You’re probably already familiar with all the major styles of plant-based eating, like vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian. Or you may have even gone Paleo at some point to up your protein intake. One dietary trend that’s gaining steam is pegan, which is essentially a hybrid of the Paleo and vegan eating methods, and mostly involves eating plant-based, with some animal protein thrown in the mix. “The idea is to eat mostly vegan, with just a side of meat, seafood, or eggs, while avoiding the most common inflammatory foods,” says Mikka Knapp, RDN, CLT, owner of Bright Body Nutrition in Sarasota, Florida. This idea has been picking up steam recently, (it’s still New Year’s resolution season) especially among people who want to adapt their diet to a more plant-based one, but don’t want to go full-on vegan. If you’re struggling with chronic inflammation, this could be the right nutritional move for you. Here’s everything you need to know about how to eat Pegan before you make the transition.
How to Eat Pegan: What to Know Before You Make the Switch
1. The “pegan” style of eating has been around since 2014
Functional medicine physician Mark Hyman, M.D. coined the term “pegan” in a 2014 article describing the Paleo-Vegan diet that he suggests to his patients. Based on research, some of which suggests that a low-carb vegan diet is beneficial to maintaining a healthy weight, metabolism, as well as heart health, he recommends an anti-inflammatory eating regimen. He says to focus on whole foods and healthy fats, cutting out the majority of inflammatory dairy and grains, and eating only small amounts of sustainably-raised meat and fish (which have more nutrients).
2. It’s a mixture of Paleo and Vegan
Most of what you can eat on the pegan diet is an array of colorful whole foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some eggs, meat, poultry, and seafood, explains Knapp. One important focus of this healthy lifestyle change is sustainability: It’s been proven that plant-based diets have less of a negative environmental impact. “With the pegan diet, there’s an emphasis on responsible sourcing of the animal products, such as grass-fed meat, low-mercury seafood, antibiotic-free chicken, and free-range eggs,” Knapp says.
As to what’s a pretty strict no-go, dairy and gluten are not a part of pegan eating because they commonly cause gut irritation, as do sugar and processed foods, which are also banned. The only grains that are encouraged are ones that are low on the glycemic index, Knapp explains, like lentils and quinoa (most other beans and grains are off-limits). There’s a particular emphasis on eating foods that don’t spike blood sugar. Any fats should lean towards anti-inflammatory, healthy fats, mostly ones that contain of omega-3s. “The only oils allowed are olive oil, avocado oil, and unrefined coconut oil,” Knapp says. Other fat-filled foods could contribute to inflammation.
3. It’s 75% plant-based
The ratio is of 75 percent plants is important because that’s what you should keep in mind for your plate: Three-quarters of it should be filled with colorful veggies and fruits. It’s basically the opposite of the Paleo diet, which would be about three-quarters meat. “A conventional Paleo plate would usually feature a big piece of meat with a side of vegetables,” Knapp says. And eating pegan turns this ratio on its head.
4. Flexitarianism is similar, but not the same
You may hear about pegan eating and notice that it sounds remarkably similar to flexitarianism, especially the part about occasionally including meat, poultry, and seafood. “The flexitarian diet is very similar to the pegan diet, just less restrictive. Both diets emphasize plant-based foods as the star of the show, with animal products as the side attraction,” Knapp says. The main focus of both eating styles is to eliminate fatty, sugary processed foods from the diet, which is always a positive, but eating flexitarian may just be less limiting (for example, it doesn’t restrict dairy or grains, especially whole grains, or legumes from the diet).
On a flexitarian diet, there’s no set ratio of how many plant foods you should be eating to animal protein. “Flex” is in the name, after all. If you’re not the best meal planner, flexitarian could have just the flexibility you need. “Some flexitarians aim to have mostly plant-based meals, while others have mostly plant-based days, and advanced flexitarians will only have animal products a few times a week. There's not a set rule,” Knapp explains.
5. Some athletes struggling with inflammation may benefit from eating Pegan
The pros to pegan eating include kicking the majority of sugary and fatty processed foods to the curb. With the combination of this plus the introduction of more fruits and vegetables into the diet, athletes who struggle with either diabetes or other blood sugar issues, or chronic inflammation due to autoimmune conditions, can potentially benefit. Two of the main goals of the dietary style are maintaining healthy blood sugar (which helps metabolism), and reducing inflammation in the gut.
It can also be a positive change if you’re looking to make more eco-friendly eating choices. “There are many components of the pegan diet that we would do well to pay attention to, such as filling the majority of our plates with plants and considering the sourcing of our animal products and oils,” Knapp says.
6. It may not be as sustainable of an eating choice for athletes in the long run
Though eating pegan is technically more sustainable for the environment, it may not be as easy to sustain with an athlete’s lifestyle, Knapp points out. First of all, it can make meal prep trickier, because you really have to get the ratio right to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients. There are also a lot of foods that are restricted, especially plant-based protein like beans, chickpeas, wild rice, and whole grain pasta. The lack of plant-based protein may cause you to lose muscle that you’ve built, Knapp says.
And if you’re feeling hungry just thinking about going pegan, that may be accurate—there might not be enough to fuel you through your training. “Endurance athletes burn up their glycogen, or muscle stores of energy, quickly and need a higher carbohydrate diet for both stamina and explosiveness,” Knapp says. Replenishing glycogen is a huge part of the reason why you carb load before a big race. “Restricting whole grains and beans, which are a wonderful source of healthy carbs, would very likely have a negative impact on performance,” Knapp adds. Even dairy isn’t as unhealthy for you as it’s been portrayed (unless it negatively affects your digestion). It can also be a source of protein and glycogen for endurance athletes, Knapp says. However, if you eat pegan or vegan, you’ll be missing out on the protein and glycogen supplies of both dairy and grains.
The bottom line: A dietary choice should focus on whole foods no matter what, but ultimately has to work for you, your level of activity, and what you are able to digest. Consider what’s best for the environment, of course, but also take into account what’s most sustainable for your lifestyle.