When it comes to nutrition, the mind-boggling mix of advice can make anyone's head spin. Should you eat whole grains, or avoid gluten? Consume lean protein, or be a vegetarian? Go low-fat, or eat plenty of fat with every meal?
The perpetual debate can be divided into two main (and seemingly opposing) camps: Paleo and vegan. Devotees of the Paleo (or "caveman") diet consume foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, and fruit. Strictly verboten are grains, legumes, sugars, processed foods, and most dairy products. A vegan diet, on the other hand, consists of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and seeds—and prohibits anything that comes from an animal.
Followers of each are staunch in defending the benefits of their diet, and science isn't much help when it comes to differentiating between the two. Studies show that both Paleo and vegan diets can reverse diabetes, lower cholesterol, and help with weight loss. How can you tell which is best for you?
"Although they may sound completely at odds, the truth is Paleo and vegan diets have more in common with each other than either have with the standard American diet," says Mark Hyman, M.D., director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and author of the forthcoming book The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Cookbook (March 2015).
"The foundational principles of both diets—real whole, fresh food in its natural state free of processed ingredients, refined carbohydrates, and additives—are the same," Hyman explains. "Designed correctly, both a Paleo and vegan diet can provide health benefits like weight loss, lowered cholesterol, and reverse diabetes."
Enter: "Pegan," the new buzzword you'll hear much more in months to come.
The gist of it is to eat fresh food in its unadulterated state. "When people get back to these foods, they lose weight, regardless of whether they are Paleo or vegan," Hyman says.
Here's the rule book:
1. The focus is on foods with a low glycemic load. "They key to weight loss, diabetes, and cardiovascular health is eating a low-glycemic, high-phytonutrient diet," explains Hyman. In other words, choose foods that are low in sugar, avoid refined carbs of all kinds, and stick to organic options like fruits, nuts, legumes, and even teas.
2. Fill your plate with veggies. 50 to 75 percent of your diet—and your plate—should be vegetables, Hyman says. And the deeper the color, the better—this signifies a high phytonutrient (aka organic) content that can protect against disease.
3. Eat the right fats. Stay away from most vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, corn, and especially soybean oil—it's highly processed and high in inflammatory omega 6 fats. Focus instead on omega 3 fats, found in olive oil, nuts, coconut, avocados, and in small amounts, even saturated fat from grass fed or sustainably raised animals, Hyman suggests.
4. Treat meat as a side dish. Paleo diets give meat the starring role,while vegans avoid it entirely. So what's a Pegan to do? "A good rule of thumb is to fill about 25 percent of your plate with a protein-rich food—about the size of your palm," says Hyman. Veggies should still be the majority, and any remaining plate-space should be given to healthy starches such as winter squash, sweet potato, or black rice.
5. Choose sustainably raised or grass-fed sources. Grass-fed beef has more cholesterol-neutral stearic acid and contains protective omega-3 fats and vitamins A and D that raises glutathione and other antioxidants, Hyman explains. And if you're going for fish, choose omega-3-fat rich fish such as sardines or wild salmon, which have lower mercury levels.
6. Avoid dairy. Here's where both diets have it right. "While some people can tolerate it, recent research has shown that it can contribute to ailments such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and may increase (not decrease) the risk of osteoporosis," Hyman says. Try organic goat or sheep products, and only as a treat.
7. Say no to gluten, and cut down on other whole grains. The debate over gluten rages on, but Hyman recommends that other than an occasional treat, it should be avoided. As for other whole grains? "Eat them sparingly. They still raise blood sugar and can trigger autoimmunity." Yickes.
8. Limit legumes. Although beans are a good source of fiber, protein and minerals, Hyman suggests capping consumption at less than 1 cup per day. They can cause digestive problems, and increase blood sugar in diabetics or pre-diabetics—especially big starchy beans.
9. Have sugar only on (very) special occasions. Consider sugar—in all its various forms—an occasional treat. Maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar are okay in small amounts, Hyman says, but skip artificial sweeteners and any added sugars.
10. Banish Franken-foods. Choose foods that are low in pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and GMOs, Hyman says. Translation: No chemicals, additives, preservatives, dyes, MSG, or artificial sweeteners.
So what does a typical day in the Pegan diet look like? "Breakfast is usually a protein smoothie with nuts, seeds, berries, coconut butter, almond butter, and unsweetened almond milk." Hyman says. "Lunch might be a big salad with avocado, pumpkin seeds, canned wild salmon, or sardines. Then dinner is usually something like wild-caught fish or pasture raised lamb or organic chicken, two or three sides of vegetables including dark green leafy greens, winter squash, and roasted mushrooms."
(Editor's note: As Hyman writes on his blog, keep in mind that most people need to personalize the approach depending on your particular health conditions, preferences, and needs.)
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