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Vegan and Paleo diets have always seemed to be at opposite ends of the dietary spectrum – a completely plant-based diet on one end and one containing animal protein on the other. But functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD, argues that they actually have more in common than you think, both for your health and the health of the planet.
In his recently released book, The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World, Dr. Hyman fuses the concepts of a Paleo and vegan diet to create the “Pegan,” diet, a plant-forward plan with small amounts of sustainably sourced animal protein.
You might be wondering how this is possible. Just like there are healthy vegans and junk-food vegans, the same applies to Paleo devotees. In its healthiest form, a Paleo diet is intended to be plant-rich with copious amounts of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. The difference between the two diets? According to Dr. Hyman, it’s simply where you get your protein.
So how does eating this way translate to the health of the planet? Dr. Hyman says that we all should avoid factory farmed animals, of course, but argues that regenerative agricultural practices – that include animals – are ultimately best for the planet in terms of carbon emissions, working conditions and even biodiversity.
We sat down with Dr. Hyman to get his take on these two seemingly opposed diets, and his somewhat controversial take on why animals can be part of a climate-conscious diet.
Clean Eating: Tell us how you coined the term “Pegan”?
Mark Hyman: The Pegan Diet started as a joke – a way to poke fun at nutrition drama. I was on a panel with two friends, a vegan doctor and a Paleo advocate. They both argued about why their respective diets hold the key to optimal health. I broke the tension by saying that I believe each diet has benefits, and each is rooted in intelligent eating. I explained that over the years, I’ve realized that most diets, including Paleo and vegan diets, have far more in common with each other than they do with the Standard American Diet (SAD). If we use the best of vegan and the best of Paleo, we have the perfect diet. The host and I joked that my philosophy should be called the Pegan Diet, and here we are.
CE: Tell us about the similarities between Paleo and vegan diets.
MH: Paleo and vegan camps – if we stick to the best in both approaches – are identical except for one thing, where to get protein. Animal products or beans and grains? That’s it. Of course, you can be a chips and soda vegan, or a bacon and no-veggies Paleo eater, but the best whole-food expressions of each are so similar. Both promote a plant-rich, whole foods diet, a diet low in starch and sugar, processed food, additives, hormones, antibiotics, GMOs and – except for a small group of extreme, low-fat vegan fans – a diet rich in good fats. They both even eschew dairy.
CE: When thinking about a planet-friendly diet, why is a regenetarian diet better than a vegan diet?
MH: Most people think they need to become vegan if they want to eat a climate-supportive diet. Yes, we should all avoid feedlot beef for its health, climate and environmental impacts. But regeneratively raised beef actually improves carbon sequestration through natural grazing practices. Studies show that end-to-end in the carbon cycle, regeneratively raised cows reduce carbon emissions by 170%. Yep, that even takes the methane from their gas into account. That means they actually counteract the carbon footprint from growing the GMO soy and other processed ingredients that make up an Impossible Burger. Without animals as part of a holistically managed farm system, you can’t build a robust ecosystem with strong soils. No soil means no food and that means no humans. Considering the fact that we’ve lost one-third of our topsoil already and have only 60 years before ruining the rest, we should be pretty interested in protecting and rebuilding our soils.
CE: When looking through the lens of health, on the other hand, what advantages does a regenetarian diet have?
MH: Growing food regeneratively creates much better working conditions for farmers and helps them make more money. It uses less irrigation and doesn’t pollute our land and water with dangerous chemicals. It increases biodiversity – another urgent issue since we’ve already lost half of all our animal species. And it produces cleaner, more nutritious food so that we can achieve our best health. All sides win. The UN said if we took 2 of the 5 million degraded hectares of land around the world and spent 300 billion dollars (only 60 days of our global military spend) to support regenerative agriculture on it, it would stall climate change and give us another 10 to 20 years to work on other solutions. That’s no small feat. You can see there’s a lot of action to be taken, starting right in our own kitchens, backyards, restaurants, farmers’ markets and grocery stores. When we support local farmers, eat seasonally, and look for regeneratively raised food, we send a message to big food.
CE: Where can we find foods labeled with the Regenerative Organic Certified label (ROC)?
MH: We are just at the beginning of the certified ROC label. There are many foods available from companies like Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s and more, but we still have a long way to go. We’ll be seeing more and more ROC foods pop up over the coming years. I think there is a huge movement, especially among young people, to purchase food and products that are grown in a sustainable way that serves the planet. I hope that ROC will become the gold standard.
CE: For someone on a budget, how can they move towards eating like a regenatarian?
MH: If you want to start to eat like a regenetarian today, stop food waste in your home. So much of the food we purchase – around 40% – is thrown out. Only buy what you need. Plan out your meals. Reduce your use of single use plastics. This alone will create a huge change.
Check out Dr. Hyman’s plant-forward Crunchy Napa Tempeh Salad with a delicious sesame dressing.