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Paleolithic Diet Provides A Unique Look at Food Groups and Health

While we cannot be certain about the details of what our human ancestors ate over two million years ago, researchers have long been interested in diets of the distant past, and what has more recently been referred to as a "Paleolithic diet." What's most striking about this type of diet, of course, is the fact that over two million years ago, our ancestors did not have widespread access to grains since grains were not yet cultivated as food crops. For this reason, cereal grains (even whole grains) are generally omitted from a Paleolithic diet. Another striking feature of this diet type is the general absence of dairy products since cows were not raised for either milk or beef during Paleolithic times.

Researchers in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Lund University in Lund, Sweden have published a fascinating study involving the Paleolithic diet, heart health, and type 2 diabetes. Even though this study was very small in size and involved only 13 adults (all diagnosed with type 2 diabetes), the high quality of the study and its results make it fascinating for anyone interested in healthy eating.

Participants in this study were divided into two groups, and each group followed a very different diet plan. The first group followed a Paleolithic diet. In this diet, they steered clear of grains, consuming an average of only 11 grams per day for all grains except rice. They also avoided dairy products, consuming a daily average of 16 grams. On a daily basis, those amounts represent the equivalent of approximately one-third of a slice of 100% whole grain bread per day and one tablespoon of milk. The second group followed a much more traditional diabetic diet, averaging 172 grams of whole grains per day and 183 grams of low-fat dairy products. Those levels are the equivalent of approximately 3-4 slices of whole grain bread and 6 ounces of milk. Both groups consumed vegetables, although the Paleolithic group was encouraged to consume primarily leafy and cruciferous vegetables and to restrict their root vegetable intake (consuming no more than one starchy root vegetable—like potato—per day) while the conventional diabetic diet group was encouraged to increase their root vegetable intake whenever possible. Both groups also consumed fruits. Paleolithic diet participants were encouraged to consume lean meat and fish as well as nuts (preferably walnuts) and also to include eggs when desired in their diet (up to two per day).

Perhaps the single most fascinating result of this study was the lower level of calories (1,581 versus 1,878) consumed by the Paleolithic diet group. Some aspect of their diet plan apparently enabled them to feel satisfied on about 15% less food. This lower calorie intake allowed the Paleolithic diet participants to make greater improvements in their BMI (Body Mass Index, a measurement of muscle-to-fat ratio) and WC (waist circumference, a measurement of middle body fat deposits) than the conventional diabetic diet group.

In addition to these weight management benefits, the Paleolithic diet also allowed participants to make more improvements in their fasting blood sugar levels, their blood pressure, and their insulin balance than participants who followed a conventional diabetic diet. These results were especially interesting, since blood sugar balance can be more difficult to control if too many high-sugar fruits are consumed, and if too little overall dietary fiber is consumed. However, the fruit intake of the Paleolithic group was nearly double the fruit intake of the conventional diabetic diet group, and the Paleolithic total fiber intake was slightly lower at an average of 21 versus 26 grams. (Even though the Paleolithic group consumed more vegetable and fruit fiber than the conventional diet group, the conventional group came out ahead in total dietary fiber by consuming much larger amounts of whole grains.) The diverse nutritional benefits of fresh fruits and the benefits of vegetable fiber and fruit fiber (versus grain fiber) may have been contributing factors to the better blood sugar results that were experienced by these Paleolithic dieters. It is also worth noting that the Paleolithic diet participants were also able to raise their HDL-cholesterol levels—a change that is widely regarded as lowering the risk of heart problems.

Also fascinating in this Swedish study was the lower overall glycemic index for Paleolithic foods. (Glycemic index is a method of measuring the immediate impact of a high-carb food on your blood sugar level.) Since glycemic index is becoming increasingly popular as a standard for selection of high-carb foods in a diabetic diet, it may be important to consider the potential health benefits of a Paleolithic diet in this regard.

We see some clear overlap between a Paleolithic diet, a Mediterranean diet, and our approach to diet at the World's Healthiest Foods. First is the obvious emphasis on fruits and vegetables. Second is the welcoming of high-quality fats into the diet, including the high-quality fats found in nuts and fish. Inclusion of high-quality fats—especially omega-3 fats found in foods like walnuts and salmon—is a common component here. Finally is the decreased emphasis on grains and dairy in comparison to the average U.S. diet. It's striking to see individuals with type 2 diabetes gaining better control over their blood sugar and body composition—and feeling more satisfied with less total food intake—when they shift toward a greater amounts of non-starchy vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, and lean meats in their diet and away from large amounts of dairy products or grains.

WHFOODS RECOMMENDATIONS:

Don't assume that you are going to need large amounts of grain products (like breads or pasta) in order to feel satisfied with your diet. You may end up feeling more satisfied with smaller amounts of these foods! In addition, don't feel like you will need to avoid high-fat foods (like nuts or fatty fish) in order to improve your cardiovascular health. These foods can actually improve your heart health when incorporated into an overall healthy diet.

Vegetables form a cornerstone of the World's Healthiest Foods and Healthiest Way of Eating. You'll find links to over 30 of them on our Foods:A-Z list. Click on your favorites to learn more about their health benefits, nutritional profiles, and practical tips that can help you more readily include them in your meals.

Want to learn more about omega-3 fatty acids and see what this important nutrient group—concentrated in fish, nuts, and seeds—can do for your health? Our write-up on it—located here—will provide you with great insights on its benefits and the World's Healthiest Foods most concentrated in it.

If you're looking for delicious recipes that will turn vegetables and fish into mouth-watering meals, visit our Recipe page. On it you'll find the Recipe Assistant, which will help you identify recipes that feature the specific foods that you are interested in.

References

  • Jonsson T, Granfeldt Y, Ahren B, et al. Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2009 Jul 16;8:35. 2009.

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