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A Paleo Diet for Vegans? The Must-Know Risks of The Trendy ‘Pegan’ Diet

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Is there such a thing as a Paleo-Vegan or Paleo-Vegetarian Diet? If so, what do they even eat?

While the principles of both diets are contradictory at its core, there is a whole legion of Paleo Vegans, or so-called “Pegans”, trying to claim the benefits of this controversial fusion.

Take a close look at this article to find out what does this diet exactly entails and if it has any real benefits.

What is ‘Paleo’?

Also called the caveman or stone-aged diet, the Paleolithic or ‘Paleo’ diet is a recent ‘fad diet’ designed to only eat the foods presumed to have been available to humans during the Paleolithic era.

Supporters of the diet assume that human digestion has remained essentially unchanged over time which has been used to criticize the diet’s core premise.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly what our human ancestors ate in different parts of the world, researchers believe their diets consisted of whole foods. Based on this premise, the diet avoids processed foods and foods that humans began eating when we transitioned from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculture.

The ideas behind the diet can be traced to Walter L. Voegtlin during the 1970s and recently to Loren Cordain. The later published the best selling book ‘The Paleo Diet‘ who promotes it as a way of improving health.

paleo diet for vegans
The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain

While there is some evidence that the Paleo Diet may lead to improvements in body composition and metabolic effects compared with the typical Western diet, there are no long-term clinical studies about the benefits of the diet.

On the other side, studies show that following the paleo diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies such as an inadequate calcium intake, and side effects that include weakness, diarrhea, and headaches.[3][4]

What is Veganism?

Veganism, on the other hand, is not only a diet but an ethical posture that excludes the consumption of all animal products and attempts to limit the exploitation of animals as much as possible.

Vegans follow a plant-based diet that comprises all kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, and beans. They avoid all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs, and honey.

Veganism has his origins in vegetarianism, which was coined by the British Vegetarian Society in the mid-1800s.

Many anthropologists believe that early humans ate mainly plant foods,  which is supported by the fact that the human digestive system resembles the ones of other plant-eaters and that humans on meat-based diets contract major health problems.

In 1940, Donal Watson, a British woodworker by trade created the term ‘vegan’ to differentiate himself and others who took vegetarianism to a new level. Having become convinced that the use of any animal-parts for human consumption was immoral, they avoided eggs and dairy and any animal-derived product.

Paleo Diet for Vegans
Donald Watson reading the first issue of The Vegan

While veganism started as an ethical choice, nowadays people are choosing to go vegan for other reasons such as environmental and health benefits that the diet offers.

For example, studies show that a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and premature death (12345). It might also reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dying from cancer or heart disease (678910).

Furthermore, some people may choose a plant-based diet to lose weight since studies have link vegan diets to lower body weight and body mass index (BMI). (141516).

How would a Paleo diet for Vegans look like?

As we have seen from the definition of Paleo and Veganism, the staples foods of each diet and what is allowed are quite different which would make a Paleo-Vegan diet a pretty restrictive one.

While the Paleo diet has meat, fish, seafood, and eggs as some of its staples, these are not allowed in a vegan diet since they go against its basic premise of not consuming animals or animal-derived products.

On the other side, legumes and soy-based products such as tofu and seitan are staples of a vegan diet and provide the essential amino acids needed in a healthy diet.

However, beans, grains, and legumes are not allowed in a Paleo Diet since they are thought to cause digestive problems and trigger spikes in blood sugar.

Moderate amounts of beans (up to one cup a day) are allowed but that would not be enough to cover the dietary daily requirements for amino acids.

In the following table, we can see how the only foods that would be allowed in a true paleo diet for vegans are vegetables, fruits, roots, tubers, nuts, seeds, and vegetable fats.

paleo diet for vegans

The problem with a Paleo-Vegan Diet

As you have maybe noticed, there is one clear problem with eliminating both meat, eggs, legumes and grains from a diet: a lack of protein sources and essential amino acids.

The average person needs to meet a daily requirement of 0.5 grams of protein per pound (more if you are active), which can be extremely difficult to achieve if you’re cutting all these foods

For vegans, their primary source of protein comes from grains and legumes. For Paleo eaters, on the other hand, the bulk of their amino acids (protein) comes from meat, fish, and eggs.

Cutting down on these important sources of essential amino acids can affect everything from your gut to your mood. Amino acids are the building blocks of many chemicals our bodies need to function, like digestive enzymes and neurotransmitters.

It could also result in a lack of fiber and vitamin B creating multiple micronutrient deficiencies, protein deficiencies, and even masking an eating disorder for being so restrictive.

Vegan-Paleo vs. Paleo-Vegan

While in theory both of these diets should entail the same principles, the truth is that in reality, there are different versions of this ‘fusion’.

The Vegan-Paleo version would be the one where a person who is already following a vegan lifestyle and diet, tries to modify it to include the principles of a Paleo Diet.

As we have seen, this is not recommendable since they would be left with no protein sources on a very restrictive and even unhealthy diet. The best option for healthy vegans who want to adopt some Paleo principles would be to adopt a low-carb diet that doesn’t exclude all grains but focuses on nutrient-dense grains like quinoa and amaranth.

On the other side, in the Paleo-Vegan version of this fusion, people who were already following a Paleo lifestyle try to modify their diet to adhere to vegan principles. Paleo-Vegans basically follow a 2.0 version of the original Paleo Diet where they cut down on the consumption of animal products.

While this version provides its followers with protein and essential amino acids, the name Paleo-Vegan is not accurate since cutting down on meat is not enough to make a diet ‘vegan’‘.

The Pegan Diet

The “Pegan” Diet is the name of the diet that combines Veganism with a Paleo-style of eating. It was Dr. Mark Hyman, who first coined the term on his blog in 2014. However, the trend for this diet has only recently started to pick up showing a 337% increase in interest in the last year.

paleo diet for vegans
Dr. Mark Hyman, creator of the Pegan Diet

As the name suggests, the Pegan Diet combines some principles of the paleo diet and veganism, focusing on eating more vegetables and plants and cutting back on the processed stuff.

While the two styles contradict each other in some ways, the main tenant that Peganism borrows from both is a focus on real, whole foods.

Wondering why Dr. Hyman decided to combine these two opposites diets?
According to him, these are the principles of a healthy diet that ‘everyone agrees on’:

  • Low in sugar, flour, and refined carbohydrates.
  • High in vegetables and fruits.
  • Low in pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and GMO foods.
  • No chemicals, additives, preservatives, etc.
  • Higher in good quality fats from olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
  • Adequate protein for appetite control and muscle synthesis, especially in the elderly.
  • Ideally, organic, local and fresh foods.
  • If animal products are consumed they should be sustainably raised or grass-fed.
  • If fish is consumed, it should be low in mercury and toxins

On the other side, there are foods Dr. Hyman considers problematic:

  • Dairy: contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer and may increase the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Grains: for some people, gluten creates inflammation, autoimmunity, and digestive disorders. According to Dr. Hyman grains can be part of a healthy diet but in limited amounts.
  • Beans: he states hey can cause digestive problems and trigger spikes in blood sugar
  • Meat: studies show that meat raises cholesterol, increases heart disease and death rates. However, Dr. Hyman claims that “eating sustainably raised, clean meat, poultry and lamb and other esoteric meats such as ostrich, bison or venison as part a healthy diet is not likely harmful” 
  • Eggs: “don’t have any impact on cholesterol and are not associated with increased risk of heart disease. They are a great low-cost source of vital nutrients and protein.”
  • Fish: he recommends choosing small, omega 3 fat-rich fish such as sardines or wild salmon to get omega 3 fats and avoid mercury. He also mentions vegans can get their Omega 3 from algae.

So, what CAN you eat on a ‘Pegan’ diet?

Dr. Hyman is a proponent of making vegetables and fruits about 75% of your diet and your plate. Meat is still encouraged but as a topping or side dish instead of the main course.

Paleo diet for vegans

Here’s what that looks like.

  • Focus on more protein and fats. Nuts (not peanuts), seeds (flax, chia, hemp, sesame, pumpkin), coconut, avocados, sardines, olive oil.
  • Eat mostly low glycemic vegetables and fruits.
  • Avoid dairy and gluten.
  • Eat gluten-free whole grains sparingly (oats, rice, quinoa, amaranth, etc.)
  • Eat beans sparingly, lentils are preferred over big starchy beans.
  • Eat meat or animal products as a condiment, not the main course.
  • Think of sugar as an occasional treat.

What are the advantages of a Paleo-Vegan Diet?

No Dairy or Processed Foods

The positive aspect of the Pegan diet is that it eliminates processed foods, dairy and added sugars from the diet. However, while cutting out dairy and processed foods is a step in the right direction, a whole-food, plant-based diet provides greater benefits since it’s been proven to reduce the risk of several chronic diseases and prevent early death.

More Fruits and Veggies

A higher intake of veggies and fruit means a lot of vitamins and a wide variety of nutrients to keep your body healthy. Organic, high-quality vegetables and fruits are excellent sources of calcium, fiber, folate, as well as tons of other vital vitamins and minerals so many of us lack today.

Furthermore, a diet high in plants can also help with weight-loss since it contains more filling fiber and fewer calories than other foods.

Organic

The emphasis on organic, quality foods is another upside. The Pegan diet urges you to choose foods without harmful pesticides, antibiotics, and other dangerous chemicals.

While a lot of fad diets focus only on the total number of calories consumed or the macronutrient ratios they rarely pay enough attention to food quality.

What are the downsides of a Paleo-Vegan Diet?

The paleo diet also cuts out one of the healthiest foods in the world: legumes.

A recent study with over 135,000 individuals showed that, regular consumption of fruit, vegetable, and legume was associated with lower risk for major cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, cardiovascular mortality, non-cardiovascular mortality, and total mortality.

A High Animal Protein Diet Increases Risk Of Heart Disease

The Pegan diet encourages the consumption of ‘free-range’ meat but evidence shows that, regardless of the type of meat you consume, the more animal products you consume, the higher your risk for many chronic diseases.

A large study of over 130,000 demonstrated that high animal protein intake was associated with increased risk of cardiovascular mortality while high plant protein intake reduced the risk of cardiovascular mortality and general mortality.

You miss out on grains

By following a Pegan Diet you would be missing out on the many healthful benefits of whole-grain foods.

A large study found that people who replaced one daily serving of red meat with whole grains reduced their risk of mortality by 20 percent. Those who ate at least 28 grams of whole grains a day had a 5 percent lower total mortality, and a 9 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular-disease-related death, compared to people who ate little or no whole grains.

Restrictiveness and availability

Finally, a Pegan Diet can be hard to follow due to the lack of access to organic vegetables and grass-fed animal products.

Its restrictiveness might also trigger or mask eating disorders like binge eating or orthorexia.

Should I try it a Pegan Diet?

While the Pegan diet might be trendy, it’s basically a repackaged version of the Paleo diet with less emphasis on animal products and more emphasis on vegetables and fruits.

If you are a Vegan, there is no point or benefit in cutting down legumes or grains and incorporating meat into your plate. If how you’re eating now is working for you, there’s no need to give this diet a shot. You can get all the nutrition your body needs while continue to eating grains and legumes.

If you are following a Paleo diet, adhering to Pegan principles would basically mean putting less emphasis on animal products and more on vegetables and fruits which is an easy switch and could help you transition into a total Plant-based diet.

In the same way, if you follow a traditional western diet, follow the guidelines of a PegaN lifestyle would benefit you by reducing dairy and processed products. However, if you have no gluten or lecithins sensitivities, there is no real benefit in avoiding grains and legumes.

Takeaway

Fad diets come and go, and we can expect to see plenty more pop up over the next few years But there’s no need to worry about trends if you’re focused on the fundamentals. Eat more veggies, more fruit, more plant-based protein in the form of legumes and nuts, plus unsweetened dairy and plant-based oils.

If you are still getting the vast majority of your calories from animal products, consider increasing your vegetable intake and paying attention to the results. As we have mentioned in the studies, a little difference can create a huge impact on your health.

Finally, conscious when it comes to processed foods. There is no need to label them as ‘off-limits’ but if you are getting the majority of your calories from whole-foods, you will naturally be more satisfied, have fewer cravings and make better choices.

What do you think of the Paleo diet for Vegans? Leave a comment below and share your experience!

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