From veganism and vegetarianism to keto and paleo, there are now countless types of diets out there. While some promote the significance of fresh veg in your diet, others put fats in the spotlight. Research is unable to identify conclusively what makes the right answer. There is so much conflicting information out there that is enough to confuse and discourage anyone new to nutrition.
It does not help that the proponents of these different types of nutrition are often at war with each other. But as the infinite debate around the benefits and disadvantages of eating meat continues, it is a breath of fresh air to see the emergence of a pegan diet, a much-needed compromise between veganism and paleo.
Its creator is the American doctor and functional medicine expert Mark Hyman who invites us to avoid extremes and use common sense and research in constructing our diet. In today’s world, which is so saturated with sensational and bold claims, the pegan diet’s key postulates are calm and rational and act as a timely reminder about what healthy eating should entail.
Plant foods are key
Crunchy cucumbers, fresh tomatoes and sweet peppers. Abundance of plant food is the first rule of pegan eating. Veg should take over at least half of your plate during each meal. The diet does not exclude cereal grains, but it does favour such low glycemic index types as buckwheat, brown rice and quinoa. The same applies to fruit. While there is no need to rule out the consumption of sweet fruit altogether, it is not recommended to eat them every single day.
Not only is plant food full of vitamins and minerals, it is also rich in fibre, which benefits digestion, and antioxidants, which act as a barrier against oxidative stress. Mark Hyman pays particular attention to the phytochemicals, which only have just come to the attention of modern medicine.
There is no other daily activity like the choice of your meals that can have a bigger impact on your biology. Food programmes your biology with each bite, for better or for worse. Natural whole foods rich in phytonutrients reduce inflammation, increase antioxidative systems, speed up detoxification, promote energy, optimise your microbiome and fortify your health.
There are more than 25,000 phytochemical substances in the realm of plants, but it is only recently that they have been identified as critically important to our health. Only about 150 of them are well studied and described. But even with just this humble data to hand, it is clear that phytochemical substances have as much influence on our bodies as vitamins and minerals. For instance, cranberry and grape polyphenols can impact the growth of Akkermansia, a hugely beneficial bacteria, which defends against the penetration of harmful pathogens into the bloodstream, hence reducing inflammation.
Good fats and meat
It is not that hard to find a delicious source of fats: be it avocado on toast for breakfast, a sprinkle of seeds as your salad topping for lunch or a handful of nuts to snack on. Mark Hyman’s superfoods include the well-loved berries, green tea and broccoli, but also wild salmon and anchovies. The only thing that comes second to all of these is herring: as well as containing record amounts of Omega-3s, like salmon it also accumulates the least mercury, making it a perfect healthy choice.
While vegetables form the basis of a pegan diet, Mark Hyman does not find it reasonable to completely give up meat, not least because of the challenges of keeping your B12 and protein needs topped up with a plant diet alone. The green light to consume meat does come with a few caveats: there is a big difference between free range meat and meat grown in confined spaces and fed corn or soy.
The antibiotics which maintain the health of the animals that live in such unnatural environments do not do us any good. The barbaric state of animal framing today is not only unethical, but it is also harmful for our planet and those that consume it. This kind of meat causes inflammation in the body and contributes to the development of cardio-vascular diseases, which is one of the key causes of mortality around the world.
It is a whole other matter when it comes to free range animals, which consume phytochemically rich plants as part of their diet. The phenols, carotenoids and terpenoids contained in plants improve taste and the biochemical qualities of meat. They also protect against the oxidation of protein and lipids, reducing the chances of inflammation. When choosing your meat, prioritise those produced according to organic farming standards.
Daily dairy consumption is not the best idea, considering that a whopping 75% of the adult population is intolerant. However, if you cannot imagine your day without a yoghurt and the idea of never eating cheese again is sending tears down your cheeks, try incorporating goat-derived dairy products instead. They contain probiotics and, unlike the traditional cow-derived foods, lack the inflammatory beta-casein A1 protein, which makes them easier to digest.
Mark Hyman prefers to avoid radically restricting the consumption of sweets, which do not traditionally conform to the idea of healthy eating. It is much better to treat them as occasional guests, which can crop up in our diet from time to time. Sounds like a healthy approach, which helps reduce sugar intake without the extra stress.
But remember, while declining a dessert after lunch is a great idea, it is not the only thing to be mindful of. Apart from the obvious sweets and cakes, sugar also features in certain sauces, yogurts, bread, processed foods and canned vegetables. The only way to reduce your daily consumption of sugar is to carefully read the labels and to avoid processed foods.
While some dietologists call for complete abstinence, others see it as an overreaction and a marketing hype, considering that only 1,4% of the world’s population is celiac. As in all other matters, Mark Hyman has a balanced approach and seeks to find a compromise. He is convinced that there is no point in completely ruling our gluten, unless you are intolerant. However, it is also not worth having it in your diet daily.
The key principles of a pegan diet
Homemade cooking is the foundation of a pegan diet. People who eat at home typically consume more vegetables and less sugar packed and processed food compared to those who eat out. Hyman suggests that cooking at home is one of the most valuable and affordable tools to maintain health and prevent diseases. What goes on your plate is completely up to you!
Lastly, we would like to remind you of the key principle of pegan dieting. It might not sound as ground-breaking as some of the other dietary restrictions out there but it is much more common sense: we are all unique and we all have individual needs, including when it comes to food. With your diet, it is worth listening to your biology, irrespective of any external influences.
It is evident that any food we consume has a direct influence on the state of our gut as well as our immune and hormonal systems. This is why it is particularly important to prioritise food rich in phytochemical substances, the natural healers, which have a beneficial impact on our bodies.