Diets are a lot like other cultural trends that go in and out of style. Those of us interested in nutrition are likely familiar with many diets conceived by celebrated physicians such as Dr. Robert Atkins, Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Barry Sears. At a certain period of time, these food plans were very popular. And, there are still some proponents of all of these diets and many others. But, today I want to look back further in time. Specifically, let’s time travel to the Paleolithic era.
The popular adage, “what’s old is new” is often applied to the current popularity of the so-called Paleo Diet. Today, there are many books and websites devoted to the topic of eating a diet inspired by our distant ancestors. The exact make up of Paleo-inspired diets varies, but it is typically characterized by an absence of dairy, grains and heavily processed foods, including artificial and/or concentrated sweeteners.
What can you eat? Most Paleo advocates emphasize eggs, fish, fruit, meat, nuts, seeds and vegetables. It should be noted that there is considerable debate about the best way to implement this lifestyle. From my point of view, opting for grass fed and/or wild sources of fish and meat and limiting highglycemic carbohydrates is a solid foundation.
The Paleolithic era hasn’t been around for over 10,000 years. Obviously, a lot has changed since then with respect to the availability and quality of food, the environment and, even, the forward march of evolution. But, just because something is antiquated, doesn’t mean it can’t have a profound utility in the 21st century. In fact, the health effects of adopting a more traditional diet have been the focus of scientific research for the last three decades.
The gold standard of medical research involves controlled, head-to-head comparisons of different diets, drugs or therapies. When Paleolithic nutrition is put to the test against modern diets, it almost always produces better results. A recent example, appearing in the journal Nutrition Research, reports that a grain-free Paleolithic diet lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, triglycerides and increased HDL or “good” cholesterol more effectively than a low-fat diet approved of by the American Heart Association.
A separate trial involving type 2 diabetics discovered that an ancestral diet outperformed the dietary recommendations set forth by the American Diabetes Association. More significant changes in blood sugar, insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles were documented. What’s more, a lengthier study from 2009 supports these findings and goes on to reveal other benefits, including reduced blood pressure, HbA1c (a measure of long term blood glucose), waist circumference and weight in those eating an “Old Stone Age” diet.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) and diabetes are two of the leading causes of medical cost and mortality worldwide. Diet, lifestyle and/or medical treatment are almost always required after a diagnosis is established. However, prevention is always preferable. To that end, a Paleo diet may be particularly useful, especially in those with metabolic syndrome (MetS).
MetS can be thought of as a form of pre-CVD and pre-diabetes. It is defined by a combination of risk factors associated with both diseases. A 2014 study discovered that adopting a Paleo diet instead of conventional dietary advice resulted in dramatic changes in virtually all risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome.
Perhaps more impressive is that even healthy individuals tend to respond well to a huntergatherer diet. According to a 2008 experiment in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, as little as 3 weeks of Paleolithic living can help you shed excess body fat, weight and improve cardiovascular biomarkers oxidative status, potassium-sodium rate, systolic blood pressure and more. This is prevention in action.
Still not convinced? Several studies reveal that Paleolithic diets satisfy hunger more efficiently than other eating plans such as the Mediterranean diet. Preliminary research indicates that alterations in gut hormones are likely responsible for the positives effects on appetite regulation. This alone is cause for celebration for many of us. Additionally, emerging data suggests that eating more like our ancestors may confer a broad range of health benefits, including protection against age-related visual decline, childhood epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and precancerous colorectal adenomas. This is all to say that the future of this old school diet seems very promising indeed.
John Paul Fanton, based in Los Angeles, California, is a consultant, researcher and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of natural medicine. He designs unique nutritional plans, mind-body (meditation, mindfulness, etc.) and vitamin/supplement programs for individual clients who are interested in improving overall health, weight and wellness. You can find his weekly column on the Healthy Fellow.
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