheese.
Whole Soy Foods: Edamame and tofu are staples in many vegan diets but they are not included in paleo. The pegan diet does include soy if it comes from whole, unprocessed sources like tofu, tempeh, miso or edamame.
Incorporate Omega-3 Rich Seafood: This includes foods like wild salmon, herring, cod, oysters, etc. Try to avoid fish that are high in mercury such as tuna, orange roughy, and swordfish.
Limit Legumes: Like vegan diets, legumes are incorporated but in smaller portions. This includes lentils, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, hummus, etc.
Gluten-Free Grains: Contrary to the paleo approach, whole grains are included in a pegan diet but only gluten-free grains. That means incorporating foods like quinoa, brown rice, black rice, buckwheat, gluten-free oats, amaranth, and more. Gluten-free whole grains are preferred!
Limited Added Sugar: Unlike the paleo and vegan diet, the pegan diet hones in on both processed and unprocessed sugars, recommends to limit consumption of both.
For more information on the pegan diet, watch my presentation from last year on the pegan philosophy.