Katie Couric Tried the Pegan Diet—but Is It Healthy?
Filling a pantry has a whole new meaning since the stock-up-palooza we all experienced when the pandemic began. Dieting has a whole new meaning, too, as many of us drastically changed our eating and exercise patterns over the last few years. In fact, some reports say that the average American gained about 13 pounds during the pandemic.
In February of 2021, journalist (and former Jeopardy guest host!) Katie Couric decided to spring clean her diet, if you will, "since I'm having trouble seeing my feet." To keep each other accountable and cheer one another on, Couric invited her fans and followers to take part in a three-week pegan diet "reset" she's calling "Spring Into Health" alongside her.
"It's been very stressful, so people who are stress eaters have more stress and are responding by eating more," Couric says in a discussion she hosted with Dr. Hyman on IGTV in late February of 2021. "I have a sweet tooth and have been eating way too many sweets. I just want a reset and I want to feel better and have more energy...I want whoever is interested in kind of doing a reset and getting back on track to do it with us. I think it would be fun to do it as a community."
On previous diets Couric's tried (including Weight Watchers, which is now called WW, the Scarsdale Diet and more), she admitted that she's fallen victim to the same cycle: "I don't eat enough. I get really hungry. I make bad choices. I say 'I blew it,' I eat something that's not on the plan, then I start again the next day….I kind of have a screwed up relationship with food," she said, noting that she struggled with an eating disorder earlier in life.
So beginning on March 1, 2021, Couric decided to embark on Dr. Hyman's 21-day "detox" explained in his new book, The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World ($16.80, Amazon).
"Most people don't really connect the dots between how they feel with what they eat," Dr. Hyman tells Couric during the YouTube chat. "People may feel tired, they might not sleep well, they might have migraines...how do you reset your biology to its original 'factory settings'?"
Dr. Hyman suggests that most Americans' biology has been hijacked by the wrong foods while not being healed by the right foods, and says that the pegan diet—detox or otherwise—taps into functional medicine practices by upgrading the quality of your diet to fix "bugs in our software" (such as those intense cravings Couric mentioned) and allow it to be better at self-regulating.
"The beauty of this reset is that we get to see what really is our baseline, and how we feel. Most people say, 'Dr. Hyman, I didn't know I was feeling so bad until I started feeling so good. That's really what I wish for people," Dr. Hyman explained. "Then you can go back to eating your sheet cake if that's what you want."
More than one week in, Couric said she was "feeling good." She's also shared recipe ideas, interviewed Dr. Hyman regarding participant questions and offered tips about how to build a pegan pantry full of lean meat, poultry and fish, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and spices.
What Is the Pegan Diet, Exactly?
"'Pegan' is a term created by Mark Hyman, MD. He has blended the dietary approach of paleo and vegan to create a nutrient-dense diet full of a variety of real, whole foods designed to optimize your health," explains Mary Stewart, RD, LD, the founder of Cultivate Nutrition in Dallas.
Dr. Hyman first introduced the concept of "peganism" nearly a decade ago, with a breakdown of about 75 percent plant-based and 25 percent animals. The main tenets:
- Use the "right" fats (such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados).
- Eat mostly plants.
- Each lower-glycemic fruits (such as berries)
- Focus on nuts and seeds.
- Avoid dairy and gluten.
- Limit gluten-free whole grains.
- Eat beans sparingly.
- Consume meat or animal products as a condiment, not a main course. (Dr. Hyman has coined the term "condi-meta" to describe a serving of animal protein that's enjoyed more as an add-on than a centerpiece of a meal.)
- Think of sugar as an occasional treat.
"The approach focuses on foods that are the most nutrient-dense foods in each food category. These foods serve to reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar, prevent disease, improve gut health and support weight goals. Eat like this consistently and the pegan diet will likely help improve your mood, foster quality sleep, boost your energy and help you just feel better," Stewart says.
Though the pegan diet includes lots of nutritious and fiber-rich foods such as fruit, veggies, nuts and seeds, it's worth mentioning that it also limits other healthy foods such as whole grains, legumes and dairy. Cutting out or limiting entire food groups can make the diet hard to follow long-term, especially if you're on a budget (legumes and grains are some of our favorite inexpensive and nutritious pantry staples). Not to mention, restrictive dieting can negatively affect your relationship with food over time.
What Can You Eat on the Pegan Diet?
- Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs with 1 cup spinach, ½ cup bell peppers and ½ teaspoon dried oregano with a side of 1 cup blueberries
- Mid-morning snack: 1 cup strawberries with 2 tablespoons almond butter
- Lunch: A collard green chicken salad wrap made with 4 ounces diced grilled chicken, 1 tablespoon walnuts, 2 tablespoons Primal Kitchen Mayo ($8.49 for 12 ounces, Target), ¼ cup diced celery and 2 tablespoons diced green onion with a side of 1 cup of lentil soup
- Mid-afternoon snack: Salad with 1 cup diced tomatoes, ¼ sliced avocado and a handful of fresh basil
- Dinner: 6 ounces wild-caught salmon with 1 cup cooked quinoa with ½ cup fresh arugula stirred in
"This diet encourages unlimited amounts of non-starchy veggies like lettuce, broccoli and artichokes, plenty of healthy fats like nuts and seeds, avocado and olive oil, high-quality protein like grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish and pastured-raised eggs, low-glycemic fruits like berries, starchy veggies like sweet potatoes and squash, legumes and whole grains like wild rice and oats. Oh, and the occasional sweet treat too," Stewart says.
Couric's pantry list is a perfect place to start if you want to try some pegan meals out for yourself.
"Eating healthy doesn't have to be complicated and time-consuming. I love the simplicity of Katie Couric's pantry list," Stewart continues. "For many of us, we are cooking at home more and this short and simple pantry list can give people the confidence to eat healthier and create more pegan-friendly meals."
3 Tips to Make a Pegan Diet Doable—and Sustainable
Although Couric said she felt more energetic on the diet, she admits on Instagram, "I need some new recipes for breakfast and not eggs." (Katie, we've got your back with these 11 low-carb breakfasts without eggs!)
Stewart has some advice to make this challenge easier to stick with for the full 21 days—and beyond if you enjoy it.
Make smart substitutions. Trade wild rice or brown rice for white rice, try kale chips instead of potato chips and use healthy fats (like olive oil or avocado) in place of butter whenever you can. "You can still cook your favorite meals by making a few simple swaps," she says.
Taste the rainbow. "One of the simplest habits you can implement is to fill up at least ¾ of your plate with color that comes from plants—not made in a plant," Stewart says. This will naturally crowd out less nutrient-dense foods like French fries and chips and save just enough room for high-quality "condi-meat" "For example, if you're craving a hamburger, load ¾ of your plate with your leafy greens, add a 3-ounce hamburger patty and top with ½ cup sauteed mushrooms and a small side of roasted sweet potato wedges."
Spice things up. If you're afraid going pegan sounds a bit too boring, "the key is to add flavor to your dishes through herbs and spices. Garlic, oregano, dill and cinnamon are a few of my favorites," Stewart says. In addition to adding flavor, these elements will boost the nutrient profile."
The Bottom Line
Stewart believes that the pegan diet can be a "fantastic option. It brings to life the power food has in cultivating our health—I'm all for that!"
That being said, this diet discourages or limits certain food groups like dairy, legumes and gluten-containing grains. For individuals that can tolerate these foods well, there's not a need to completely eliminate them from your diet. Also, because the diet is so restrictive, it may not be the best choice for those who are on a budget or cook for their families. Not to mention, there is very little scientific evidence that backs the restrictive diet as being safe and healthy.
"The premise of the pegan diet is fantastic, however, if you tolerate dairy and gluten well, then feel free to enjoy some cheese, Greek yogurt or 100% whole wheat products. Just remember as with any food, listening to your body and being aware of portion size is key. Remember, we are all unique and, therefore, your approach should be unique to you," Stewart adds.