What Is The Pegan Diet & Is It Actually Good For You?

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet
You've heard of paleo, you've heard of veganism – now, put your hands together and what have you got? The 'pegan' diet.
The pegan diet has spiked people's interest a couple of times over the past few years but with the rise in vegan diets (free Beyoncé tickets for life? Yes please) it's been of huge interest to those who completed Veganuary.
So what is it? Well, the first half – the paleo diet – has been knocking about since 1985 but really came to prominence in 2013, when it became the most searched-for weight-loss diet on Google. It was adopted in some form by everyone from Blake Lively to Kanye West to, um, Jeb Bush.
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You may also have heard paleo called the 'caveman diet' because it's supposed to emulate what our early ancestors would have eaten – you know, before Wagamama and Nando's were around.
The diet (which has been modified and adapted in countless ways for hundreds of different purposes) was originally supposed to see your daily calorie intake consist of 55% seafood and lean meat and 15% each of fruits, vegetables, and nuts and seeds. You eliminate sugar, grain, cereal, dairy and legumes, as well as processed foods.
Veganism, you've heard a lot about recently. It involves abstaining from animal products and is very popular right now because of a) people hoping to have less of an impact on Mother Earth, b) the aforementioned Beyoncé, and c) people hoping it's the answer to a healthy diet.
We spoke to Kajsa Ernestam, a registered dietician who works at Lifesum, the healthy living app, to find out how the pegan diet works and whether it's something you should consider.
How good is the paleo diet for our health really?
[It is] a diet that is low on starch and refined carbohydrates, which studies have found can be good for your blood sugar, as it makes blood levels more even.
A recent article also found that the paleo diet was linked to helping manage type 2 diabetes. If you do have type 2 diabetes, though, and are considering the paleo diet, then make sure that you consult a medical expert first.
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But if you do exclude something like dairy or grains from your diet, then you need to replace it with something nutritionally equivalent so that you do not miss out on any important foundations of a healthy diet.
What about going vegan?
Studies have found a link between following a vegan diet and health benefits. It is important, though, that you have an understanding of how to eat a plant-based diet that will provide you with the right levels of macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates and fats. A vegan diet will also be low on micronutrients, such as B12, which comes from animal products, so make sure that you take supplements if needed.
So what are some things you need to think about?
It is essential that you find protein alternatives, as this is one of the essential parts of your diet. Protein is responsible for promoting cell growth and repair, and you should ideally get some protein with every meal. Some good vegan alternatives for protein include soy, quinoa, beans, pulses and lentils.
In addition to protein, you will need to think about your calcium intake – the NHS recommends that an adult consumes 1,000 mg of calcium a day. You can get it from calcium-rich foods such as kale, almonds and figs. Also make sure that you eat enough iron and zinc. Iron is key to red blood cells and the second is responsible for cell division. The problem with plant-based diets is that zinc and iron aren’t as easily absorbed by the body as they would be if they came from animal produce, which is why the recommended daily intake of iron for vegetarians is almost double to that of a meat-eater. Because of this, make sure that your diet is filled with legumes, soy products, seeds, nuts and leafy greens. If you are starting a vegan lifestyle, then it is important that you speak to a medical professional and do your research beforehand. Otherwise, it can lead to nutritional deficiencies and low energy levels.
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So how do these come together to create the pegan diet?
[It] combines the paleo belief that processed food and products stemming from modern agriculture are harmful and not the best way to fuel our bodies, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables. The name can be a bit misleading: the pegan diet actually does not eliminate meats, but rather puts emphasis on the fruit and vegetable element of the diet.
Mark Hyman, the author and medical expert behind the pegan diet, recommends that you eat foods that keep the blood levels stable, by putting emphasis on omega-3 fats from, for example, nuts, avocado and olive oil, as well as some sustainably raised animals. Vegetables and fruit should also make up 75% of daily dietary intake. In my opinion, the reason that the diet is so attractive is because it helps people that want to cut down on their meat consumption while increasing their intake of fibre. It is also a more environmentally friendly approach to food, focusing on sustainably sourced food and drink.
Are there any risks with the pegan diet?
Hyman recommends that you do not consume any dairy products, beans or grains. He believes that dairy contributes to obesity, diabetes and the risk of osteoporosis. He also found that all grains can increase your blood sugar, create digestive problems. Finally, beans, in his opinion, can cause digestive problems and should, therefore, be avoided.
In my opinion, you should eat a balanced, varied and healthy diet. This does not necessarily mean that you have to include these items in your diet, but if you do decide to limit your intake of dairy, grains and beans, then make sure you replace it with something that still contributes the nutrients you have excluded.
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Can supplements help replace what you have cut out?
The pegan diet does recommend that you eat sustainable meat and eggs on a weekly basis. However, you might find that you still need more B12, which is typically found in animal foods. A B12 deficiency can lead to a number of side-effects, such as tiredness, weakness and even depression. Make sure to eat foods that are fortified with B12, or consult a doctor before taking any supplements.
What are some other pitfalls to watch out for?
When you find the foods that you can eat and that you enjoy, it can be easy to fall into a routine where you just eat the same foods all the time. However, remember that the same foods might not meet your nutritional requirements, causing you to become deficient in certain minerals and vitamins over time. Make sure that your diet is varied so that you get enough protein, B12, iron, calcium and vitamin D as a basis and work around this.
Any last-minute advice?
If you are new to veganism, make sure that you don’t rush your transition from your existing diet to a vegan one. Not only can it be difficult to get your head around all the things that you can and can’t eat, but your body will also need to adjust. Start by adding more plant-based foods into your diet, while also reducing the amount of animal products you eat. While a vegan diet can have a number of health benefits, it won’t guarantee that you will never fall ill, experience health problems, or lose weight and keep it off.
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