Why I quit Keto and went Pegan(ish)

When trying to decide how to eat, there are competing messages about what a healthy diet is. The division today seems to come down to plant-based versus meat-centric. My own journey has led me to ask: Why not both?

Dietary choices are not religious convictions. It’s always a bit perplexing to me when a vegan starts to evangelize, or a paleo won’t even eat a grain of rice on rare occasion.

I do understand the value of “bright lines,” and in fact highly recommend Bright Line Eating if you are looking for a guide to uncompromisingly healthy eating. But I have a hard time being uncompromising, so I look for healthy ways to compromise. I may want to eat a cupcake, but I compromise by eating a few squares of paleo dark chocolate. There’s coconut sugar in there, but not a massive bomb of highly processed sugar and flour.

I am constantly assessing what I put into my body to be healthier. Food is medicine, and it’s also poison if you eat foods that erode your health. We all have slightly different genetic makeups, sensitivities, and preferences, so I think it’s important to assess your own dos and don’ts when it comes to eating.

Why Keto?

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I came to Keto when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020. A friend who had also been through cancer recommended Metabolic Approach to Cancer, and author Dr. Nasha Winters has been using a ketogenic diet as a complementary therapy for cancer patients for years. Not only is there some pretty solid science to her approach, the impact on her patients (and herself) has been remarkable.

The ultra-simplified gist of ‘keto for cancer,’ is that cancer loves sugar. Glucose fuels cancer cell growth, so eating high-carb food feeds the cancer, while sticking to low carb food starves it. Keto is ultra-low-carb, with a focus on healthy fats and moderate protein intake.

Staying in ketosis is hard work. I bought a KetoMojo finger-prick device to test my ketones and glucose, and I spent several months at a moderate to therapeutic level of ketosis. In order to achieve this, I had to carefully track all of my food to make sure my carbs were staying around 20 grams per day or fewer.

Any type of starchy vegetable, grain, or fruit could easily blow out my carb limit in a few bites. My meal planning became an exercise in matching a protein with a non-starchy vegetable and some sort of healthy fat. This was a complete turnabout of my longtime diet centered around rice, lentils, and pasta. I used to be a carb girl.

Now, though, I was chugging MCT oil and eating coconut oil straight from the tub to keep myself satiated in this suddenly carb-restricted world. I was exorcising the ghosts of my attempts to bake fat-free cakes in the nineties.

Why Not Keto?

Some do Keto to lose weight, while others adopt it as a lifestyle. For those managing active cancer, it is a good idea to stay in ketosis as much as possible. It has also been proven to reduce seizures for those with epilepsy.

Once I was done with cancer treatments and declared cancer-free, I felt less attached to staying in ketosis. I had lost some weight and adapted to preparing all of my meals from healthy ingredients. I wanted to get back to a diet that required a bit less obsessive attention.

A Keto diet is worth the work if it is addressing a real medical issue, but it is a bit much for someone who just wants to stay healthy, in my opinion. At least, it’s a bit much for me.

Why Not Vegan?

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I was a vegetarian for sixteen years, and I made vegan meals frequently. I also agree with the vegan philosophy, in that I think reducing consumption of animal products is critical to healing the broken food system and reducing CO2 emissions. But I’m not vegan.

For me, the problem with a vegan diet is that it’s not how the human body has evolved to survive and flourish. You can get all of the nutrients you need for optimal health while vegan, but it requires a fair amount of food science and supplementation to compensate for the lack of animal products.

I’ve become accustomed to cooking meat now, which is not something I’d done much before. I try to get local, pasture-raised meat as much as possible, which is helped by my new MilkRun subscription. If I’m going to be a carnivore, I will try my best to be an ethical carnivore.

I’ve made my health my number one priority, and that means that I will make choices I believe promote my best health. For now, that includes eating animal products.

Why Not (Quite) Paleo?

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After I loosened my grip on carbs and started eating some sweet potatoes now and then, I realized: “Hey, I think I’m kinda Paleo now.”

I’ve long looks askance at “paleo types” with their bacon-centric worldview. They come with a sort of healthy hipster vibe and know how to cook venison, just like all of my Idaho cousins. They probably drink “bulletproof” coffee and do intermittent fasting. Oh wait, so do I.

The fact is, the paleos are onto something. Caveman foods that were available to hunter-gatherers are dense sources of nutrition that don’t come with the inflammatory baggage of agricultural and processed foods. Grains have been eaten for centuries in most cultures, but our bodies are still not very good at breaking them down.

Gluten is my nemesis, and my frenemy. I love pizza, pasta, cupcakes, pancakes, baguettes, croissants, and Dim Sum. But I discovered by trial and error that my love of flour-based foods was eroding my health, and my digestive tract. I had acid reflux every day and was diagnosed with GERD and Barrett’s Esophagus (a precancerous condition wherein the cells of the lower esophagus change in response to daily exposure to stomach acid).

Despite my paleo-ish tendencies, that’s not how I identify. Why? Because I eat cheese and butter sometimes. And sushi, with rice. I’m not willing to be a caveman.

What’s Pegan?

Dr. Mark Hyman coined the term Pagan as a sort of joke to mess with vegans and paleos. In his book, Food: What the Heck Should I Eat, he explains why he recommends taking the principles of veganism (mostly plant based) and the principles of paleo (pre-agricultural foods, including quality meats).

Until science indicates a better way, I’m leaning Pegan. Leaning, because I’m still planning to have a bit of cheese or butter, and gluten-free grains.

I think everyone owes it to themselves to decide how they will eat. It can be a decision based on self-respect and science, rather than blind adaptation to the modern, processed diet. You don’t have to adopt a diet dogma to eat well and stay healthy, but your do have to decide what goes into your body, and what doesn’t.

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