Why you should care

Because this diet promises to help you drop weight, reduce inflammation and balance blood sugar. Could it be the next veganism?

Scrolling through her Pinterest boards sometime last summer, Himani Singh, a 27-year-old content writer in New Delhi, came across some pins about something she hadn’t heard of before: pegan recipes. Intrigued, she clicked on one … and was soon clicking on others: posts about the benefits of a pegan diet, pegan diet plans and pegan blender brownies. She realized she had stumbled upon a trend that combines elements of a paleo diet — which includes foods once consumed in the Paleolithic era, such as lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds — and a vegan diet, which focuses only on plant-based foods (and nothing animal-based). Singh had already been through a ketogenic, or keto diet, characterized by low-carbohydrate, high-fat food. She decided she was ready for her next diet.

Singh, who self-identifies as a fitness fanatic, was soon boasting to her friends on WhatsApp about her new diet. She’s far from a lonely convert. When Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, coined the term first in 2014 and in 2017 came out with a book titled Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? that proposed this diet to millions of his followers, some experts questioned his suggestions. But followers don’t listen to skeptics.

Now, the diet is catching on fast. And because it’s millennials who are driving the global shift toward new food trends — as per an Organic Trade Association report, 52 percent of millennials are consumers of organic food, and 40 percent are taking on a plant-based diet — the clearest evidence of the pegan boom is showing up on their preferred means of communication: social media.

Improved mental clarity, more energy, better skin and less sick days.

Maria Marlowe, food blogger, on how she’s benefited from a pegan diet

On Pinterest, searches for pegan recipes and diets, across the globe, increased by 337 percent in 2018, according to data the social platform released late last year. A search for #pegan yields almost 75,000 posts on Instagram alone. Off-line, this interest has spawned at least a dozen follow-up books by lifestyle authors trying to ride the wave: on pegan diets for beginners, pegan diet cookbooks and other related subjects.

On the surface, paleo and vegan diets might appear at cross-purposes. But proponents of the pegan diet argue that it gives followers the chance to choose a combination of options from its two dietary influences. A vegan diet doesn’t allow meat, and a paleo diet doesn’t emphasize fruits and vegetables. Pegans, on the other hand, eat a predominantly plant-based diet, with meat serving as a side dish (around 25 percent, usually). Peganism also emphasizes heart-healthy fats, and serves as a good foundation for a healthy diet, says Vandana Sheth, a dietitian nutritionist with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Chicago.

“The pros of the pegan dietary pattern are its emphasis on vegetables, fruits and omega-3 fats, and the fact that it provides adequate protein,” Sheth says.

At the same time, the diet is reasonably strict about what you can’t eat: dairy products and gluten-rich grains. That’s what attracted Singh — gluten and dairy are things “I always try to avoid,” she says. That these restrictions are pulling in followers to a pegan diet isn’t entirely surprising. Intolerance to lactose and gluten is sharply on the rise. Sales of lactose-free food in the U.S. are expected to double between 2016 and 2020. The proportion of the U.S. population that suffers from celiac disease, which arises from gluten intolerance and leads to intestinal swelling, has grown at least fivefold from the 1950s, according to estimates.

But experts caution that pegan diets don’t necessarily work for everyone. For instance, it could lead to a shortage of vitamin B12, found in animal-based foods, compared to a paleo diet, where meat constitutes about 45-65 percent of the food intake. And Sheth says she disagrees with the diet’s recommendation to cut out grains and dairy, and limit the intake of beans. “These foods have been associated with positive health benefits,” she says.

Hyman, who didn’t respond to OZY’s request for an interview, is also known for taking controversial positions: He’s been accused of being anti-vaccination, after arguing in a book that thimerosal, a preservative found in vaccines, is harmful for human health.

But on Hyman’s website, one can find former President Bill Clinton vouching for Hyman’s work, which he says he hopes “will inspire you as he has inspired me.” And the concerns raised by specialists aren’t stopping bloggers, influencers and ordinary millennials like Singh around the world from gushing over this latest food trend. Maria Marlowe, based in New York, identifies herself as a “real-food evangelist” and says that after going pegan, she experienced “improved mental clarity, more energy, better skin and less sick days.”

Some experts believe other factors are also leading to food fads such as peganism. Aisling Pigott, the spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says that while obesity is rising, “our social ideals of perfection and body remain focused on leanness.” Social media, she says, enhances the “guilt culture around food,” making people feel they should all be eating a certain way. “Normal healthy eating is no longer accepted,” she says. Pigott concedes, though, that she does follow some of the principles of peganism — eating a more plant-based diet and fewer processed foods is key to good health, she says. “But labeling this as a ‘diet’ is unethical and potentially dangerous and difficult to follow.”

Indeed, healthy eating is not healthy if we become overly obsessed with the details, says Mary Pardee, who specializes in functional medicine and is based out of Los Angeles. “We often see people who spend a big portion of their day obsessing about where they are going to eat so that they don’t come into contact with dairy or, heaven forbid, gluten,” she says. Pardee doesn’t think these foods are the best options for most people. But, she adds, we need to “understand that health is not just about our food choices; it is also about our social choices.”

Meanwhile, Singh, who is trying pegan meals for a few months to see if it works out for her, is already starting to question her decision. Earlier, she would have beans regularly, but the pegan diet recommends that she limit her intake. Ditto with quinoa, a superfood and a staple in most fitness-related diets. “I am seeing that this diet massively restricts my choices,” she says. “I have to think twice before I eat these foods.” Pigott agrees that the diet is “restrictive and difficult to maintain.” She calls it a “modern-day cabbage soup diet.” But the cabbage soup diet has survived more than half a century. If pegan food can thrive similarly, its proponents won’t mind the comparison.

Pick Your Diet

  • Keto refers to very low-carbohydrate diets designed to induce the production of ketones (via the use of fat for energy).

  • Vegan refers to a diet without animal products.

  • Paleo refers to eating foods only available in Paleolithic times (which is actually very difficult because foods, plants and the environment have changed so much).

  • Pegan refers to a diet that combines key components from the paleo and vegan diets.

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