This diet review is an opinion piece.
Hybrids are definitely a thing: Cars, Golden Doodles, Pluots, sushi burritos. So it’s not surprising that there are also hybrid diets like the Pegan diet.
The Pegan diet – a mixture of vegan and Paleo, was conceived in 2015 by Dr. Mark Hyman. While I will reserve my opinion of Dr. Hyman until beyond the first paragraph of this post (I’m feeling very charitable today), his Pegan diet ostensibly takes the best of the meat-loving Paleo diet and grafts it onto the all-plant vegan diet.
How does that work, exactly, and is this a good plan to follow?
Let’s take a look!
What is the Pegan diet?
You probably already know that a vegan diet eschews all animal products. Just for comparison, the Paleo diet eliminates legumes, grains, dairy, potatoes, and most any fruit that’s not berries, for reasons that we won’t get into here. In general, it’s high in meat and other animal proteins, as well as in vegetables.
Let’s start with some of the reasons why Hyman developed the pegan diet. He claims that this diet decreases inflammation and blood lipids, and that it helps with longevity. None of these claims have any research behind them, but sure, a diet high in plants is always a great idea.
Hyman wanted to create a diet that had a lot of plants but, like the paleo diet, was about taking out ultra-processed foods, and putting in ‘whole, real, fresh foods’.
I object to the use of ‘real’ when describing food, although Hyman uses terms like this freely and often. You all know that there is no such thing as ‘real’ food in the way he says it. All food is food, and suggesting that certain foods are ‘fake’ is degrading to those people who like them or who have little choice in whether to eat them.
One of the selling points of the Pegan diet is that because it contains animal products, it’s supposed to be more sustainable for the long-term than a vegan diet. It’s like adding meat to a vegan diet gives it more variety, but then Hyman takes a bunch of foods OUT of Pegan, so I’m not sure what his point is here.
Hyman also mentions that vegan diets can be low in protein, which is the most tired, overused thinking. Sure, ANY diet can be low in protein, but you do not have to eat animals to have adequate protein in your diet.
Interestingly, the Pegan diet takes out or limits much of what vegans would use as protein sources: beans and soy products. Because INFLAMMATION AND STARCH.
The Pegan diet has 10 principles:
Eat foods that have a low glycemic load.
50-75 percent of your diet should be vegetables and fruits. You can have winter squash and sweet potatoes, but only 1/2 cup per day max.
No vegetable oils such as canola, corn, and soybean: those are full of inflammatory omega-6 fats. Instead, choose omega-3 oils such as olive and avocado. Saturated fats from sustainably-raised and grass-fed meats are also allowed, in small amounts.
Meat should be used as a side-dish; in other words, around 25% of your plate.
Choose sustainably-raised or grass-fed beef. Grass fed beef contains more omega 3s, plus vitamins A and D. Sustainably raised, low-mercury fish high in omega 3s, such as salmon and sardines, are also recommended.
Avoid dairy, and for a treat, you can have goat or sheep milk. Hyman says that dairy has been linked to obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.
Go gluten free – Hyman says that gluten and non-gluten containing grains cause autoimmune issues, and that they raise blood sugar. According to Hyman, modern wheat is ‘frankenfood’ and shouldn’t be consumed. Even gluten-free grains are limited to a 1/2-cup portion.
Limit beans/legumes to 1 cup a day, because they can cause digestive problems. Hyman also says that lectins and phytates in beans can cause inflammation and impair nutrient absorption. He states that it’s best to stay away from ‘big, starchy beans’ and limit yourself to lentils.
Sugar is only to be used as a ‘treat’, and maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar may be used in small amounts. No artificial sweeteners allowed. ‘Sugar is like a recreational drug, used occasionally for fun, but not a dietary staple’, says Hyman.
No soy, because it’s GMO and contains estrogens.
Choose foods that have low or no hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, additives, etc. etc.
The Pegan diet does have some good points.
What I like about the Pegan diet, and perhaps its greatest strength, is that it’s high in vegetables. If everyone ate this many vegetables, I think we’d be a lot healthier.
I’m a bit confused about the fruit recommendation though, since Hyman says that fruit is fine, but certain sources that talk about the diet say that fruit should be limited. He also says that sugar in its various forms should be avoided, so where does this leave fruit sugar, if he’s okay with fruits? Confusing.
I like that he encourages low-glycemic foods. This means choosing mostly whole foods that don’t impact blood sugar as much. Basically he’s recommending to avoid refined flours and ultra processed foods.
I like the fact that Hyman uses meat as a condiment instead of a main dish. While we should all be including a source of high-quality protein at every meal, and meat can be one of them, making vegetables the focus of the plate is exactly what I advocate.
Cutting down sugar is a good idea, since most of us eat far too much of it. But comparing it to a drug? That’s a bit over the top. Also: honey, coconut sugar, and maple syrup ARE sugar. A doctor should understand that all of those sweeteners are the same to our bodies.
What I don’t love about the Pegan diet.
I think what I dislike most about the Pegan diet is that it’s based, at least in part, on untruths and fear mongering about food. Mark Hyman always seems to be ready to make a sale. He blathers on about ‘real foods,’ but then has like 1000 supplements and cleanses in his online store.
I find his entire persona pretty disingenuous, actually.
I’ve seen him post social media content about the Pegan diet, which he then parlays into a sales pitch for his latest book. He talks all about the importance of whole, unprocessed foods, then turns around and tries to sell followers a bunch of his supplements.
The Pegan diet is also typical Mark Hyman, in that it’s completely elitist in its food recommendations.
Lower-income individuals, who need accessible, healthy diets the most (unlike the wealthiest, healthiest 1% who actually follow diets like this) will probably have big issues affording it.
I guess Hyman, who has worked at places like Canyon Ranch Spa and his ‘Ultrawellness center’, isn’t interested in writing for the masses; he’s really making his money off of people who can afford organic produce, grass-fed beef, and sustainably-raised fish.
Income disparities and social determinants of health exist, but I just take issue with Pegan and other diets that push super-expensive food as the key to ‘health’, as if people who can’t afford them are just supposed eat ‘toxic’ beans and gluten. Seems pretty unfair that the rich get healthier and the poor get nothing.
Then, there are the blatant untruths.
Unless you’re specifically intolerant or allergic to dairy, gluten, or legumes, there is absolutely no evidence that taking these foods out of your diet is a good idea.
Dairy is not the cause of obesity, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, or heart disease, and is actually thought to be anti-inflammatory. Many of these associations have no evidence behind them, but are frequently cited by the alternative medical community when they’re trying to prove a (bad) point.
Plenty of people don’t want to consume dairy for whatever reason, which is fine with me – you can have a perfectly healthy diet without it. So eat it or not, but as I said above, there is no solid research to prove Hyman’s assertions.
Don’t let someone scare you into not eating an entire food group. There’s a lot of that going on these days.
While legumes do contain anti nutrients such as phytates and lectins, nobody is eating raw beans, and cooking denatures lectins. Our bodies also have enzymes to take care of the lectins that survive the heat of preparation.
Phytates are harmless and are in fact, antioxidants. I’ve written a lot more about this topic here. Hyman allows a small amount of these foods in his Pegan diet, but they’re a cheap, healthy way to nourish our bodies and should never be demonized (no food should be demonized, actually). I find it bizarre that Hyman would spout this garbage about legumes and then move to replace them with animal proteins.
In fact, I find it really very strange and borderline offensive that Hyman would insert meat into a vegan diet in the first place.
Since we’re talking about scaring people away from plants, let’s discuss the whole ‘frankenfood’ argument against wheat for a minute. While I don’t recommend a diet based on white flour, I take serious issue with Hyman’s argument that ‘wheat makes us fat’. (his words, not mine).
Although Hyman believes that wheat’s proteins and starches have been changed over the past 100 years by breeding, and that these changes are causing us all sorts of health issues, this is in fact likely not the case (and here).
Hyman’s argument that gluten makes us ‘sick and fat’ (again, his words, never mine) is incredibly overused and tired, not to mention unproven.
Hyman tells us that non-wheat, gluten-free grains cause autoimmune issues (not true for most of us) and that they raise blood sugar. Of course they raise blood sugar: that’s a NORMAL response to carbohydrate, but the important thing he leaves out is: how high, and how fast, do these grains cause blood sugar to go?
This is classic fear mongering, and so incredibly confusing to the layperson who only hears, ‘anything that raises your blood sugars is bad’. Shame on him.
GMO food has never been proven to affect human health. I write more about GMOs here, but suffice it to say that there really isn’t a good reason to avoid them.
Be careful who you get your info from.
Hyman’s verbiage is clearly meant to incite fear of certain foods and steer people to his diet/store/products/books/whatever, which is a hallmark of a charlatan. Hey! You’re eating poison, but buy my book and I’ll show you how to cure yourself with my Pegan diet and bogus chelation therapy! Infuriating.
If you can’t already tell, I have some serious questions about Hyman’s credibility. He’s not looked upon kindly by many allopathic aka evidence-based physicians, and to be honest, he’s like Dr. Oz with a dash of Goop. He called the American Heart Association a ‘terrorist organization’.
His ‘functional medicine’ brand more often than not uses poorly done or questionable research, pseudoscience, chemophobia, fear mongering, and bogus cures for incurable conditions (like autism). He’s all about food-as-medicine, which I don’t agree with.
He also spells ‘pharmacy’ as ‘farmacy,’ which is a red flag.
(Food as medicine? Here’s Why I Don’t Agree)
He sells detoxes, cleanses, and tons of sham supplements like ‘fat burning Metabolic LipidPlex’ in his online store. What the heck is that, even. RED FLAG.
As far as putting meat into a vegan diet, what a bizarre concept. Why not ditch the fear mongeringand promote a flexitarian way of eating? Right, there’s no money in that.
Nutrition isn’t an exact science, and sure, there are different beliefs out there.
But when you’re in a position of authority and you’re promoting patently false, physiologically impossible ideas and bad information, that’s irresponsible and malignant. That pretty much sums up my opinion of Mark Hyman and every other ‘diet doctor’ out there.
While the Pegan diet may have some positives, the scare tactics and food restrictions that it’s based on darken my opinion of it. This sort of fear mongering is insidious when it comes from someone working for the world-famous Cleveland Clinic, which legitimizes pretty much everything he says, unfortunately.
In the end, there isn’t a lot of difference between the Pegan and Paleo diets. Sure, Pegan has more plants, but is still limited in plant-based proteins. Both promote animal proteins and expensive versions of ordinary, healthy foods, and shun dairy, grains, gluten, and sugar.
Most importantly, both are based on dubious science and fear.
Can you follow the Pegan diet and be physically healthy? Yes. It contains lean proteins, lots of vegetables and fruits (I think), healthy fats, and no ultra-processed foods. It cuts sugar, which we tend to eat too much of in our diets. These are all great things.
The best way of eating is the one that cuts out the least number of foods, and that’s also the most sustainable for YOU. It’s the one that doesn’t use fear-mongering to convince you to cut harmless, healthy foods out of your diet.