The Pegan Diet: if you want to be a vegan but also want to eat meat (?)

steak,meat,food,dinnerI have to admit I was a bit thrown when Dr. Oz said “and the great news is that So-and So (can’t remember her name) is going to be going to school for nutrition!”. The audience applauded. This sweet young lady had just finished explaining how to incorporate snacks and alcohol into your “Pegan” diet. For some crazy reason I was assuming she was an “expert”and already educated in nutrition? Ya’ll know I am not a huge fan of the Dr. Oz Show, but when flicking through the channels yesterday to find an update on the upcoming snow storm hitting New England, the headline caught my eye: The Pegan Diet. Apparently, I missed this new diet when it came out a few years ago. I couldn’t resist (especially because I need to be informed of these things when someone asks me a question about the latest diet trends, which they inevitably do). I had to watch it. In case like me, you were unaware of this diet, I thought you might be interested to learn some of the details, and more importantly, be able to be informed before you start something like this.

So the Pegan diet attempts to combine the popular “Paleo” diet with a “vegan” diet. The Paleo diet is based on eating like the people did back in the Stone Age and avoiding any “modern” foods.  The diet is based on eating meats, vegetables, fruits and nuts with no grains, beans, dairy or processed foods. Vegan diets eliminate all animal products but do include beans, nuts, lots of grains, healthy fats like oils and of course fruits and vegetables. But combining these two diets feels like an oxymoron to me……either you are vegan and don’t eat animal products, or you do eat them and so then you are not at all a vegan, right? Apparently, from what I read, the thinking is that following a vegan diet is too difficult for those who like to eat meat, and following a paleo diet has too many rules. The Pegan Diet is supposed to feel easier I guess? Easier if you are ok without ice cream. Seriously, the Pegan Diet has even more confusing rules if you ask me. Meat is ok but should only be used as a “condiment”. Dairy is not ok. Beans are ok but only in limited amounts (half cup) and grains are also allowed but limited to “low-glycemic” grains (do you really want to think about glycemic index?) and also limited to half a cup (do you know anyone who only eats a half cup of pasta?). Anyway, you get it.

There’s more. According to the Dr. Oz show, you can modify the diet (I think he is calling it the Pegan 365 Diet) by including alcohol and “snacks”. The catch is that only 2 drinks a week are allowed (so you can participate in Happy Hour with your friends even though you are dieting. They don’t want you to feel isolated). And the examples of snacks they gave on the show included a large plate of cucumbers (this is new?), non-dairy yogurt with berries (so creative) and a frozen dairy free yogurt pop (that might be good), oh, and black bean brownies (don’t knock it till you try it I guess). The point is that it is still a diet, and that means restrictive.

Yes, like with all diets, you WILL lose weight. I estimated the calories to be around a 1000 a day, more or less depending upon your dieting skills. No magic here, any diet will cause some weight loss with that little calorie intake. Besides the low calorie level, there are many nutritional inadequacies. These are clearly spelled out in this excellent critique of the diet (click on the link) by the true experts in Today’s Dietitian

There are some good things I did see on the show, and there are some good aspects to the diet. I absolutely loved some of the recipes and meals demonstrated. One was a vegan chili stuffed pepper that looked really yummy and is certainly a healthy dish providing lots of fiber and nutrients (I would melt some cheese on it myself). There was also a salad with arugula greens and roasted asparagus and what looked like roasted artichokes topped with chick peas and a dressing made of olive oil I think. That also looked great and would be even better with some grated Parmesan or grilled fish on top. Healthy and yummy, and nothing is wrong with that. The diet also focuses on whole foods, avoiding processed foods and things like that. I agree that cooking with real food is not only healthier but surely tastes much better. I would gladly pit my mom’s homemade minestrone soup against any canned version. Or my husband’s homemade cinnamon rolls against Cinnabon’s. Yes, I am all for whole, real foods…..but let’s face it, sometimes you just want a Snickers Bar. Or a Ritz cracker with peanut butter. Or more than 2 glasses of wine a week.

The bottom line is if you want to try a diet like this just know it is probably not a life-long way to live. Our bodies just are not wired to live in such a restrictive state. If you are one of those people who really can’t give up your dieting and you decide to try this, I hope you learn something from it. Maybe you will discover some new ways to cook, or learn that you actually do like vegetables. But please don’t judge yourself if you can’t stick to this and please consult with an expert (Registered Dietitian) or ask your doctor about supplements you may need (such as vitamin D, calcium, iron) which are not adequately provided by this diet.

Finally, what rubs me the wrong way is how gullible some people think we are when it comes to falling for the next popular diet. It seems all you need is a catchy name. So I was trying to come up with something good (that is, if I had to invent a diet). All I could come up with was The “Happivore Diet”. The rules would be simple:  Eat what makes you happy. Eat what makes you feel good. Listen to your body. Learn from your mistakes in eating, or drinking ; ) Care about your body and your health. Learn to cook. Keep trying new foods, especially vegetables and fruits. Learn about nutrition in a sane way (what you need to be your best). Respect your uniqueness (if you feel like you are addicted to sugar and can’t have it in the house, you know yourself best). If you need the structure of a meal plan or certain diet plan, do what you need to do for yourself. If you don’t want to eat animal products and prefer to eat vegetarian, do what is best for you and live in a way that fuels your passion and beliefs. Most important, never give up on your quest for health, physical, spiritual and mental health. And remember, YOU are the true expert in your own life.

And there is nothing bad about eating more than a half cup of pasta.



How To Make Everyone Happy at Your Super Bowl Party (Vegans and Gluten Free Friends, Too!)

buffet-variations-1321243Have you ever struggled when you have to plan a party because you have guests coming who you know are on special diets? Or, perhaps like some of my friends and family, they can’t have gluten, or they don’t eat meat (vegetarian) or may be vegan (no animal products whatsoever). Now, maybe it is just my Italian heritage, but I always make sure I have food for everyone, gluten or no gluten. Although I may eat meat, and I am fortunate enough to have no digestive issues with gluten, I respect anyone’s decision to eat whatever way they want (for example, choosing to be vegan), and I definitely am going to support those who have medical issues with gluten, carbohydrates, or anything else. With the Super Bowl coming up next weekend, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my ideas for feeding everyone. And even if you don’t have any dietary restrictions, here are some of my favorite yummy, healthy and easy ideas for feeding a crowd.

For the Vegans (also gluten free):

Quinoi Bean Salad (can be used as a dip with corn chips (such as Tostito’s) or in a corn tortilla wrap (lightly fry the corn tortilla in a vegetable oil, drain on paper towel and fold in half to fill)

Make a cup of quinoi according to directions (more or less of it, depending on how much you like it). To this add a can of drained chick peas and black beans. I add a diced red onion, a few cloves of chopped garlic, diced grape tomatoes and sometimes diced kalamata olives, and diced avocado. Add salt, pepper, crushed red pepper to taste. Add some fresh chopped cilantro (I use about half a cup, or half a large bunch). You can squeeze a bit of lime or lemon juice on it (I don’t), or add some olive oil (I don’t). This can be made ahead of time, and again, used as a dip, a salad, on a wrap or gluten free corn tortilla.

For those who are vegetarian but do eat dairy, you can add some melted cheese to the tortilla, or add some feta to the cold salad.

Vegetarian Chili (can be used as a dip also, and you can modify for those who do eat dairy by leaving cheese on the side to add, be sure it is a gluten free brand such as Sargento). This is also known as “Puerto Rico Chili” because I made this while on vacation with a bunch of my friends and their spouses. We rented a beautiful home near the beach in Rincon, PR. That day I stayed at the house while they all went to the beach. It ended up down-pouring a torrential but brief rain, and I was happy to be there cooking!) Although they may have had more fun sitting at the Tiki bar watching the waves on one of the most beautiful beaches on earth…

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Anyway, everyone adds their own twist to their chili, I never make one batch the same as another. But typically, I first saute a few cloves of garlic and an onion, also a diced stalk of celery, then add 2 large cans (28 oz) of diced tomatoes, about a cup of vegetable broth (I keep the cubes on hand). I then may add some red wine (maybe 4 oz) and simmer a few minutes. Add drained canned beans (kidney, black beans, cannellini beans and chick peas). I add a diced red and a green pepper. I may scrape some fresh corn from a cob or use a bit of frozen corn (optional). I also add some shredded carrots (half cup or so). For seasoning I add cumin (2-3 teaspoons), chili powder (~3 Tbsp), black pepper (1-2 teaspoons), salt (1-2 teaspoons), a dash crushed red pepper and sometimes hot sauce. This can simmer for hours on low while you make your other stuff, then can sit warmed in a crock pot for people to help themselves. Even meat eaters love it! Spread on tostitos for nachos, with cheese and guacamole on the side. Or use in wraps, add fresh greens, salsa, avocado, whatever you love.

Marion’s Baked Eggplant (can’t take credit for this one, it comes from my best friend Marion who is a wonderful cook and inspiration to her dietitian friend!)

Wash an eggplant and slice with skin on (thick slices, about 1/4 inch). Dip slices lightly in rice flour, then beaten egg (to make vegan just use water), and then gluten free bread crumbs (I get Italian seasoned). Bake on a dry cookie sheet at 400 degrees for ~15 minutes (a fork will go in easily, the outside is a bit crispy, inside mushy). Do not turn over. Remove from oven and layer with Victoria’s Marinara Sauce (delicious and gluten free). Once assembled, bake in the oven to heat up. We usually add shredded mozzarella for the vegetarians, but you can use a soy cheese for you vegan friends.

Roasted Red Pepper White Bean Dip 

You can use 7 oz of roasted red peppers from a jar, but I rather roast them myself. Clean and slice in half about 3 red peppers, Oil a cookie sheet and roast peppers on high heat (400 degrees) until they are soft and browned (about 20 minutes, turn halfway). Cool. Blend in a food processor: the roasted peppers, 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, 16 oz cannellini beans (drained), 1-3 cloves garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and at the end add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Blend until smooth. This also can be made ahead of time and kept for a few days. Serve with any gluten free chips.

For the Vegetarians

Chili Dip (also gluten free)

Use the vegetarian chili you made earlier, or purchase your favorite canned veggie chili. On the bottom of a flat casserole dish, spread a thin layer (1/3 inch) of cream cheese. Layer this with the vegetarian chili, top with a layer of shredded cheddar cheese and sliced jalapeno peppers (the kind you get in a can, drain first). Bake or microwave until cheese is melted. This is a great last minute appetizer, and I always have the ingredients on hand (frozen chili almost always there because I make so much there is enough to freeze). Serve with Tostitos.

Fish Tacos

I discovered a fish taco seasoning packet that I absolutely love, and these take no time to make. It is made by Ortega and is allergy free. All you do is mix it with water and marinate your fish (I like cod but you can use shrimp or any white fish) for just a few minutes (the directions are on the package). The fish cooks very quickly in a non-stick frying pan (about 3-4 minutes each side depending on the fish). We like to fry our corn tortillas quickly in vegetable oil then drain and fold in half. Add your fish, cheese,salsa, lettuce or coleslaw (see recipe below for yummy homemade coleslaw dressing!)


I buy the package of already shredded stuff. You can just buy the bottled dressing but I found this great recipe scribbled on a piece of paper, probably from some old cookbook or on-line: Mix half a cup of mayonnaise, 2 Tbsp sugar, 1 Tbsp vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 and a half Tablespoons lemon juice. YUM.

Sweet Potato Black Bean Quesadillas

Peel cook and mash a few sweet potatoes, you will need 1.5 cups (add salt and pepper to taste). Set aside. In one tablespoon olive oil saute 2 minced cloves garlic and a diced onion till soft, add a 15 oz can of (drained) black beans, 1 teaspoon each cumin and dried oregano, and 1 tablespoon lime juice, heat through. You can use flour tortillas or corn if you want gluten free. Spread 1/4 of the sweet potato over tortilla, then spread 2 tablespoons shredded Monterrey Jack cheese, followed by a layer of fresh baby spinach leaves, then more cheese and top with another tortilla. Grill 4-5 minutes on each side until cheese melts. These can be made without the cheese to keep them vegan. They are delicious cut into quarters and served with salsa and guacamole.

Use your imagination and invent your own quesadilla! Saute some portabella mushrooms with red onion, layer with spinach and cheese, or for your meat eaters, add sliced chicken or cooked spicy chicken chorizo. The possibilities are endless.

Shrimp Cocktail: no recipe, but always a hit! You can buy the frozen already cooked and just defrost before the game. Serve with cocktail sauce. Always a good go-to fast healthy appetizer.

Salmon Sliders

Another fast and easy favorite of mine. I just saute salmon that I have seasoned with a sprinkle of Old Bay Seasoning (a stand by of mine for all fish). I use a little butter and cook in a frying pan until the fish flakes when you twist a fork in it (usually not more than 5 minutes each side depending on the thickness). I serve on small dinner size potato rolls with yet more coleslaw! But you can also serve with a thick slice of ripe tomato and lettuce, chips on the side, now it does not get better than that! Well, maybe add a glass of nice cold chardonnay.

For the Meat Eaters

Crock Pot Swedish Meatballs

My husbands favorite easy appetizer. To a crock pot add a bag of frozen meatballs (~2 lbs), the small Swedish ones, although I have used the Italian ones and it is still good. Add a 16 oz container of sour cream, a can of Cream of Mushroom Soup, a cup or 2 of sliced fresh mushrooms, and 3 good dashes Worcestershire sauce. Cook in the crock pot on low for several hours until the meatballs are cooked. My crock pot is old and it can take 6 hours. You don’t need to worry about overcooking if on low. Serve these with small snowflake rolls.

Quick Pesto Chicken Pizza

An easy favorite! Use already cooked chicken (buy a rotisserie chicken or one of the “quick” sliced cooked chicken packages). For the crust I use Boboli brand, then spread with Bertolli’s prepared pesto, add some diced or sliced cooked chicken, sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese, sliced kalamata olives, and then some shredded mozzarella. Bake according to directions on Boboli package, or just until chicken is heated and cheese melts. This is easy and delicious. Mix it up by adding some sun dried tomatoes or artichoke hearts.

Boneless Chicken Thigh Hot Wings

Brown about 4 boneless skinless chicken thighs in heated oil for 4 minutes on each side. Place in a baking dish and cover with sauce:

Combine 1/4 cup hot sauce, 3 tablespoons melted butter, 2 Tbsp. water, 1 Tbsp. white vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.

Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes. You can double this recipe. These are healthier and tastier than the classic fried wings. I can’t take credit for this recipe, but I don’t remember where it came from…..I have it scribbled on a piece of torn paper, like many of my favorite recipes, always in a rush I suppose!

So there you have it, just a few of my favorite recipes which are bound to make everyone happy and most of which you can make the night before and just heat up. I  always have the staples such as a platter of cheeses, olives, crackers and red grapes, good old potato chips and dip, and purchased hummus with pita chips if you don’t have time to make your own. I don’t enjoy making desserts (too much thinking, you have to measure, not fun to me!) but I personally may pick up something made at the store bakery just to keep it easy (something that does not require forks or plates, such as brownies or cookies). There is always fruit and ice cream for the gluten free folks. Oh, and I neglected to talk about drinks….no recipes from me (although we sometimes experiment with Sangria…wine looks so pretty with fruit floating in it…making it even MORE healthy!). Do remember, though, many people do not drink and so have those water bottles on hand along with other alcohol-free beverages.

Although I do love football, the most important message I wanted to share was this: enjoy the Super Bowl, enjoy the commercials and enjoy your Super Bowl food. But, always remember to consider your guests and their needs. Respect their personal choices, and definitely respect those who have medical or digestive issues. Nobody wishes that upon themselves, dietary restrictions are not fun, and repercussions of mistakes often painful. And some people, regardless of allergies, restrictions or whatever, just plain like to have healthy but yummy choices.

So who am I routing for? My son lives in Colorado so I may have to go with Denver….plus I love the thought of an older person going out in style…..



Vegetarian Diets….the question is “why”?

veggie burger

Why on earth would a dietitian even question a vegetarian diet when it seems like such a healthy way to eat? Eliminating all that saturated fat in the form of meat from your diet has to be a good thing, right? And when you think of vegetarians, don’t you get a vision of someone munching on a giant salad?

Well, let me give you a reality check. Having been around the block a few times (meaning I have been a dietitian for over 35 years),  I have encountered my share of vegetarians. When someone tells me they are a vegetarian, or a vegan, I do not make any assumptions about their diet or their intentions. But what I have found is that the reasons people become vegetarian are not always clear. I have noticed that people turn to a vegetarian diet for a few different reasons. In fact, I have encountered 3 types of vegetarians over my long career as a nutritionist (my experience only, I can’t speak for everyone). The people I have worked with or have known in my life tend to fall into the following categories:

1. The True Vegetarian: This is the individual who truly has a strong empathy for animals. They just are not comfortable with consuming them.  They may have had meat in their lives but then, they change and make a decision that they do not want to eat meat any longer. There are different types of vegetarians, those who are ok with eating dairy or eggs or fish, but not meat. I remember my daughter as a teenager getting very upset when the rodeo was in town, and she actually joined a group who stood on the corner and protested. This led her to looking into protecting animals and she decided to stop eating meat at the time. I also have a best friend who is vegetarian, is a great cook, and who also is all about protecting animals (it is a passion with many vegetarians I have come to know over the years). They eat everything, just not meat. I have to say, not all of those I have met who are true vegetarians are healthy eaters like my friend. Many people (especially teenagers who love their kid-foods) tend to live on noodles and chips, still vegetarian, but no vegetables involved!

2. The “I want to be healthier” Vegetarians“: These are the people I have encountered who may have developed some health issues such as high cholesterol, and decided they are going to “cut down on” meat consumption. The reason they want to change their diet is because being healthy is important to them. They may have an occasional meal with meat, but otherwise they believe eating less of it is healthy.

3. The “I am pretending to be vegetarian because it is a good excuse to eat less” Vegetarians: Unfortunately, I have worked with many people over the years with eating disorders who start out with “vegetarianism”. They start eliminating foods, and becoming a vegetarian is kind of a good “excuse” for the eating disorder to NOT EAT. This type of “vegetarian” is different in that they typically refuse to eat the normal vegetarian standbys such as peanut butter, nuts, beans, etc. They may say they do not like salad dressing, olive oil, trail mix, granola or nut butters. This is always a “red flag” to me. Most of the “True Vegetarians” I know rely on nuts and peanut butter for protein and have no problem with pasta and rice and beans and all the other food needed to round out their diets. Not to mention delicious Tofutti Ice Cream!

So what is the bottom line? If you or someone you knows decides to become vegetarian, always ask “why?” If it is to be healthier, or because you care about animals, then you can definitely meet your nutritional needs with some guidance. Vegan diets are a bit harder in that you may need supplemental iron, vitamin B-12 and calcium, and also you need to know how to get protein in your diet (I recommend seeing a Registered Dietitian to be sure-check out and “Find a Dietitian”). But if you know someone who just started being a vegetarian, is losing weight, who no longer eats potato chips (those are vegan!) then don’t ignore it. It could be an eating disorder just beginning.

For more information from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, check out: