Our modern diet has been implicated in the pathogenesis of many of the diseases that afflict civilized industrial societies of today. The Western diet in particular has been targeted as the cause of the obesity epidemic, increasing rates of type 2 diabetes, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The current Western diet contains large amounts of processed sugars and carbohydrates, is high in saturated fats, and relies highly on high fructose corn syrup. These ingredients increase insulin secretion and predispose to glucose intolerance and accelerate atherosclerosis. Many have argued that a Paleolithic diet is a more healthy diet that can avoid the diseases of modern civilization. Paleolithic diets are modeled after the diets that our ancestors consumed prior to the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the past century. Paleolithic diets are high in meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, and nuts, but avoid legumes, dairy products, and processed grains and cereals. A Paleolithic diet is thought to model the physiology that our ancestors developed through millions of years of evolution.
Researchers, lead by Dr. LA Frassetto from the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, have investigated that metabolic consequences of following a Paleolithic diet and have found that improvements in overall metabolism can be achieved. The results of their research were published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The researchers studies nine nonobese sedentary volunteers and compared metabolic parameters while eating their usual diet and while eating a Paleolithic diet. Compared to their usual diet, the study participants showed reductions in blood pressure with improved arterial distensibility, reductions in plasma insulin, and reductions in total cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides while on the Paleolithic diets.
The authors wrote, “This was a preliminary study conducted to see whether future research in larger numbers of subjects would be needed… What we can say with this study is that even the most ‘normal’ of our healthy sedentary subjects showed an improvement in their [blood pressure] and glucose tolerance, a decrease in insulin secretion and an increase in insulin sensitivity, and a great improvement in their lipid profiles without weight loss in less than 2 weeks on the Paleo diet—all important factors that would be necessary in any potential cure for the metabolic syndrome”.
This study is encouraging and suggests that significant improvements in metabolism and health can be achieved by following a Paleolithic diet. One limitation of the study is that the number of study participants was small. The study findings will need to be reproduced on a larger scale in order to completely validate the findings. From a theoretical standpoint, following a diet that more closely mimics the diet of our hunter gatherer ancestors should be healthier. The diet of modern society, especially with the proliferation of ‘fast food’ establishments, has changed significantly from the diet that our human physiology has adapted to through eons of evolution. Following a Paleolithic diet should allow most people to improve blood pressure, improve glucose tolerance, decrease insulin secretion, and maintain improved lipid profiles.
LA Frassetto et al. (2009) “Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 63 (8): 947–55. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2009.4