In his new book The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health In A Nutritionally Confusing World, American physician Dr Mark Hyman, who practises functional medicine, talks about getting our food from “a farmacy not a pharmacy”. In effect, he says food is medicine.
He goes onto the specifics — telling us to eat organic, avoid gluten, eat the rainbow, a lot of which we already know — he also gives new advice, such as not combining saturated fats with starch and sugar.
In a line, what his book is about appears in the introduction: “Shifting people from an obesogenic, disease-causing, nutrient depleting diet to one rich in whole foods and protective foods that promote weight loss, health, and well-being.”
Food is often rooted in culture, tradition, and celebration, but this diet that combines the best of paleo and vegan practices, shifts the focus from pleasure to rejuvenation and regeneration. Perhaps what we need in COVID-19 times. An interview with the author.
We often use food as a distraction, to fulfil an emotion, or give in to cravings because of the addictive nature of packaged food. How do we bring the body and mind more in sync with each other in order to adapt to the diet you recommend?
Many of us spend years in the cycle of eating processed foods, especially in moments of distress. It can take time to break out of this cycle, but once you use biology (not willpower) to break free from the grips of ultra processed food, your body will actually crave real whole foods.
Now I walk straight past the pastry aisles without a moment of pause. Those foods don’t look like real food to me. I don’t even crave them. I don’t need the fillers, additives, excessive amounts of sugars, fats, salts and other measures taken to taint the natural goodness of real food. This can take time. You have to be gentle and patient with yourself.
Start by incorporating an abundance of real, whole foods. Incorporate more veggies, more fruits, healthy fats, and clean protein. Crowd out the bad stuff. One of the easiest ways to do this is start your morning with a nutritious breakfast with some protein like eggs, protein shakes, or nut butters. Starting your day off with a nutrient dense meal will help to balance your blood sugar and allow you to make better decisions throughout the rest of the day.
You call several foods superfoods. How do you distinguish between a food and a superfood?
Any food that is nutrient dense is a superfood. This includes vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, organic and grass-fed protein. Any food that provides you with healing information is a superfood.
What if I can’t eat organic and have no access to meat that’s not pumped with antibiotics?
Buying organic fruits and vegetables is important for your health, but it can get costly. It turns out that we don’t always have to buy organic. Some foods are more likely to contain pesticides than others. EWG (Environmental Working Group, ewg.org) puts out a Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen list every year. Follow it to know which veggies and fruits should be organic and which are okay as conventionally grown. If you don’t have access to meat that’s not pumped with antibiotics, do your best. Eat a variety of protein sources from either animal protein or plant protein like low starch beans, tempeh, tofu, and nuts and seeds.
How important is the whole process of shopping, cutting, cleaning and cooking, before we actually eat?
Preparation is everything! Before you go to the grocery, I highly recommend planning your meals. Money and time are wasted while wandering around aimlessly at the grocery store. Take 30 minutes before you shop to think about what you need for the week. Plan out breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at least for a few days at a time. Once you know what you need, you’ll spend less money, and you won’t pick up foods that might go to waste.
Food is often reflective of culture, so how do we tell a predominantly wheat-eating community to stop eating wheat?
Education is the key. Our modern diet is riddled with sugar and starch that is fuelling our chronic disease epidemic. Insulin resistance (from eating too much bread, rice, pasta, cereal, etc) is the biggest cause of rapid aging and leads to things like diabetes, heart disease, and more. My friend and Harvard researcher, Dr David Ludwig, recently gave a talk in India (which has a high percentage of vegetarians) in which he discussed why type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease are on the rise in South Asia. Ancient and traditional diets, while focussed on vegetarian foods, did not contain the amount of starch and bad fats that many vegetarians consume in these modern times. Replacing starch with vegetables, good fats, and protein is essential for stopping heart disease which is the number one killer in India.
You’ve said in your book, “Be your own guinea pig — try, test, and try again.” What do you eat on a daily and weekly basis?
I eat the pegan diet, which is a fun way of saying that I take the best of a vegan diet and the best of a paleo diet and combine them into a way of eating that is inclusive and works for everyone. I fill 75% of my plate with non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, arugula, peppers, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts. I add about a palm size of protein from organic poultry or grass-fed meat. Sometimes I opt for vegetarian protein like tempeh or low-starch beans. I add in some healthy fats like avocado, nuts and seeds, or olive oil. Finally, I add 1/2 cup of starchy vegetables or gluten-free grains like sweet potato or wild rice. That’s pretty much what I eat for most meals. In the morning, I’ll usually have an omelette or a green smoothie.
How has your own perspective on food changed over the last 40 years — we understand you tried being vegan for a decade?
One hundred years ago we didn’t need a label to tell us that our food was local, organic, and grass-fed; all food was whole, real, unadulterated, traditional food. Fake foods we’ve been introduced to in the 20th Century — many of which contain high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars — have hijacked our brains, hormones, and our metabolism. These Franken foods have literally created a vicious cycle of hunger and cravings. It’s really quite sad how much our food system has changed and the damaging effects it has had on our communities, planet, and individual health. We have the power to take back our health and vote with our dollar when we choose real, whole foods. I’ve followed many diets in the past — vegan, keto, etc but now I follow the pegan diet, which focusses on real whole foods.