As digital users, we’re nostalgically prone to ‘throwbacks’, even dedicating a whole day in the week to it. As many poets have dramatically claimed, there’s much to learn from the past. But can you imagine throwing it way back to the Paleolithic age? That too, for food?
The Paleo Diet, a hot topic and trendy diet plan, has the internet – and a fair share of the academic world – debating about it. As suggested by its nomenclature, the Paleolithic Diet, also called the ‘Caveman Diet’ or ‘Stone-Age Diet’ by some, is a dietary plan which mimics the one our ancestors would have maintained before the agricultural era.
It all comes down to consuming hunter/gatherer-like, naturally occurring foods which are not heavily processed and loaded with sugar and fat. These caveats of our modern diet function as contributing factors to the prevalence of obesity, diabetes and heart disease today.
Other than health claims such as reduced inflammation and significant weight loss, the Paleo Diet is believed to manage diabetes in particular by increasing insulin sensitivity and stabilising blood sugar levels. How credible are these claims? And does this diet work?
- For those struggling with type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome, the Paleo diet might be of benefit with results that show increased loss of excess body weight,
- The Paleo diet is heavily restrictive, completely removing certain food groups. Over long periods of time, this could be detrimental to health,
- For those with high blood sugar, following a paleo diet could see results such as lower blood pressure, stabilised blood sugar levels and reduced cholesterol levels.
What exactly is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo Diet consists of foods that were available in the Paleolithic era (approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago). The diet is made up largely of lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables (hunter/gatherer style foods), and limited foods which became popular when farming became common such as grains, legumes and dairy products.
Those following the eating pattern believe that a modern diet is one of the leading causes of developing common chronic conditions such as cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome. The Paleo Diet encourages the consumption of whole foods and the elimination of highly processed foods and refined sugars. For this reason, many people who decide to try a Paleo Diet can significantly improve their health.
While this may be true, the Paleo Diet also restricts the consumption of important vitamins, minerals and major food groups. Sodium is heavily restricted, which may be beneficial for some (for short periods of time) but quite dangerous overall for the general population. Sodium is one of the main electrolytes that help the body regulate chemical reactions and maintain the balance of fluid between cells. Sodium also keeps our muscles moving, and our heart rate steady, so too little sodium can be very dangerous.
Foods you can eat on the Paleo Diet:
- Nuts and seeds
- Lean meats – grass-fed meats are healthier and closer to what was consumed back in the Paleolithic era
- Fish – particularly those rich in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, anchovies)
- Oils from fruits and nuts, such as olive oil or walnut oil
Foods that should be avoided on the Paleo Diet:
- Grains – wheat, oats and barley, cereals
- Pasta, rice, bread and other baked goods
- Legumes – beans, lentils, peanuts, tofu and peas
- Dairy products – milk, yoghurt, butter
- Refined sugar – including honey
- Highly processed foods in general – soda, snack bars, crisps, chocolate
Health claims of the Paleo Diet
One of the most common claims of the Paleo Diet is weight loss. This comes as no surprise as many people who embark on a dietary change (to lose weight) often start from a place of frequent consumption of highly processed, unhealthy foods. Making the adjustment from these foods to whole foods provides benefits which are often followed by loss of excess weight in those who have it.
For instance, eating lean meats and vegetables provides sufficient protein and fibre, both of which encourage satiety (or fullness), preventing overconsumption of other foods and lowering calorie intake. However, weight loss is not the only claimed benefit of a Paleo Diet. One 2015 review oversaw four randomised control trials with 159 participants who had one or more of the five components of metabolic syndrome. The research showed that the Paleo Diet led to multiple short-term health improvements such as:
- Improved triglyceride levels
- Improved blood pressure
- Improved fasting blood sugar
- Improved levels of HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol)
- Decreased waist circumference
Another short 2009 study followed nine healthy participants following a Paleo Diet for just 10 days. The results show that total cholesterol decreased by 16%, with LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) decreasing by 22% and triglycerides down by 35%. Both longer and lengthier trials are needed to take place to see if these benefits are true to the Paleo Diet.
It is important to consider that many (if not all) studies that have followed participants on a Paleo Diet have been conducted over short periods with no control group to compare. Some of these studies could be referred to as speculation and, therefore, longer running studies, with more controls to determine the true outcome of the diet’s long-term benefits.
A whole diet is also beneficial to our gut health and may encourage more frequent bowel movements and decreased inflammation. Chronic inflammation leads to the development of multiple diseases and illnesses such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. The whole foods consumed as part of the Paleo Diet encourage a healthy gut lining and increased microbiome diversity (important for a healthy, strong immune system), keeping us protected from harmful bacteria and toxins.
Can the Paleo Diet help manage blood sugar levels?
The Paleo Diet calls for the complete elimination of heavily processed foods that are known to raise blood sugar levels. As a result, many following the diet have reported stabilised blood sugar levels, lowered cholesterol levels and healthier blood pressure.
One study of 14 participants with type 2 diabetes following a Paleo Diet lifestyle provided results that demonstrated lower blood pressure, stabilising blood sugar levels and reduced cholesterol levels after two weeks. The study also found improvements in insulin sensitivity and lipid levels. Researchers attributed this to a general increase in fibre from whole foods, decreased consumption of sugars found in simple carbohydrates and processed foods, and a wider intake of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
A lesser recognised benefit of the Paleo Diet is that it is gluten-free. This is a major benefit for those who have already been diagnosed with Coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. Globally, gluten intolerance/gluten sensitivity affects many people without them ever being diagnosed, and for those who have Type 1 diabetes, the risk is even higher. Following a Paleo Diet may help to relieve symptoms for those who did not know they had underlying issues.
Another meta-analysis from 2020 reviewed four studies comparing the Paleo Diet with the Mediterranean diet, the diabetes diet, and more. The research looked at the effects of each diet on glucose and insulin homeostasis in individuals with altered glucose metabolism. The results showed that those who followed a Paleo Diet did not show any significant improvements in insulin levels or fasting glucose compared with other diets.
Removing simple carbohydrates and highly processed foods from your everyday diet is bound to benefit blood sugar. Simple carbohydrates (which are a big no in the Paleo world) are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, creating peaks and troughs in blood sugar throughout the day. In theory, the Paleo Diet may help maintain healthy blood sugar levels due to the increase in fibre-rich foods such as nuts, fruits and vegetables, which slow down glucose absorption into the bloodstream.
However, carbohydrates found in grains and legumes contribute largely to our daily energy levels, with glucose (which carbohydrates are broken down into) being the main source of energy for our brain. Restricting this food group entirely may cause more harm than good. Nutritional science shows us that carbohydrates from whole food sources are not equal to carbohydrates found in highly processed foods.
The former contains an array of vitamins, minerals, macronutrients and fibre that are protective of our health. The latter, however, contain little to no nutritional value and can, in fact, cause serious harm to our health. For this reason, the elimination of specific foods (grains and legumes) may not be necessary.
Excess consumption of animal protein can increase the risk of developing cancer and diabetes by raising the hormone ‘insulin-like growth factor 1’ (IGF-1). Animal protein may also contain higher amounts of saturated fats, which have been known to increase cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.
Overall, adjusting to a Paleo Diet may be beneficial for those already struggling with excess, unhealthy weight. The diet encourages the consumption of whole foods rich in macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates), vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. These foods improve satiety levels after meals, decreasing the chances of overeating and exceeding daily caloric intake.
The large intake of whole foods and decreased consumption of simple carbohydrates and refined sugars means that blood sugar levels can maintain stable levels throughout the day. This may be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance or those hoping to manage their blood sugar levels better.
However, the complete removal of a food group is restrictive and can also be dangerous. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, so eliminating them completely is not sustainable. Practised over short periods of time, the Paleo Diet may be safe and beneficial with other pros such as smaller waist circumference, improved gut health, improved cholesterol levels and improved blood pressure.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention, or alleviation of any disease, disorder, or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new health care regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.