The Paleo Diet - Overcoming Obesity, Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome

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Each and every year there a new dietary trends that spring up, promising to upgrade your health and accelerate weight loss. Over the past decade, the Paleo diet has gained significant attention in magazines, blogs, and gyms across the country. Is eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors really the path to better health and weight loss? or is this simply just another trend that will go extinct sometime soon?

The principles of a Paleo diet emphasize lean meats from grass-fed and wild sources, plenty of vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats while eliminating grains and dairy. Many dietary myths and dogma that have been embedded in the public consciousness – fear of high cholesterol, saturated fats, and high protein intake to name a few – are confronted on a Paleo diet and its momentum into the mainstream seems to lie in the fact that the latest research is highlighting some very compelling findings.

The Paleo diet has been shown to improve metabolic syndrome, diabetes (type-2), obesity, cardiovascular disease and systemic inflammation compared to other diets. Let’s take a look in more detail.

Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a collection of symptoms - high blood pressure, high blood sugars, excessive body-fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol or triglycderide levels — that increase a client’s risk of heart disease, diabetes (type-2) and stroke.

A recent randomized control trial compared the effects of the Paleo diet on 34 individuals with metabolic syndrome compared to an isoenergetic healthy control diet. The Paleo diet lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, reduced cholesterol and triglycerides and raised good HDL cholesterol to a significantly greater degree than the control diet.(1) Pretty impressive after only a two-week intervention.

Diabetes (type-2)

Currently, two-thirds of the North American population is overweight, one-third of whom are classified as obese. The average sugar consumption per person per year has topped 160 pounds, while only two generations it was a paltry 40 pounds per year. The excessive intake of simple sugars and carbs is a primary risk factor for the development of diabetes (type-2).

How does the Paleo diet stack up against other diabetes diets? The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently found that the Paleo diet improved blood sugars, insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles significantly more than the standard diet by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) after two weeks.(2)  Let me repeat... The Paleo diet beats the ADA recommended diet head-to-head (In fact, the ADA recommended diet has never beaten the Paleo diet, or a low-carb diet in head-to-head trials. Doesn't say much for our current advice). In clinical practice, I see time and time again this scenario time and time again and growing body of research is showing the reductions in carbohydrates is a key contributor to this success in diabetic and pre-diabetic patients.

Cardiovascular Disease

If you’re overweight or out of shape than you’re likely at increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Unfortunately, the typical western diet is high in carbohydrates (and calorie-rich processed foods) which has been shown to dramatically increase systemic inflammation and risk factors for heart disease.(3)  The misguided fear of animal protein and saturated fats leads many doctors and nutritionists to advise their patients to avoid meat – in an effort to keep cholesterol and saturated fat intake down – and add more grains and cereals in the diet.

The trouble with this approach is that the research shows that increasing carbohydrate intake in overweight populations dramatically increases plasma saturated fat levels putting clients at greater risk of CVD and stroke.(4) Ironically, it’s also become clear in the past few years that increasing dietary saturated fat intake does not lead to an increase in these dangerous plasma saturated fats. Believing that dietary saturated fats are the culprit is a common mistake made by doctors.

Obesity

The Paleo diet can be the ideal template for adopting a low-carb diet and when it comes to weight loss the research shows that reducing carbohydrate intake is a powerful tool for not only burning fat but improving many key health parameters as well. A recent meta-analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition of over 1,000 subjects showed that low-carb diets yielded greater weight loss, not to mention superior improvements in blood sugars, blood pressure, triglycerides and good HDL cholesterol.(5)

Using Paleo or ancestral dietary pattern is not just the latest fad diet, but an effective eating strategy to support better health and body composition. Like most all successful eating patterns, the Paleo diet helps to produce a caloric deficit (without much effort), avoids 100% of processed foods and supports satiety and hunger via the increased intake of protein you naturally gravitate to when adopting this approach.

Does this everyone needs to follow a Paleo diet to improve health and lose weight? Absolutely not. You can lose weight and improve health on a low-fat diet, vegan or vegetarian diet, a balanced macro approach, etc. so long as you achieve the desired caloric intake to match your demands, feel satiated and can stick with your diet in the long-term. 

Context is everything. If you're a doctor or practitioner with limited time with clients and/or work with populations (i.e. obese, metabolic syndrome, etc) who typically have low compliance then finding strategies that are simple to follow, evidence-based and effective is crucial. I've found Paleo diets (or low-carb diets) very effective. It's simply a starting point. (Of course, remember... This doesn't mean I use this approaches when working with team sport and endurance athletes, figure competitors and bodybuilders, or fitter individuals seeking fat loss.) As clients begin seeing improvements, tailoring the diet to suit the clients lifestyle (and tastes) is crucial to promote optimal adherence in the long run.

Context is everything. I use all types of eating methods in my practice - low-carb, low-fat (high-carb), balance macro, intermittent fasting , etc - it all depends on the individual client in front of me and their goals. A low-carb Paleo diet can be a great place to start to get obese and metabolically broken clients back on track. At the end of the day, virtually all practitioners would agree that a diet low in processed foods, sugar and rich in vegetables is going to be a solid foundation for health.


Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, MS(c), CISSN, CSCS

ps. Stay-tuned for an upcoming post on how low-fat vegan diets can accomplish similar results with a completely different eating pattern!

Check out more articles in the PALEO SERIES...

 

References

1)    Boers I, Muskiet F et al. Favourable effects of consuming a Palaeolithic-type diet on characteristics of the metabolic syndrome: a randomized controlled pilot-study. Lipids Health Dis. 2014 Oct 11;13:160. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-13-160.

2)    Masharani U, Sherchan P et al. Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes. Eur J Clin Nutr 2015 Apr 1. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2015.39.

3)    Buyken AE et al. Carbohydrate nutrition and inflammatory disease mortality in older adults. Am J Clin Nutr.2010;92(3):634-43.

4)    Brittanie M. Volk1, Laura J. et al. . Effects of Step-Wise Increases in Dietary Carbohydrate on Circulating Saturated Fatty Acids and Palmitoleic Acid in Adults with Metabolic Syndrome. Plos One November 21, 2014.

5)    Bueno N, de Melo I, et al. Very-low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet v. low-fat diet for long-term weight loss: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br J Nutr. 2013 Oct;110(7):1178-87. doi: 10.1017/S0007114513000548.