Diets are like the tide: they inexorably come and they go. Like clothing fashions, diets are a la mode. A recent Google search turned up over 100 different fad diets that are regularly searched. Here’s our quick low-down on the low-fat, l0w-protein, low-carb, low-calorie, low-meat , high-hormone, low-salt, grapefruit/acai/lemon/cabbage/juice/banana/cookie/vinegar, low-glycemic, Hollywood-ized conundrum that Americans face: Go Pegan instead.
Pegan? It is a variant on the Paleo Diet, which is centered on commonly available modern foods consisting of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils. The theory behind the Paleo Diet is that modern human populations subsisting on traditional diets allegedly similar to those of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers are largely free of diseases of affluence and that multiple studies of the Paleolithic diet in humans have shown improved health outcomes relative to other widely recommended diets.
The biggest raps against Paleo is that it is a challenging diet to sustain. It underemphasizes vegetables and overemphasizes animal proteins. A “Pegan” diet attempts to build off of Paleo but inject more vegetables and less meat protein — specifically, filling 75 percent of your diet with plants, and rounding out the other 25 percent with animal protein and high-quality fats. But the most important take-away about both “diets” is that we are talking about a lifestyle, not a diet. Optimal health is aided by exercise, sleep, stress-reduction as well as good, diverse and fresh food prepared thoughtfully. All of these factors count; it’s not all about the food.
See if you can increase the amount of these foods in your diet:
- Almonds – or other nuts, but not peanuts.
- Avocados – including avocado oil
- Leafy Greens – more spinach, kale and dark lettuces. Iceberg lettuce is useful for lettuce wraps but not for salads.
- Omega 3 fish – salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel and herring are superior. Yellowfin tuna is also good. Also consider prawns/shrimp, as they are very high in Vitamin B12.
- Blueberries and apples – both fruit have lots of healthful qualities including minerals and antioxidants, but don’t drink fruit juice versions.
- Sweet potatoes – should be your primary go-to starch. They are among the highest in vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein and complex carbohydrates of all vegetables.
- Seaweed – there are dozens of edible seaweed, all of which multiple nutrients. 2 whole bags of spinach contain the same amount of iron as one small handful of dried seaweed. This is full of so much good stuff, vitamin B12 is very very good for [the] immune system. There’s a complex carbohydrate that’s only in seaweed called Fucoidan and scientist are in the promising stages of research into whether it can play a role in fighting cancer.
Now, here’s the bad news: if you want to regain/sustain your health there’s a number of food no-nos:
There is a long list of ingredients which are essentially “sugar” and they are mostly all problematic. (See my blog about sugar addiction) . You might occasionally include small amounts of honey (which can be very healthful if you use locally-grown honey) or pure maple syrup (which is just indulgent but OK indulgent). My preference: stevia.
No wheat. No soy. No corn. No grains. What part of no do you not get? Well, rice might be OK, especially brown rice. There’s a fair amount of controversy about this last grain. But consensus is that wheat and corn are show-stoppers. Best bet: start with the elimination of wheat and then, if that works for you, try corn. You can indulge in corn every once in awhile, if you can find non-GMO corn. Getting wheat out of your diet is important but it isn’t as easy as just not eating bread. Unfortunately, wheat gluten is in a large variety of foods and food additives. This list of gluten-containing foods is useful for those beginning to reduce wheat gluten from their diets. Quinoa appears to be the grain of choice for Pegan and Paleo eaters.
This is actually an area of some disagreement. Some say none at all, some say no potatoes, but others are OK. In general, avoid: white-meat potatoes (russet, yukon, red). I have used sweet potatoes and they have been an outstanding addition to my diet.
Legumes (Beans, Peanuts)
In Paleo, most beans are bad. Legumes are OK. String beans, peas, snow peas are permissable. The other beans — including lentils — are no goes. Pegan recognizes that legumes are a nutritional powerhouse and great source of meatless protein, so small beans like lentils are allowed in limited portions. Other beans or legumes like pinto and peanuts should be avoided.
Early people did not eat dairy products before animals were domesticated. Milk, butter, cream, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, are a no-no unless you are under two-years of age. Butter (and to a lesser extent cream) don’t have much lactose or casein and are probably OK on occasion. All would agree that if you are going to eat dairy, make sure the animals are grass-fed, and most would encourage people to seek out raw forms.
Best deal: grass-fed beef and pork, free-range poultry and most fish. Most processed meats (made with nitrites and additives) don’t work. For example: hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and lunch meats, although sometimes more healthy forms of these can be found. However, canned seafood is fine — if not preferable because many of them are wild-caught. Protein should come from grass-fed and antibiotic-free animals — in other words, organic. Animal protein like chicken, beef, fish and eggs should only make up approximately 25 percent of your diet.
Oils are generally good. Olive, avocado, grapeseed oils are great. Don’t skimp. However, some oils made from grains or legumes are problematic. Definitely avoid the following: Corn oil, Cottonseed oil, Palm oil, Peanut oil, Soybean oil (same as soy oil), Rice bran oil and wheat germ oil. This includes products, such as mayonnaise, which include these oils. Hydrogenated vegetable oils that are high in unhealthy trans fats are a no-go. Also, some nutritionists are also concerned about the high amounts of polyunsaturated omega-6 fats found in certain vegetable oils. However, oils high in omega-3 appear to be worth including in your diet. These include: Canola oil. Cod liver oil, Flaxseed oil, Soybean oil and Walnut oil.
Peanuts are not nuts….notwithstanding their name. However other nuts are high in nutrients, calories, fat and other goodies. Our ancestors relied upon them and you should too. Nut milks, like almond, are especially useful and healthy. However soy milk doesn’t make the cut.
Wine and ciders might be passable. All other alcohols are pretty much verbotten! This may be a good time to start learning to like wine.
Sorry, but most deserts are out of the picture. Dark chocolate is OK; the darker is usually the better. Try to go with a dark chocolate made from at least 70% cocoa solids. Also choose a chocolate that has not come in contact with any gluten containing grains and a chocolate produced organically by people working under fair conditions. Raw cocoa nibs can also be enjoyed on their own for those who like the bitter taste. Cocoa powder can be sprinkled over fruits or used as a spice in meat stews. I use cocoa nibs in sauces, smoothies and trail mix liberally.
Coffee and Tea
Many studies have shown benefits from moderate coffee consumption over no coffee at all. The reaction to coffee is usually very different from person to person and some people seem to have no problem with it while others will release unhealthy levels of cortisol and become over-stimulated and dependent. So monitor your reaction to coffee and don’t overdo it. While cavemen likely didn’t enjoy cups of Kona or Columbia brew, this hot beverage shouldn’t be problematic as long as you don’t adulterate it with cream and sugar. As for tea: try fresh mint or comfrey tea for a refreshing change of pace.
How to Get From Here To There
If your head is spinning and your stomach hurting from this list, start from this starting block: processed foods are not your friend. Go fresh. If you can’t do fresh, go frozen. If you can’t go frozen then go back to fresh. Processed foods (including canned) are not going to help you live a full and vibrant life. Try it for one month and see whether you feel any different. Take it slow and focus more on consuming the allowable foods you enjoy rather than dwelling on missing the ones you had to eliminate from your diet. When you begin to see the results, you’ll realize that the foods that you thought were your friends really weren’t very friendly to your body. Who needs those kinds of friends! For those people who live in Southern California, you might want to try out a food delivery service called Paleo Delivers. And for home cooks, here’s one “Pegan” meal plan that may help you develop your own customized plan:
Breakfast: Salad with veggies tossed with oil and vinegar, topped with a poached or hard-boiled egg
Lunch: Lentil soup and a side of fruit
Snack: Celery or apple with almond butter
Dinner: Stir-fry with chicken
Dessert: Mixed berries
Breakfast: Chia pudding made with nut milk topped with almonds and berries
Lunch: Big spinach salad topped with salmon
Snack: Hard-boiled egg and carrots
Dinner: Sweet potato, zucchini noodles and meatballs
Dessert: Banana with almond butter
Breakfast: Smoothie made with spinach, avocado, blueberries and nut milk
Lunch: Veggie chili
Snack: Carrots with hummus
Dinner: Burger wrapped in Swiss chard, with sides of quinoa and steamed broccoli
Dessert: Chia pudding
Breakfast: Frittata with veggies
Lunch: Salmon with sides of steamed spinach and quinoa
Snack: Homemade trail mix with dried mango, dried bananas, walnuts, almonds and raisins
Dinner: Roasted spaghetti squash with Bolognese sauce
Dessert: Smoothie made with coconut water, mixed berries and banana
Breakfast: Sweet potato hash with two eggs
Lunch: Veggie salad topped with a large scoop of tuna salad
Snack: Smoothie with almond butter, banana, cherries, nut milk and cacao
Dinner: Fajita lettuce wraps with sides of baked potato, broccoli and black beans
Dessert: Mixed berries with mint