The first time I heard about the ‘Paleo’ diet, I was a sophomore in high school. While sitting at the long table my friends and I ate lunch at every single day, one of my girl friends explained how she would eat only from the earth, as the cavemen supposedly did.
As I scarfed down my fifth Oreo, I couldn’t help but say “No wonder why the cavemen went extinct.” Dieting on just eggs and meat? That sounded terrible. Who wouldn’t want to eat ice cream every day?! That would mean giving up coffee cake muffins and my usual pasta dinner. Nooooo thank you.
Fast forward a few years later. My regular Oreo and chips eating has pretty much dissipated to an occasional snack. I actually eat salads voluntarily (with a “healthy” serving of cheese, of course) on a regular basis. Plus, there’s always room for ice cream. I feel pretty good and have never gone on a fad diet. That is, until my editor emailed me about trying the Pegan diet.
The Pegan diet, for all of you who don’t follow nutrition fads religiously, is a combination of Paleo and Vegan. It takes elements from both to form a more complete diet that is slightly less restrictive than either of the original two alone. Basically, you eat whole foods, never processed ones. In addition, you have to avoid dairy like the plague, give up gluten and say no to grains that have a high glycemic index. AKA no grains or bread except for quinoa and wild rice. Or, as I’d like to call it, Hell.
A normal diet of mine is NOTHING like the Pegan diet. I usually eat a multigrain, buttery-AF croissant, along with a triple-shot cappuccino with whole milk and about five packets of Sugar in the Raw for breakfast. Lunch is my healthiest meal, as I normally spring for a salad with grilled chicken. I also love going out for dinner, ordering anything from pizza to a gourmet burger with, yes, more cheese. And bacon, obviously.
Outside of my normal diet, I never tell myself no to food. Ever. If I crave something, I eat it, and that’s that. I knew this week of Pegan would be hard, but I decided to jump right in and try saying “No” to food, for once.
[Warning: Going gluten-free or dairy-free for a cleanse can make your body develop a sensitivity to it. Doctors don't recommend going gluten-free unless you have Celiac's disease or a gluten allergy — otherwise you will likely suffer from nutritional deficiencies.]
I decided to slowly transition into the Pegan way of life. Also, after a busy weekend on vacation I sort of forgot about the experiment. I was in Cape Cod and decided to treat myself to some lobster. Lobster, while being meat, is still pretty good for you — plus I didn’t have a lot of other Pegan options where I was.
After I finally returned home, I decided to do some deeper research into what actually contained gluten. The short answer: everything that I like. Pastas, breads, cereals, some granola bars, waffles, some salad dressings, wheat-based tortilla chips, potato chips, pizza, candy, cheesecake filling and pretty much every cake-like dessert. Yes, I could buy the gluten-free varieties, but those are still hard to come by. For this particular experiment, I decided not to even delve into the type of gluten avoidance that people with Celiac’s disease have to follow as far as gluten cross-contamination goes. Pegan is a dietary choice to avoid gluten, rather than a gluten intolerance.
Then there was the dairy issue: no milk, cheese, yogurt or cream.
Also, Pegans follow a No-Added-Sugar rule. So my usual coffee order was quickly ruled out, too.
I headed home, cooked myself two eggs with olive oil and went to bed. The world without dairy, gluten and sugar would be a sad one, I decided.
Day one of being full-on Pegan was pretty difficult, if I’m being honest. But that could just be because I’m terrible at planning and decided to eat out for a good portion of it. First, I refined my coffee order to just a triple-shot espresso almond milk latte…no sugar. Coming from a born-and-bred sugar addict, it actually wasn’t that bad unsweetened. I may have found a new favorite order for my morning java. But that was also at a local, hip coffee shop that understands millennials’ obsession with almond milk. Unfortunately, Starbucks doesn’t, so no Starbucks all week for me.
Once again, I fried myself up an egg in olive oil and decided that was good enough for breakfast. Fried eggs are a much more pitiful-looking breakfast without a bunch of buttery toast to balance out the plate, but at least I found something to eat.
Lunch all week was fairly easy. Sweetgreen, a salad company with tons of whole foods and options for the compulsive healthy eater, had just opened the doors of its newest store right next to my internship. Maybe the world wasn’t conspiring to make being Pegan as difficult as possible Plus, I didn’t actually need to put any thought into my order. Sweetgreen has an app, where I could plug in my dietary restrictions and order from there.
For dinner, I went to a Thai-fusion restaurant, which made my so-called Peganism a lot easier. Most of their noodles and breads are rice-based (gluten-free), while meals are veggie-heavy. I went with Vietnamese crepes, which were rice-based and full of sprouts, greens and a bit of shrimp.
There is such a thing as gluten and sugar withdrawals…and I experienced them. No, seriously. I ate pretty much the same way as the day before, but had grilled chicken with a vegetable stir fry for dinner. But I felt ridiculously out of it. My head pounded, my mouth watered every time I even thought of bread and I was in a daze for the majority of the day. Every time I ate, I knew I was full but I still never felt completely full.
I was also grumpy. My poor boyfriend had to put up with me texting him an absurd amount of hangry “K” responses all day, while I had to Do Not Disturb all of my group messages. The repeated incoming texts just made my headache worse.
My best advice? Don’t go gluten-free, Pegan or on a cleanse out of nowhere without warning friends, parents or your S.O. Just send them a friendly email, saying something like:
Hey for the next week I am going to miss bread and ice cream a lot. I’ll probably take my cravings and withdrawals out on you until my body decides it doesn’t hate me anymore. You would too if you had to say no to ice cream, bread products, coffee with cream or free cupcakes at work all week. I would love you anyway. Send Support (and recovery brownies for after this hell week ends).
Seriously, cleansing (which is what I would consider Peganism for me) is emotional. I never tell myself “No” to food. I hated feeling restricted and not fully there.
Thursday was less of a daze to me than the previous day. In fact, I was finally starting to embrace the Pegan life. I added steel-cut oatmeal to my fried eggs, which was way more filling than the toast I consumed on a daily basis pre-Peganism. Lunch at Sweetgreen was a success, yet again, as they have tons of options for vegans, paleo, dairy-free, Pegans and everything in between.
Then came the Cupcake That Broke Me. At the Her Campus national office, we love to celebrate work anniversaries (“workaversaries”). And Thursday was our Operations Manager’s 2-year workaversary. Which means cupcakes, and a lot of them. Large, delicious, gooey, fudgy cupcakes.
I broke — well, I half-broke the Pegan diet. I indulged in a Gluten-Free Lava Fudge cupcake, which (1) has dairy, and (2) has a LOT of sugar. But I do not have the self-control of hardcore Pegans, and I missed chocolate so much that I just couldn’t say no.
That was the first bump in my health-filled new diet. The second one came around dinner time, when I tried to order out again. It was date night—and my boyfriend chose a burger place. I soon found that ordering literally anything at a burger joint that fits into a Pegan diet is not only nearly impossible, but it’s also really annoying and kind of sad. My catchphrase for every stage of the meal began with, “I’m sorry, this is a really complicated order, but…” and continued with my list of substitutions and questions for the veggie burger I was about to order. To be fair, it was necessary to stick to being a Pegan. I ended up with a chickpea-based veggie-burger, no bun, with a fried egg on top and sweet potato fries. My normal order, just for reference, is a bacon cheeseburger. I felt so empty without bacon.
I must admit, despite how pitiful restaurant-going had become, I felt lighter and more energetic. The Cupcake That Broke Me earlier that day made me feel sluggish and heavy, and my skin felt greasier. Eating all Pegan was starting to show in my skin, which was clearing up a lot and actually looked glowy. If there’s a diet out there that makes my skin look like this, while still letting me eat cheese, sign me up!
With the final day of my experiment, my Pegan creativity had fallen fairly low. I once again opted for eggs-over-easy, but added in a fruit and almond milk smoothie. The fruit helped deal with the remnants of my sugar withdrawal symptoms, and my seemingly weeklong headache began to disappear.
Feeling like the orb of health and light that Peganism was transforming me into, I decided to go to early morning yoga. Something about finishing up with the experiment within 24 hours made me want to full-on embrace the healthy yogi lifestyle.
*eats salad instead of pizza* I am a shining beacon of health.
*lies down, watches netflix and doesn't move for 16 hours* Nevermind.
— Bridget Higgins (@BridgeHiggins) September 3, 2016
After my sleepy, morning Namaste session, I hurried home and sautéed some veggies with fresh-cooked wild rice. My cooking skills may not entirely be there, but I was getting the hang of whipping up decent-enough, healthy food.
Finally, I went to work. As a part-time waitress on the weekends, it slipped my mind that I would be surrounded by fresh rib-eye steaks, bar pizzas, chicken wings, creamy pasta dishes and a variety of French fries for the next nine hours. Full disclosure: it was the most difficult, food-related nine hours of self-control I have ever put myself through.
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I explained my new diet to some of my coworkers. Being the kind of lovely people they are, I soon was faced with offers to have a bite of the pizza they just ordered. I also received tempting, “How good does this steak look? Do you want a bite? We know you want a bite…no one will even know you broke your diet” comments.
Surprisingly, to both myself and everyone else, I stayed strong. I actually was kind of scared of how I would feel if I broke free of my gluten-free, dairy-free, low-sugar diet-cage. I remember how terrible my head and stomach felt after eating a cupcake the day before. It had become easier on me to just stick to the cleanse than to even attempt cheating on it. My body had embraced the healthier side of me, even if it was temporary, and didn’t crave bread or cheese as much anymore.
I made it through my shift, ate a salad with grilled chicken (and no cheese or croutons) and happily tumbled into bed. I somehow, partially successfully made it through a week none of the foods that I love so dearly. If not a physical challenge, it was definitely a mental one. And I was damn proud of that.
I can’t say I was that lucky for all of my eating out experiences, though. For anyone thinking about trying this out, I see why people who are Vegan or on a Paleo diet tell everyone…ordering out is HARD. At most normal restaurants, there are one or maybe two actual meals that are A-okay to eat for Pegans, and even then you need to add on a “No cheese, skip the croutons” suffix to your sentences. I found myself explaining that I was writing an article and that my order would be annoying AF and that I was sorry to everyone. If you’re one of these people that doesn’t like weird looks from your waiter/you hate talking to strangers, hopefully you like cooking because that will be a lot easier.
I also can’t say that I stuck to being a Pegan much longer after this week. Yes, I felt somehow lighter and more energetic, while my skin glowed from the lack of oil-inducing, pore-clogging dairy. But I also really have a relationship with food and enjoying it. All of it. Which means that I will probably always let myself have at least one meal a day that throws caution to the wind and is eaten for purely delicious purposes. But if I ever feel sluggish, tired and slow, I know I’ll have my Pegan experience to fall back on for another cleanse.