Pegan: Protein & Vegan Unite
Some things in life just don’t make sense.
- How your checked luggage makes it to your final destination after your flight change in Dallas/Fort Worth (amidst a sea of thousands of other bags)
- Why we say “Fine” or “Good” every time someone asks: “How are you?”
- How many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
- And, why the human body needs protein?—specifically why it needs or benefits from “creature” or animal protein.
No ifs, ands or buts about it, the human body is like a plant that needs water and sunshine.
The Pegan Diet
We require a balance of water, fats, carbohydrates and proteins to be a well-oiled machine, and when we neglect any of those to the extreme, over time, our body suffers for it. Pegan is an approach that uses the combination the paleo and vegan principles.
Sure you can find some trace amounts of fat in carbohydrates.
Sure your body can convert proteins into some form of ‘energy’—like you get from carbs and fats.
And sure some plant sources contain proteins (like nuts, beans and broccoli)
…But for the primary source of each of the three main nutrients (protein, fat and veggies), our body THRIVES upon the real deal powerhouse sources:
- Healthy Fats, like: avocados, extra virgin olive oil, coconut, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, lard, tallow, pasture-raised egg yolks, raw nuts and seeds
- Nutrient Dense Veggies & Fruits, like: Asparagus, Greens, Squash, Broccoli, Cauliflower Beets, Carrots, Apples, Oranges Berries, and more
- And Sustainably-Raised Proteins, like: Grass-fed Beef and Bison, Pasture-raised Chicken, Wild-caught Fish, Pasture Raised Eggs, Organic Organ meat.
Of the three macro-nutrients, protein is probably the most mis-understood. That’s the reason many would doubt pegan diet.
We know “carbs give us energy.” We’re told “fats help boost metabolism, improve brain function and balance blood sugar.”
But as for protein…All we really know is: “It helps us build muscle…right?”
Enter: The protein dilemma:
- “Why” do we need it?
- What are the best sources to get it?
- What happens when we DON’T get enough?
- And how much of it we really need ?
Unfortunately, Dr. Google isn’t the most helpful in this situation. You cannot find everything you need to know about pegan just by doing Google searches.
Search “protein requirements” on Dr. Google and your sure to come across thousands upon thousands of conflicting information.
- Fitness and body-building communities tell us to eat dry tuna packets, chug a protein shake after our workouts and even to toss some raw eggs in there while we’re at it
- Vegan-enthusiasts say we can get all the protein we need from plants and grains
- And pro-Paleo heads tell us to eat more bacon and juicy steaks
Let’s clear the clutter, and get to know a little bit more about protein. Pegan diet is not bad.
Why Do I Need Protein?
Many reasons, including:
- Tissue/cell growth and repair
- Brain function
1. Tissue & Cell Growth/Repair
Proteins are composed of varying combos of amino acids that make up the structure of every tissue, cell and substance in your body—your heart, your nails and hair, your hormones, your skin, your other organs, your brain cells.
We need these amino acids in order to continue building tissues and sustaining life.
Amino acids found in protein help with the growth, repair and healthy maintenance of our tissues and structures, and we require a constant supply of amino acids to keep on keeping on.
Proteins play a dynamic role in revving our metabolism (keep our cells and engine going and going and going) since they are a major building block of our hormones and
The primary protein hormones are insulin (which regulates blood sugar) and thyroid hormone—which controls your metabolic rate (how efficiently your body burns and uses fuel).
3. Brain Function
Proteins are also a major building block of your mood, emotions and all around brain power. Amino acids (simply put, protein is made of amino acids) make up your neurotransmitters—biochemical messengers whose job it is to carry signals from one brain cell to another.
Brain cells transmit all sorts of signals to the different parts of the body to carry out individual tasks—from throwing a ball, to avoiding a car wreck, to brainstorming a new idea, to crying when you watch a sad movie.
The better your messengers (neurotransmitters) are fed with complete proteins, the more efficiently they deliver “the goods”—the ability to think clearly, respond, fire and achieve your big dreams.
(Think about your mom telling you to clean your room as a kid, and you paying off your younger brother to do it – the more you paid him, the cleaner the room… The more you feed your body with quality amino acids, the more your cells can communicate, and the more efficient and wise your brain!).
Amino acids are also essential for our boosting our feel good brain chemicals—like serotonin and dopamine. When we don’t eat enough good protein, the brain can’t produce enough of these neurotransmitters. This is a reason why sometimes amino acid therapy is used as a treatment for depression.
“Antibodies” are proteins that form in response to a foreign stimulus, known as an antigen.
Our ability to fight off antigens (bacteria, fungi, illness, disease and other pathogens) lies in the power of our antibodies.
Different antigens, or invaders, require different “antibody” proteins to fight them off—hence why we need a variety of proteins and complete amino acid profile.
Food gives us energy. Duh.
And a balance of different foods—carbs, fats and proteins—gives us the balance of energy sources we need for different body needs.
Protein, as mentioned above, are big on “building, growing and repairing” tissues—meaning they spur a lot of bio-chemical reactions and enzyme activity in our cells.
Think of protein as the turbo power for supercharging cellular activity (and metabolism) to go, go, go.
In addition, protein comprises hemoglobin in your cells—an iron-bearing protein that is the key component of the red blood cell, meaning: Oxygen. Meaning: Energy.
(That’s why people with iron-deficiencies or anemia often have low energy).
What Are the Best Sources?
There are a total of 22 amino acids found in the various proteins we need.
Eight of these are essential amino acids—amino acids ONLY found in the foods we eat. The body can produce the rest of the amino acids from these 8 essential aminos, but otherwise, we need to eat protein to allow for optimal and complete amino acid production.
Animal proteins contain ALL the essential amino acids in the right proportions to one another—also known as a “complete protein.”
True some of these essential acids can be found in plan proteins. However, the majority of plans do NOT have the adequate amounts our body needs throughout its lifetime.
Therefore, plant protein is incomplete protein (even if combined with other plants to try to make it more complete).
While vegetarian and vegan-based diets do use the power of food combining (like rice and beans, or whole grains and nuts) to re-create a “pseduo-complete” protein (a combination of the essential amino acids glued together from the two separate sources), if this is our sole source of “complete” protein, over time, this can wreak havoc…namely on our gut.
Anti-Nutrients and More
Grains, legumes and nuts contain components known as “anti-nutrients” including lectins and phytates—known for their protection of plants from predators and weather in the wild…and protection from complete digestion in our guts.
Our guts have a hard time breaking down these anti-nutrients, and when we eat a lot of them, the stage is set for a host of GI “issues” like constipation, bloating, malabsorption, leaky gut, intestinal permeability, bacterial overgrowth, and beyond.
Hints why the most complete and easily assimilated versions of complete proteins (with all the amino acids we need) come directly from the main sources of protein—such as:
- Grass-fed Beef
- Grass-fed Bison
- Pasture Raised/Organic Chicken
- Pasture-Raised Eggs
- Wild-caught fish and wild-caught seafood
Secondary sources of plant-based proteins (i.e. not ideal to solely rely upon), include:
- Seeds and Nuts
- Nutritional Yeast
- Fermented Tofu, Tempeh, Miso, Natto
What happens when we DON’T get enough?
Two words: Body breakdown.
When we don’t get the complete profile of amino acids over time, things break down.
From hormone imbalances, to lowered mood, lowered energy, decreased muscle repair (and results in the gym if training), lowered immunity…things don’t function quite as efficiently or effectively because enzymatic activity is sllllloooooowwwwweeeeeddddd (protein intake is not driving the ship).
Not to mention: Digestive disturbances.
With protein out of the picture, often times plant-based diets turn into grain, bean and nut based diets, or raw-veggie diets—all of which CAN comprise part of a healthy diet, but leave our bodies trying to meet its needs for protein with secondary sources that are hard to break down.
Couple this with the widespread popularity of fake veggie proteins, like vegan sausage, processed soy products, tofurkey, seitan and overly processed veggie burgers, and our gut says, “Thankyou, but no thankyou.”
Often times the health side effects of not eating animal or creature based protein are hidden for many years.
The honeymoon euphoria of feeling cleansed and alive is common for several in the beginning, only to run into problems like infertility, crazy PMS, skin breakouts, constipation, bloating, bacterial overgrowth, autoimmune conditions, increased illness, slowed metabolism and mineral/vitamin deficiencies months or years later.
Case in point: My meatless mayhem.
I went meat free for about a year and a half during my eating disorder days.
My decision was intertwined with my obsession and desire to “be healthy,” and, in my mind, vegetarian and vegan based diets were the holy grail of health.
In order to fill the gaps that turkey, chicken and beef once filled between sandwich bread, alongside rice or on top of spaghetti, I ate more grains and “low fat” foods, like fruit, steamed broccoli, fat-free yogurt and low-fat packaged snacks (crackers, bars, pretzels).
Little did I realize that the symptoms I began to experience were my body’s way of crying out for meat—not just the potatoes.
Constipation, bloating, skin rashes, anemia, loss of period, dark circles under my eyes, brittle nails and hair soon replaced the initial spark and energy I felt for being able to deny myself something that most lazy Americans ate too much of (Big Macs, steaks and turkey sandwiches).
However, denial was rampant—as I refused to correlate my diet with any of these side effects (never!) until…the day I decided to give chicken a try again.
Fast forward several months later, and my energy, digestive woes and even mental clarity had been restored.
(See “Food for Though” below).
So how Much Protein Do I Need?
Not as much (or as little) as you may think—depending on what “camp” you fall into, as well as current stage of life and goals.
As a baseline, aim for at least 25% of your plate to have a whole-sourced complete amino acid protein with most meals.
In terms of percentages for a given day, a healthy amount for general health in both men and women falls somewhere between 10-20% of total intake (about 65-130 grams/men, and 50-100 grams/women).
If muscle gain, weight loss or blood sugar re-balancing is part of your goals, bumping that protein up to at least 20-35% of total intake (130-230 grams/men, 100-176 grams/women) is ideal.
My Meatless Mayhem
You Can Have Your Cake & Eat It Too
I think author Michael Pollan said it best: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
- Eat food your body recognizes as ‘food.’
- Eat to satisfaction and nourishment for energy levels.
- Base your plate on fresh veggies, fruits, healthy oils and fats, and some nuts and seeds.
Eating vegan or vegetarian based dishes are NOT a bad thing.
In fact, with the rainbow of tastes and varieties out there, plants make eating both delicious and nutritious.
Above all, food is medicine. And animal-based protein (with all the amino acids) is part of that equation.
For optimal health and nourishment, incorporating the “real deal” is the quickest route to the most nutrients that your body recognizes and absorbs as protein. You can try pegan diet to know the difference.
The best part?
You CAN have your cake and eat it too. Yes, pegan diet allows that!
Consider incorporating the best of “both worlds” with a Pegan-inspired philosophy (hybrid of vegan and paleo eating): A plant-based diet with meat and animal protein as a “condiment” (about 25-percent of your plate.
That said, NO LABELS are necessary.
Food For Thought
Often times, the BIGGEST thing standing in our way of giving our body what it needs is our moral ties to our food. We make ourselves feel guilty if we so much as THINK with the idea of adding animal protein to a vegan based diet.
Or, overwhelm overtakes us if we TOY with the idea of eating some sushi WITH rice (gasp, grains).
Rules aside, your body is a smart cookie. And when we give it balance and listen to what our body is telling us, we may very well find that…
You can be “vegan” or “vegetarian” with some “medicinal protein” fuel. Pegan diet allows you to apply both principles.
And you can eat a paleo-based diet with some ancient grains, rice or beans.
And you can have those “20%” bites—like your grandmother’s famous chocolate chip cookies, a slice of pumpkin cheesecake, or a handful of chips and Queso at the restaurant, and live to tell about it.
Break the Rules.
Yesterday, we talked all about protein—why we need it, what happens to our body when we don’t get it and how to incorporate it into a plant-based diet. You need to know this before going pegan.
Essentially, for optimal health:
Eat real food. Mostly plants. And “supplement” with animal-based protein as a condiment of your meals (about 1/4 of your plate at least) if the thought of protein (with ALL the amino acids you need) is hard to stomach.
Need some inspiration in the kitchen?
Here are some of my favorite “Pegan”-based recipes from around the web you should try:
- Better Than Restaurant Falafel by Minimalist Baker
- Paleo Vegan BBQ Meatballs by Sweet Designs (use avocado oil or coconut oil)
- Plantain Seed Veggie Burger by Purely Twins
- Sweet Potato Noodles with Creamy Cashew Sauce
- Braised Lentils & Vegetables by Cafe Johnsonia
- Coconut Curry Lentil Soup by Veg Angela
- Garlic Spaghetti Squash by Meat Free Keto (add chickpeas, blackens or ground turkey or bison for some protein)
- Grain Free Saffron Rice by Against All Grain (add salmon, chickpeas, fermented organic tofu or tempeh for some protein)
- Savory Indian Pancakes by My Heart Beet
- Stuffed Acorn Squash Bowls by Healing & Eating (pack with lentils or chickpeas if you can’t stomach ground meat)
- Cauliflower Pizza Crust by Detoxinista (top with pesto, dried tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, chicken or tempeh)
- Quinoa Salad by Primal Palate (throw in some canned wild salmon or wild-caught tuna)
- Creamy Broccoli & Cheese Soup by Blissful Basil (add some pulled chicken, pork or white fish to round it out)
- Cornbread by A Girl Worth Saving (add a side of lentils, soaked beans or Beanless Paleo Chili like this Meat & Veggie Chili by Lauren Fuentes)
- Creamed Spinach by Eat Drink Paleo
- Balsalmic Roasted Beets by The Primal Palate
- Spiced Winter Squash by the Primal Palate
- Cauliflower Mash by Whole Living Lauren
- Crispy Sweet Potato Fries by Clean Eating Veggie Girl
Sweets & Treats
- Chia Seed Pudding with Paleo Krunch (or use Wildway, Paleonola cereals) by The Thin Kitchen
- Carrot Cake Cheesecake by One Green Planet
- Real Deal Chocolate Chip Cookies by Against All Grain
- 3-Ingredient Flourless Brownies by The Big Man’s World
- Almond Butter Blondies by Cook It Up Paleo
- Orange Creamsicle Bars by Om Nomally
- Coconut Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream by Two Peas in a Pod
- Caramelized Banana Vanilla Bean Ice Cream by Get Inspired Everyday
Recommended Pegan Reads
In addition to these amazing recipes, here are a few books to spark your brain for more info on pegan, protein, protein myths, and a balanced approach to both plant and protein dining: