November 23, 2021/Nutrition

The Pegan Diet: Does It Work — and What Can You Eat?

Learn the benefits of going pegan and how to follow the diet

Bowl of chopped sweet potatoes, avocados and mangoes with slices of lemon

The paleo diet and a vegan diet don’t have much in common. One focuses on meat, while the other excludes it. But what if you take some qualities from both diets and combine them into one? Enter the pegan (paleo + vegan) diet.

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Registered dietitian nutritionist Rosemarie Lembo James, RD, CNSC, LDN, explains the benefits and drawbacks of this plan and whether it might be right for you.

What is the pegan diet?

Functional medicine specialist Mark Hyman, MD, created the pegan diet, which he says:

  • Lowers blood sugar and inflammation in the body, which could reduce your risk of certain chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • Is environmentally friendly because it focuses on plant-based and sustainable foods.
  • Focuses on nutrient-rich foods and minimizes or avoids unhealthy choices.

“Like the paleo diet, the pegan diet focuses on foods that early humans would have hunted or gathered,” explains Lembo James. “But the twist is that most of your daily food intake will be plants. You eat much lower amounts of animal-based foods than you would eat on the paleo diet.”

If you eat pegan:

  • 75% of your diet is plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
  • 25% of your diet is meats, poultry, eggs and fish (preferably grass-fed, organic or sustainably raised options).

Pegan diet food list: What you can eat

Going pegan means you can eat:

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  • All fruits, with an emphasis on low-glycemic fruits like cherries, strawberries, pears and apples.
  • All vegetables.
  • Dairy alternatives without added sugar like unsweetened nut milk or coconut yogurt.
  • Eggs.
  • Nuts and seeds (except peanuts, which are legumes).
  • Oils rich in healthy fats like avocado or olive oil.
  • Meats and poultry (preferably organic, grass-fed, sustainably raised meats).
  • Sustainably caught fish, especially low-mercury options like anchovies, salmon and sardines.

You can also eat minimal amounts of:

  • Black rice.
  • Legumes like beans or lentils (up to one cup per day).
  • Quinoa.
  • Sugar or desserts, though these should be very limited.

Foods to avoid on the pegan diet

The pegan diet doesn’t tell you how much you can eat or when. But a pegan diet severely limits or skips certain foods, including:

  • Bread and most grains like barley, oats and wheat (except black rice or quinoa).
  • Dairy products including milk, cheese, ice cream or yogurt.
  • Foods with added sugar or a high glycemic index.
  • Processed foods like packaged crackers, snacks and baked goods.

Health benefits of the pegan diet

If you follow the pegan diet closely, you’ll load up on fruits and vegetables. “A focus on fresh produce is a positive aspect of the pegan diet,” says Lembo James. “These foods are packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber and are usually low in calories.”

Avoiding sugar and processed foods is another plus for this eating plan. “Most Americans eat too much sugar and processed foods,” says Lembo James. “These foods tend to be low in nutrition. In addition, sugary foods can make you feel hungry, which can lead to eating more and unwanted weight gain.”

Risks and drawbacks of the pegan diet

The pegan diet isn’t perfect, however. It cuts out almost all legumes and grains, which are important sources of B vitamins and fiber. And unless you’re using a dairy substitute regularly, you could miss out on calcium and protein from dairy products.

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“Fruits and vegetables are great choices — but they can’t give you all the nutrients you need,” says Lembo James. “Make sure you’re getting enough protein, iron and vitamin B12, which are found in meat, eggs and tofu. You also need at least 1,000 milligrams a day of calcium — older or pregnant adults need even more. Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to figure out how to get your daily calcium intake.”

Should you try the pegan diet?

The pegan diet has some benefits, but don’t jump in without asking your healthcare provider. “Proceed with caution anytime a diet eliminates entire food groups,” says Lembo James. “And the pegan diet may not be suitable at all for people who have health conditions like an iron or B12 deficiency. If you have osteoporosis, work with your provider to get the vitamin D and calcium your bones need.”

If you’re trying to cut your grocery budget, a strict pegan diet won’t be your friend. Organic and grass-fed meats cost much more than non-organic options. And without beans or legumes, you lose a good source of inexpensive, meatless protein.

You don’t have to go full pegan to reap some of the benefits of this lifestyle. “Eating more fruits and vegetables can lower your risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer,” says Lembo James. “But don’t skimp on dairy, legumes and whole grains without talking to your doctor or nutritionist.”

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