New year, new internet-endorsed diet? Searches for "pegan" diet, which combines principles of paleo and vegan diets, are up 337 per cent on Pinterest, and some devotees are calling it "the world's healthiest diet."
What's this diet all about?
It's not paleo (a meat and vegetable-heavy diet that's meant to replicate what cavemen ate) and it's definitely not vegan (since vegans, generally, do not eat meat). The pegan diet essentially involves eating low-carb, dairy-free, gluten-free food, with only very small portions of meat.
- 75 per cent of your diet is made up of fruit and vegetables (largely fresh and minimally processed, preferably non-starchy)
- The remaining 25 per cent is made of protein (mostly from nuts and seeds, as well as small portions of beans, legumes and of grass-fed meat)
And here the additional rules:
- Avoid all dairy
- Avoid all gluten
- Acceptable fat sources include fatty fish, flaxseed, nuts, avocados, and oil (although not corn, soybean or canola oil)
- Eat only very small amounts of gluten-free grains like quinoa, brown rice, oats and amaranth
- Avoid chemicals, additives, pesticides, preservatives, and artificial colours, flavours and sweeteners
What do the experts say?
Sure, there are some good parts of the pegan lifestyle — but it's far too restrictive to actually be healthy or realistic, said Nadine Moukheiber, a registered dietitian who runs NutriSkulpt in Montreal.
"We tend to stay away from anything that's called a diet," she told HuffPost Canada in a phone interview. The healthiest approach to nutrition is balance and variety, she says, and the "very rigid" pegan diet doesn't provide a very good framework for long-term health.
And as diets go, Moukheiber said this one is particularly restrictive. It's becoming increasingly common for people to cut out dairy and gluten, but she stresses that that doesn't serve any nutritional purpose.
"Dairy products have gotten a really bad rap in the last year or two, and I don't think it's justified," she said. "Many people link both gluten and dairy to bloating, but there's no scientific basis to that."
She added that there seems to be a misunderstanding about what gluten actually is —it's not something that's unhealthy.
It turns out gluten, carbs and natural sugars aren't the enemy
"Gluten is a protein, so there's nothing bad about it," she said. "A lot of grains that contain gluten are very good for you." Many people who report health benefits from cutting out gluten are likely feeling healthy because they're trying out new grains, and adding more variety to their diet — gluten itself is not the enemy," she said.
Carbohydrates are also unfairly vilified, she said. Yes, cutting down on carbs may cause weight loss, but it's almost always short-term and it might be detrimental in other ways.
"When carbs get stored in your body, they store water at the same time," Moukheiber explained. "When you stop eating carbs, you'll lose water weight but that also means you'll lose the water that's supposed to hydrate your cells and muscles. It doesn't really make sense, nutrition-wise."
Same with natural sugar: it's something your body actually needs.
"We use up more than 50 per cent of the [unrefined] sugars we eat just with our brain activity throughout the day," she said. "If we're not getting these sugars, imagine how [hard it is] for your brain to get through the day."
Health means more fruit, fewer restrictions
There are some positive aspects to the "pegan" diet, but many of the beneficial elements are also brought to a restrictive extreme.
"What's good is that it encourages the intake of fruits and vegetables," said Moukheiber.
But drawing distinctions between "starchy" and "non-starchy" vegetables is unnecessary.
"You don't want to have fruits and vegetables labeled as 'bad,'" she said. "As long as they're fresh or local or in season, any fruits or vegetables are perfectly fine."
Cutting down on meat is also a good idea, "not because meat is bad or animal-derived products are bad, just because in North America we tend to eat too much of those," said Moukheiber.
There are lots of healthy ways to reduce or cut out meat consumption — carnivores can eat red meat once a week, and then swap it out with poultry or fish. And everyone can benefit from eating soy products such as tofu and tempeh, as well as lentils and legumes, or protein sources such as eggs or cheese. As always, variety and balance is key.
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Avoiding additives when possible is also a good guideline, said Moukheiber.
Overall, Moukheiber wants people to know that any fad diet is probably a scam.
"It's pretty much something that kicks off every new year," she said.
Food is something you need to survive and something that you consume every day — ideally, it's something you'll be able to enjoy and benefit from, not a joyless list of limitations.
"If your list of no's become longer than your list of yes's, that's what you want to avoid," Moukheiber said.
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