What’s the Pegan Diet? (And How Does It Compare To Primal?)

Because people don’t have enough diets to choose from already, there’s a new one on the scene: the Pegan diet. Actually it’s not that new—Dr. Mark Hyman started writing about it back in 2014, but it’s gained traction since he published his latest book last year, Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?

According to Hyman, Pegan is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek play on the fact that it’s not quite Paleo and it’s not really vegan, hence Pegan. It claims to combine the best of both diets, namely a focus on eating lots of vegetables, as well as an emphasis on sustainable agriculture and ethical and ecologically sound animal farming.

Setting aside the obvious issue that it’s 100% possible to be a vegan who eats few to no vegetables, or to be a paleo dieter who cares naught about the environment, Pegan is touted as being easier to stick to than either vegan or paleo (presumably because Pegan allows for consumption of foods not allowed on either). Frankly, trying to frame it as a bridge between the two hasn’t proved to be a seamless, happy compromise based on social media conversation, but that’s probably of little surprise to anyone here.

I’ve had some readers ask me about the merits of Pegan and whether it offers any particular advantages over paleo/Primal, and I’m taking up that question today. (Note that I’m only focusing on the Pegan diet proposed by Dr. Hyman, not the “Pegan 365” diet offered by Dr. Oz. The latter isn’t paleo at all, allowing whole grain bread and pasta, corn, tofu, and a weekly “cheat day.” You can imagine my response to this version.)

Defining the Pegan Diet

These are the basic tenets of the Pegan diet in a nutshell:

Focus on sourcing high-quality food – Prioritize organically grown and pesticide-free produce as well as meat, eggs, and fats from pasture-raised and grass-fed animals and finally sustainably harvested seafood. Choose seafood with the lowest possible mercury content. Buy local when you can. Avoid CAFO meats and foods containing chemical additives.

Eliminate processed modern food-like substances and franken-fats – Processed carbohydrates have a high glycemic load and lead to excessive insulin production. Refined vegetable and seed oils such as canola and sunflower are pro-inflammatory. Avoid all such products.

Go gluten-free – Even if you don’t have celiac disease or an obvious gluten sensitivity, modern wheat is still a frankenfood, and gluten can damage the gut. Occasional consumption of heirloom wheat (e.g., einkorn) is ok if you tolerate it.

Go dairy-free – Dairy is problematic for most people and is best avoided. If you do decide to include some dairy, consider choosing goat and sheep milk products instead of cow. Grass-fed butter and ghee are acceptable.

Make vegetables the centerpiece of your diet – Vegetables (mostly non-starchy) should comprise 75% of your diet.

Enjoy healthy fats – Focus on omega-3s, as from small, oily fish. Eat plenty of healthy fats from grass-fed and pastured meats and whole eggs, nuts and seeds, avocados, and coconut products. Use olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil for cooking.

Eat meat sparingly – Dr. Hyman uses the term “condi-meat” to emphasize that meat should be a side dish, not the focus of the meal. He recommends no more than 4 – 6 ounces of meat per meal.

Include gluten-free grains and legumes in small quantities – You may eat ½ cup of gluten-free grains like amaranth or quinoa, plus ½ – 1 cup of legumes (preferably lentils) per day. If you are insulin resistant, you should limit these or refrain altogether.

Limit sugar – Avoid refined sugar and conventional “treats.” The bulk of your vegetable intake should be from non-starchy varieties, and opt for low-glycemic fruit. Natural sweeteners like honey should be used only sparingly for the occasional treat.

How Does Pegan Compare to Primal?

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Gee, Mark, this sounds an awful lot like the Primal diet,” I agree. While there are some differences between Pegan and Primal, they aren’t particularly dramatic:

Primal allows full-fat dairy consumption. Pegan discourages but doesn’t outright ban dairy.

I don’t actively encourage people to consume gluten-free grains and legumes, but I’m not as strongly opposed to them as others are in the ancestral community. I’ve said before that I consider quinoa, amaranth, wild rice, and legumes to be moderation foods (when well-tolerated, which is more an individual thing). They deliver pretty substantial carb hits relative to their nutritional value, but they certainly aren’t the worst options out there. I don’t think they should be dietary staples by any stretch—and daily consumption is too much in my opinion—but if Primal folks want to eat them occasionally, I’ve seen it work for people.

The biggest difference is in regard to protein. The Pegan diet explicitly limits protein consumption, while the Primal Blueprint recommends moderate protein consumption tailored to your activity levels, goals, age, and medical needs. On the surface, this might seem like a substantial difference, it’s probably not very disparate in practice. If a Pegan eats 3 eggs for breakfast, a large salad with 4 ounces of sardines at lunch, and 4 ounces of skin-on chicken thigh at dinner, that gets him or her to about 70 grams of protein, not counting the (admittedly incomplete) plant protein from the salad and any additional veggies included with breakfast and dinner, plus nuts and seeds. That’s within the realm of Primal guidelines, albeit less than I’d recommend for some populations.

That said, if Pegans are taking the whole “treat meat as a condiment” mantra to heart, they are probably at greater risk of underconsuming protein compared to the average Primal eater. This could present a problem for athletes and older folks looking to preserve lean mass. Likewise it is surely harder to get enough protein while also practicing time-restricted eating—and perhaps only eat one or two meals per day—and trying to follow Pegan guidelines. That isn’t a knock against Pegan per se, just a cautionary note.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of protein, I must object to Dr. Hyman’s appeal to environmentalism as a reason to limit meat consumption. I’m not at all convinced that raising livestock taxes the environment more than monocropping acres and acres of corn and soybeans.

In my opinion, Pegan could simply be called “vegetable-centric Paleo with permission to eat small amounts of quinoa and lentils if it suits you.” That isn’t catchy, though, so Pegan it is.

That said, I appreciate how Dr. Hyman for his version of the Pegan Diet emphasizes that there is no single diet that is exactly right for each individual and, like me, he advocates for self-experimentation. Dr. Hyman also speaks out against diet dogmatism and encourages his followers to focus on big-picture health. These are obviously messages I can get behind.

The Bottom Line

I’m a fan of anything that gets people thinking about food quality instead of just robotically tracking macronutrient intake and/or plugging calories into a magic weight-loss formula. Supporting sustainable agricultural practices, eating locally and seasonally, and avoiding environmental pollutants have always been part of the Primal Blueprint recommendations. In short, there is a lot I like about the Pegan diet.

However, I don’t agree that the Pegan diet is necessarily easier to implement than vegan or Paleo, which is supposed to be one of its big draws. If you’re a vegan who gets by on bagels, pasta, and Oreos, or a Paleo person who dutifully eschew grains but relies on the myriad processed, packaged Paleo food options, Pegan is not going to be easier. Changing your diet to focus on carefully sourced “real food” is still going to be a massive shift. It’s going to be much more expensive and time consuming to prepare your meals, and it will probably be incredibly burdensome at the beginning.

Sure, being able to include a small serving of gluten-free grains and legumes might make life a little easier for Paleo folks… but how much really? (For this reason I’d be skeptical if you’re considering using the Pegan diet to lose weight.) Are a lot of Paleo folks really falling off the wagon because they are feeling deprived of ½ cup of lentils? Dr. Hyman has said that his issue with Paleo is “some use the paleo philosophy as an excuse to eat too much meat and too few plant-based foods.” I’m not really seeing this pervasively in the Paleo/ancestral community, to be honest (intentional carnivore dieters notwithstanding). This strikes me as an attempt to solve a problem that didn’t need solving.

Truthfully, the things I like about Pegan are all the ways in which it is similar to Primal, which are many. Both Primal and Pegan have vegetables as the base of their food pyramids. They similarly emphasize the importance of choosing healthy fats and oils, avoiding grains and processed modern junk foods, and moderating carbohydrate intake (which Dr. Hyman frames as maintaining low glycemic load, but the effect is the same). Still, for many people the tighter Primal guidelines around carbs are probably better suited for weight loss and even weight maintenance.

Most days, if you were a fly on the wall in my kitchen, you’d see me eat a big-ass salad for lunch and a piece of meat with several types of vegetables on the side for dinner, and you wouldn’t be able to discern if I was Primal or Pegan. Then again, those nights when I tear into a giant steak would you most certainly be able to tell… and, trust me, I’m not giving those up any time soon.

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