Shifting From Vegan to Paleo is a Step in the Wrong Direction

Shifting From Vegan to Paleo is a Step in the Wrong Direction

By |2018-03-21T17:24:45+00:00March 21st, 2018|14 Comments

Is there such a thing as the one and only healthy way to eat? Best-selling authors like Dr. Mark Hyman would like you to think so.

Recently, he’s become a proponent of an eating style that he calls “pegan,” which as you might guess is a portmanteau of Paleo and vegan. In designing this diet, Dr. Hyman says that he “synthesized the best aspects of each and integrated them with the anti-inflammatory and detoxification principles of functional medicine to create a balanced, inclusive dietary plan that changed my life and my patients’ lives, too.

Uh oh –“detoxification principles” plus anecdotal evidence pretty much raises red flags all over the place for me.

But Dr. Hyman is correct in saying that his diet is a more accurate and healthful approach to a Paleo pattern, which has been used as an excuse to eat too much meat and too few plant foods.  And, from a health standpoint, his diet isn’t exactly awful. He allows up to 2 ½ cups of grains, beans and starchy vegetables combined plus 2 servings of fruit. Non-starchy vegetables are unlimited and he encourages nuts, seeds and healthy fats. Based on the simple fact that refined carbs are off limits on this eating plan, and that lots of veggies are encouraged, it’s automatically a vast improvement over the way most people in the United States eat. But is it the best way to eat? Is it better than eating a vegan diet? I doubt it. And I certainly wasn’t convinced by Dr. Hyman’s rationale for moving away from veganism. Here’s what he says:

But even a perfect vegan diet won’t provide enough DHA and EPA, which are important omega-3 fatty acids. Neither will it provide enough iron, zinc, copper, or vitamin D. Vegans are also unlikely to be getting the amount of quality proteins and essential amino acids they require, especially as they age. It’s possible to find sufficient amounts in non-animal sources, but it is incredibly challenging. But they’re definitely not getting B12 because it only comes from animal foods. Finally, it’s entirely possible to be a vegan and still eat a poor diet filled with sugar, refined grains and flour, highly processed oils, soy-based protein substitutes, and foods loaded with chemicals and additives. You can live on Oreos, potato chips, and root beer and still call yourself a strict vegan.

Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here.

First, the whole concept of “enough DHA and EPA” is problematic. These are not essential nutrients and there is no RDA for these fats. But, for those who want to include them in their diet (like me) vegan supplements provide the exact same DHA and EPA you would get from fish. I know that some people think supplements are an inferior choice, and I don’t understand that. If you can get the exact same fatty acids in a way that is sustainable and that doesn’t contribute to the cruelty that is an inherent part of the fishing industry, wouldn’t that seem to be the better option?

Likewise, the fact that vegans need to supplement with vitamin B12 may seem annoying, but since it’s so easy to do so, it’s hardly a reason to abandon a vegan diet. Not to mention the fact that for older people (again, like me, and also, by the way, like Dr. Hyman) supplements are a better source of vitamin B12 than animal foods.

Other nutrients, like iron and zinc, require some attention in vegan diets, but acknowledging this is different from saying that you can’t get enough of these nutrients from plant foods. And getting adequate protein from plant foods is not “incredibly challenging.” It’s incredibly easy.

Finally, while it’s true that you can be a vegan who eats junk food, this is irrelevant to any argument against veganism. If you are a vegan who eats too many Oreos, the solution is not to start eating fish and grass-fed beef. It’s to eat fewer Oreos.

I suspect that one of the reasons Dr. Hyman worries about protein on a vegan diet is that he believes you should restrict beans because they may cause spikes in blood sugar. He recommends limiting beans overall and choosing lentils over “big starchy beans.” This is wrong. Chickpeas have a lower glycemic index than lentils, and black beans are about equal to lentils when it comes to raising blood sugar. In addition, beans in general are packed with protein, fiber and resistant starch, which makes them a good choice for people who need to manage blood glucose levels.

It’s not just beans that Dr. Hyman worries about, though. The pegan diet comes with a long list of restrictions including gluten, GMOs, and soybean oil. He recommends limiting certain fruits like melons. He advises staying away from “chemicals,” whatever that means.

Furthermore, a pegan diet incorporates very particular guidelines around the foods you are allowed to eat. Not only are you supposed to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, but they should all be organic. If you eat wheat at all (and apparently you really shouldn’t) you should stick with heirloom varieties. If you consume dairy, it should be organic, grass-fed and preferably from sheep or goats. A healthy pegan diet is supposed to include foods like wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef, and cold-pressed oils. Clearly, a pegan diet is not for those who are on a budget.

In short, a pegan diet is likely to be an improvement over the way many people eat and it’s certainly better than the popular Paleolithic diet. But it’s not an improvement over veganism. It’s just the opposite in fact. It will make your diet less compassionate without making it any healthier.


  1. Sheryl March 22, 2018 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Ginny – what you write makes so much sense to me. Thank you for your point of view on this.

  2. Michael Parish March 29, 2018 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    Hyman recognizes that in order to sell books you need a hook. Pagen with its restrictions happen to be his hook. It’s no different than the plant based doctors, or for that matter other authors championing their particular way of eating like Grain Brain. The plant based guys have all taken what Pritikin came up with and modified it a bit in the attempt to generate a hook that will sell books plus their classes and trips. And it’s been successful. They are all making a good living at it. However, for the average person the more restrictions you put on an eating program the fewer people will follow, and those that follow for the most part won’t last the longer the restriction list. The only real question is whether one is any healthier than the others. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that other than adding a lot of junk food the answer is no. Eating real whole food regardless of what those are works just fine. Throwing in a tablespoon of oil, or allowing your fat to get above ten percent won’t make much difference. And neither will throwing in a couple of eggs a weeks as garnish, or eating four ounces of fish over the same period.

  3. Linda March 31, 2018 at 11:04 am - Reply

    I think what the vegan world needs is a slow carb diet option. One that is high fat, and fairly low carb. In my experience, one size does not fit all when it comes to diet. So please, help a fat or diabetic vegan out and provide some responsible guidance. Dr. David Jenkins has written a lot in the professional literature on Eco-Atkins, but has not provided the practical details most people need to implement it. For the last 15-months, I have done a low-carb vegetarian diet, along with my husband. I have lost 60 pounds; he has lost 40 pounds. My husband was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 12 years ago, but has reversed it completely and is off all medications. Our lipid profiles were great before, but ideal now. Here were my numbers from last month: total cholesterol 143; HDL 92; LDL 37; Triglycerides 61. This was while eating an average of 70% calories from fat, much of it saturated. A know that I want to return to a 100% plant-based diet, but it will need to focus on concentrated plant proteins (tofu, tempeh, meat substitutes, limited beans) and low-starch vegetables. Starch and sugar have not been my friends in the past, and I doubt they will be in the future.

    • Atheria May 7, 2018 at 5:31 pm - Reply

      Hi Linda,

      I have blood sugar issues and am now eating a lot less carbs and a lot more fat and am doing better. I do use a soy or pea protein powder and eat A LOT of nut/seed butters for protein and fat. I’m avoiding all starches and limiting my fruit strictly…usually only 2 pieces a day now. I’m eating more veggies than I ever have, which is good.

      Low carb veganly,

  4. Kathryn March 31, 2018 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    I’ve read elsewhere that the strongest reason to choose a vegan diet is for the animals (and secondarily for the environment). Over a period of many years, it’s concern for animals’ welfare that has become the strongest motivator for me to eat a plant based diet. Interestingly, I’ve completely lost the taste for any kind of meat and don’t desire it at all now. It seems like there isn’t, and never will be any perfect diet from a health standpoint. This is due to a number of factors including genetics, environmental toxins, and the fact that people simply get sick and die at young or old ages. So trying to base dietary choices on whatever is most convincing is ultimately unstable. Whereas the sentience of animals eaten by humans for food, their suffering as “subjects of a life” (to borrow Tom Regan’s phrase from his book The Case for Animal Rights c.1983) is a solid foundation for not consuming animals. Happily, it does also have health benefits if done sensibly.

  5. Irena April 1, 2018 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    I do not understand how essencial fatty acids are not essential according to this article. Our bodies can not make them that makes them essencial, and not if government thinks they are essencial and sets rdi for it. Please explain.

    • Daniel April 8, 2018 at 9:39 pm - Reply


      I think Virginia’s point was that DHA and EPA have not been identified as essential nutrients and that therefore there is no RDA for these.

      There are two essential fatty acids, linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, that cannot be synthesized in the body and must be obtained from food. Various vegan foods can provide these.

  6. Daisy April 9, 2018 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    Vegan food cannot provide DHA……which is why it’s recommended that vegans supplement their diet for it.

    • Daniel April 9, 2018 at 1:26 pm - Reply

      Our bodies can, given enough ALA and not too much LA, convert ALA to SDA to EPA to DHA. ALA is an essential nutrient, but DHA is not, because our bodies can make DHA, from ALA. ALA is found in large amount in a few plant foods: flax, chia, hemp, canola oil, walnuts, and soybeans

      • Daisy April 21, 2018 at 10:36 am - Reply

        The conversion of ALA to DHA, if it occurs at all in your body, is inefficient….which is why both vegan RDs Ginny Messina and Jack Norris (Vegaen Outreach) recommend a DHA srupplement.

  7. Daniel April 9, 2018 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    Our bodies can, given enough ALA and not too much LA, convert ALA to SDA to EPA to DHA. ALA is an essential nutrient, but DHA is not, because our bodies can make DHA, from ALA. ALA is found in large amount in a few plant foods: flax, chia, hemp, canola oil, walnuts, and soybeans

  8. Louise April 19, 2018 at 7:37 am - Reply

    Never before I have heard about pegan diet. Yuor article was really interesting to read

  9. Daisy April 21, 2018 at 10:39 am - Reply

    The conversion of ALA to DHA, if it occurs at all in your body, is inefficient….which is why both vegan RDs Ginny Messina and Jack Norris (Vegaen Outreach) recommend a DHA srupplement.

  10. Ernest June 4, 2018 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    Recent evidence on DHA/EPA is not that good.

    I keep taking my algae DHA/EPA supplement, but I consider it under revision and when it runs out I don’t know if I’m going to buy more.

    About the conversion from ALA, not only it matters the ratio of ALA (O3) to LA (O6). Gender also matters. Women convert ALA to DHA a lot better than men.

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