What is the best diet? Ask a hundred different people, and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers.
The truth is, it depends. Factors such as genetic variants mean that everyone responds to food in different ways. Some people feel their best on a low-carb diet, while others do better with a low-fat diet.
But regardless of the specific foods you choose to eat and the breakdown of your macronutrients, there are some characteristics of a healthy diet that are commonly agreed upon by nutrition professionals. These characteristics may be best exemplified by the vegan paleo diet, also known as the "pegan" diet.
What is the vegan paleo diet?
The vegan paleo diet combines elements from the paleo and vegan diets. The term pegan diet was coined by Dr. Mark Hyman, in a 2014 blog post. Dr. Hyman, a bestselling author and Head of Strategy and Innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, has identified a vegan paleo diet to be one of the healthiest ways of eating.
Despite its name, the vegan paleo diet isn’t completely vegan, nor does it completely adhere to paleo guidelines. Rather, it combines some of the healthiest aspects of each of these diets to create something different.
Key characteristics of the paleo diet
The paleo diet is designed to mimic what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate thousands of years ago. Within the paleo diet, however, there is some room for variation. Depending on where they lived and what foods were available to them, our paleolithic ancestors may have eaten a low-carb diet high in animal products, or they may have subsisted mostly on plants. Generally, the paleo diet includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grass-fed meat, and wild-caught fish and game.
The paleo diet also emphasizes food quality and encourages the consumption of organic food whenever possible. Anything processed should be avoided, including dairy, grains, and legumes.
Key characteristics of the vegan diet
Many people are now embracing the vegan diet due to its numerous benefits. Vegan diets have been shown to help lower the risk of health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. They can also improve gut health and help with weight loss.
Vegan diets eliminate all animal products. They also often include grains and legumes, and many vegans rely on beans and soy products for protein.
So what does it look like when we put these two diets together?
Combining the paleo and vegan diets
In his 2008 book In Defense of Food, journalist Michael Pollan summed up what he had learned about healthy eating in seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
When Pollan says “eat food,” he means real food—meaning food that’s as close as possible to its natural form, rather than products created in a factory and packaged in a box.
This directive to eat real food is a key element in both paleo and healthy vegan diets, along with an emphasis on food quality.
Combining the best parts of the paleo and vegan diets gives us some key dietary guidelines, which are flexible enough to accommodate different dietary needs and preferences.
Low glycemic load. Avoid foods with a higher glycemic load, or foods that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. This includes bread, pasta, and baked goods as well as sugar, soda, and candy.
High amounts of non-starchy fruits and vegetables. The more color in your diet, the better. Fruits and vegetables get their beneficial properties from compounds known as phytonutrients, which also give them their vibrant colors. Avoid starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes.
Organic foods. Avoid pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and GMO foods as much as possible.
Ingredients that are low in chemicals. Get into the habit of reading labels. The healthiest foods are those that don’t even have a list of ingredients, like fruits and vegetables. If you do buy packaged foods, check the ingredients for things like preservatives, dyes, artificial sweeteners, and other additives.
Emphasis on healthy fats. We’ve been told that dietary fat will cause weight gain and increase the risk of heart disease, but the truth is, we need some fat in our diet! Healthy fats are necessary to provide energy, support cellular growth, absorb certain vitamins, and produce important hormones. Choose healthy sources of fat such as coconut, avocados, olives and olive oil, nuts, and seeds. Even dark chocolate is a source of fat and beneficial antioxidants—just make sure to choose chocolate that’s low in sugar and contains at least 70% cocoa.
Quality protein. Ideally, you should include a source of protein, a healthy fat, and plant compounds in every meal. Protein is needed to help build healthy tissues in the body, especially for the elderly. It also helps control the appetite.
Inclusion of local and fresh foods. Fresh vegetables have been found to best protect against disease, and local foods are typically fresher because they don’t have to be transported.
Clean and sustainable animal foods. If any animal foods are included in the diet, they should be hormone-free, grass-fed or wild-caught, and sustainably raised.
Should you eat grains and beans?
Grains and beans are areas where the paleo and vegan diets differ. While these foods are often a big part of a vegan diet, they are discouraged by the paleo diet.
Humans did not eat these foods until fairly recently in our evolutionary history, and while some people can eat them without experiencing problems, they should not be consumed in abundance.
Eating some grains can increase blood sugar as much as drinking a bottle of soda. While some grains may be necessary on a vegan paleo diet, stick to low-glycemic grains such as quinoa or black rice.
Likewise, while beans can be a good source of protein and minerals for vegans, they can cause digestive problems and create inflammation. Limit beans to one cup per day.
Anyone who is experiencing insulin resistance or who already has type 2 diabetes may be able to improve their insulin sensitivity by completely avoiding grains and beans.
Does a vegan paleo diet include meat?
Despite its name, a vegan paleo diet may actually include small amounts of animal products, but again, quality is paramount.
Although some studies have indicated that eating meat can increase the risk of heart disease and overall death, other studies show the opposite. The problem with nutrition research is that it’s hard to isolate the factors that actually matter.
While one study might show a correlation between meat consumption and heart disease, it may also fail to look at other factors, such as the amount of sugar in the diet, the activity level of study participants, or whether participants smoked. More studies are showing that a diet high in sugar is associated with a higher risk of death from heart disease.
The paleo diet recommends eating only grass-fed, wild-caught meat and fish. Research shows that factory-farmed meat raises cholesterol and increases inflammation, but that grass-fed meat is high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats. This means that health problems associated with meat may have more to do with the quality of meat consumed.
Adopting a healthy vegan paleo diet may mean including small amounts of animal products—including meat, eggs, and fish—that are clean and sustainably raised. This may mean shifting the focus from meat as the main course to more of a side dish. Meat may be something that is eaten only a few times a week, not with every meal.
How to adopt a vegan paleo diet
To transition to a vegan paleo, or pegan diet, adopt these guidelines:
Eat mostly plants. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be about 75% of your diet. When planning a meal, include at least two or three different vegetables.
Choose the right fats. Avoid inflammatory vegetable oils such as corn, soy, and canola. For cooking, use oils with a high smoke point, such as coconut oil or avocado oil.
Include nuts and seeds, which are good sources of both protein and fat.
Avoid dairy, which when consume as a staple of your diet can contribute to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Studies show that consumption of dairy can also increase the risk of osteoporosis.
Avoid gluten, which commonly causes inflammation and digestive problems.
Eat other grains sparingly, as they can raise blood sugar and cause inflammation.
Eat beans and legumes sparingly, and choose lower-carb legumes such as lentils. Avoid starchier beans.
If you include animal products, eat them sparingly. Be sure to choose high-quality meat, eggs, and fish.
Treat sugar in all its forms as only an occasional treat. Once you’ve removed sugar from your diet, you may be surprised to find that you no longer crave it. You might find that you are completely satisfied with some berries or a small piece of dark chocolate for dessert.
While a vegan paleo diet is not the simplest diet to follow, it can offer multiple health benefits for those up for the challenge.