Paleolithic diet again found to bring rapid health-related benefits

In May of last year I wrote about a study which tested the effects of a so-called paleolithic diet ” a diet based on the foods eaten prior to about 10,000 years when it’s believed some of our ancestors converted from being to hunger-gatherers to agriculturalists. The paleolithic diet is one which contains ‘primal’ foods such as meat, vegetables, fruit and nuts, but is devoid of nutritional newcomers like refined sugar, grain-based foods, dairy products and legumes (beans and lentils).

In the study I reported in May [1], individuals ate an average of 900 calories less per day than they had been previously for three weeks. Not surprisingly, they lost weight (an average of 2.3 kg/5 lbs). But in addition, there were other benefits for the study subjects in the form of reduced blood pressure and a considerable reduction in the levels of a substance known as plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (this would be expected to reduce the clotting tendency of the blood, which might translate into a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke).

The effects of the paleolithic diet were once again assessed in a recent study published on-line in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition [2]. This study subjected 9 men and women to a paleolithic diet for just 10 days. In the preceding 7 days, their usual diet was morphed into the paleolithic diet in the form of three diets which contained steadily more potassium and fibre.

The paleoloithic diet that the subjects ate for 10 days was made up of meat (chicken, pork, turkey), vegetables (e.g. lettuce, spinach, broccoli, salad, parsnips), fruit (pineapple, melon), honey and nuts (almonds). The diet emphasised lean meat (while the true paleolithic diet was unlikely to be particularly lean) also included foods that you can’t imagine our early ancestors eating (tomato soup, guacamole, carrot juice, mayonnaise), but the basic make-up of the diet was, overall, reflective of the foods we ate prior to the agricultural age.

While weight loss is often experienced on a paleolithic-type diet, the authors of this study were most certainly not interested in this: if someone in the study was found to be losing weight they were instructed to eat more to counteract this. The aim was to see if such a diet might produce physiological/metabolic benefits, even in the absence of weight loss.

Weight aside, the subjects experienced significant changes in a number of parameters. These included:

Reduced blood pressure

Lower fasting insulin levels (levels fell from an average of 11.5 to 3.6 µU/ml)

Lower insulin secretion after ingestion of glucose

Lower levels of total cholesterol

Lower levels of LDL-cholesterol

Lower triglyceride levels

These changes, taken as a whole, would be expected to translate into a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease if sustained.

While the number of individuals in this study was relatively small, one perhaps notable finding is that the results were very consistent: 8 or 9 of the group (remember, the group only contained 9 people) were found to experience each of the changes listed above. The suggestion here is that such a diet may have broad benefits for a population, though larger studies would be required to confirm this.

What is also striking, I think, about the results is just how quickly the changes came. There was a run-in of a week, but the full-blown paleolithic diet lasted a mere 10 days. It does seem that returning to the diet of our past can bring about very rapid benefits in terms of our physiology and biochemistry going forward.

References:

1. -sterdahl M, et al. Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2008;62:682″685

2. Frassetto LA, et al. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr 11 Feb 2009 [Epub ahead of print]

24 Responses to Paleolithic diet again found to bring rapid health-related benefits

  1. Peter Silverman 9 March 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    It would be interesting to know if eating 900 calories a day less was responsible for the changes, or the composition of the diet.

  2. Dr John Briffa 10 March 2009 at 12:06 am #

    Peter

    Just to be clear, the 900 calorie-a-day deficit applied to a previous study, not the study that was the focus of this post.

  3. audrey wickham 13 March 2009 at 6:14 pm #

    I expect the hunter gatherers were hungry.

    When did pineapples grow in England? Wouldn’t people living East/South of Suez have eaten a lot of rice/carbohydrates?
    Nevertheless I will try this diet and see what happens.

  4. Lars O. Berglund 13 March 2009 at 6:16 pm #

    “very rapid benefits in terms of our physiology and biochemistry going forward”
    There is a steep incline from my train stop to the house. For years, I had been slowly zigzagging upward. Then I read Wolfgang Lutz and stopped eating all grain-based foods. With a day or two, I was astaounded to find that I was walking straight up, and rather more quickly than before.
    I was around 70 when I cut out bread, spaghetti, etc. I am now 78 and still walk straight up. My heart pressure is said to typical of a 50-year old.

  5. Cali Bird 13 March 2009 at 11:48 pm #

    Dr Briffa

    This looks very interesting. However, if one cuts out grain based food then what would one have for breakfast on a paleolithic diet? Meat and veg doesn’t seem very appealing for this part of the day

  6. Dr John Briffa 14 March 2009 at 12:28 am #

    Cali

    A few suggestions include:

    smoothies (throw some ground nuts in too)
    fruit (dried and/or fresh) and nuts
    omelette
    bacon, egg, mushroom tomato
    scrambled eggs and smoked salmon

    Have a look here too: http://www.brynith.com/blog/2009/02/02/how-to-primal-breakfast/

    Some of these ideas in this link are not really primal/paleolithic (as they contain dairy and/or grain), but most are. Happy breakfast hunting!

  7. Julie Craker 14 March 2009 at 10:24 am #

    So happy to see you stay on the track of the no-grain paleolithic type diet. If I and my partner stay with it, we feel so much better. Love those grains, but always get puffy tummies and feel stuffy full. Our staple breakfast to send the kids off to school with is frozen organic peas and runny yolk organic eggs. Sometimes some baked potato with real butter. They love it and I know they are getting better nutrition. We always have broccoli or some green with our fried egg breakfast and also potato instead of toast. Our alternative is protein shakes with protein powder, banana, berries, and a good dollop of flax oil along with plenty of high quality supplements. We don’t join our friends and acquaintances in their winter time or anytime afflictions and get a lot less rest. Not what we want, but our lives demand that right now and we certainly find that what we consume gives us the stamina we need. The pasta and white bread consumers of my family are plagued with acne, less energy, illnesses, sugar cravings, addictions, and for the older ones signs of degeneration. I am beginning to wonder if there is a more serious connection to the high carb diet and substance abuse than has been acknowledged. Do our brains go for the alcohol and drugs as fuel for neurotransmitters when there is not enough fat and protein to do the job properly?

  8. Hilda Glickman 15 March 2009 at 4:57 am #

    The trouble is that people think that it is ‘natural’ to eat cereals for breakfast when really it is just a marketing ploy. If they ask what is left to eat when you tell them not to eat grains it means that they are relying on these too much. Hilda Glickman

  9. Sylvie 15 March 2009 at 11:49 pm #

    “When did pineapples grow in England?” I have to agree – I strongly agree with the principles of this and any low carb, diet but there are a lot of questions raised regarding whether this would be a diet that paleolithic Britons would have eaten. The addition of the definitely non-palaeolithic foods such as tomato soup and mayo really does beg the question…. I have no problem with the principle of a low carb diet but let’s not pretend that the diet described harks back to ancestors and is therefore justified as a “healthy” diet. Also, shame on you Dr Briffa (who, along with Lesley Kenton, is my nutrition hero) for using a study of 9 people to support your theory – you would be quick to criticise a study that DIDN’T support your theory if it only used 9 people (have you checked that it wasn’t sponsored by the Meat Training Council ;)? ) Finally, did you see the episode of “Medicine Men Go Wild” when the doctors went to the Arctic and both ate the Inuit diet for, I think, 2 weeks with similar results to the above diet? Also not a scientific study but the evidence is slowly mounting…. NB I had sardines and salad for breakfast today…yum………

  10. Trinkwasser 22 March 2009 at 4:42 am #

    More potential breakfasts

    http://loraldiabetes.blogspot.com/2006/10/breakfasts.html

    I favour fish (and meat for a change, usually bacon but also lamb chops!) with salad including a couple of olives and a maximum of two oatcakes with butter.

    High protein moderate fat low carb is the combination that keeps me going longest without blood glucose spikes or drops, the exact opposite of what most people eat and what most dieticians recommend.

    A nice bowl of “healthy” muesli with low fat milk washed down with orange juice and my BG goes through the roof and a couple of hours later through the floor, and I have no energy for hours.

    I worked out my diet pragmatically by doing this

    http://www.alt-support-diabetes.org/NewlyDiagnosed.htm

    controlling the BG controls the insulin levels and insulin resistance and this has knocked on into the lipids and BP exactly as in this study. I didn’t find a specific diet and follow it, the Primal/Paleo/Protein Power type diet found me!

  11. Chris Palmer 24 March 2009 at 8:35 am #

    Dr Briffa,
    This is the 150th year since the publication of Charles Darwins Origin of Species and it took 100 years before his theory could be widely accepted, demonstrated and could be applied correctly.

    Save for a few Creationists humankind has now widely accepted that the forces of nature by way of Evolution determine what we are. It also strikes me that many people occupied in the mainstream delivery of healthcare policy and likewise in those (Yourself excepted, of course!) working in the arena of food and health are slow to catch on that Evolution also determines HOW we function.

    You may judge that I subscribe to the opinion that our disregard for our Evolutionary heritage has landed us with a number of health concerns in the 21st century. Dr Briffas book ‘The True You Diet’ begins with a Chapter examining what did we eat in times past. I highly recommend it. That publication was the catalyst for my renewed interest.

    Rolling back the dietary clock some 10,000 years to what might loosely be termed as ‘Stone Age’ demonstrates that what are regarded as markers, some (many) would say causation, for several of the health concerns of our time are improved both rapidly and markedly to perceived ‘healthier’ values.

    But we owe our existence to billions of years of Evolution. From the very origins of life itself, to the emergence of DNA as the cross-generational code for life, to emergence of early primates, to our divergence from primates and the emergence of Homo genus (pl & sp?). More latterly our genes are imprinted with the consequences of our behavioural and strategic relationship with our habitat and food.

    I wonder how much significance and importance should we attribute to any given moment in our Evolutionary past? And secondly, if we can identify and recognise certain properties and characteristics of life and diet in any given moment in pre-history as being particularly pertinent to our present time should we question that such a diet and lifestyle was ever ‘optimal’.

    Should we regard Evolution in a positive light? Are Humans still evolving?

    Darwin adopted the term ‘Natural Selection’ to describe the process. It should be remembered that in the process a number of potential parents do not get to breed. ‘Natural De-Selection’ would. be a more accurate term. If a species is less than optimally adapted to a habitat then the result is misery and possible premature death for many. How well adapted are we to the 21st c. western developed diet and lifestyle?

    In the wealthy world we have largely eradicated those diseases and conditions that prevent humans from attaining maturity and re-producing. Everybody that would choose to can have off-spring and with minuscule chance of infant mortality. The process of ‘Natural De-Selection’ is very much diminished.

    The trials reported and other similar studies show great merit in turning back the clock.

    Whether ‘Pineapples ever grew in England or ever will’ is largely irrelevant. None of our food in the normal context of provisioning, be it meat, vegetables, or fruit resembles the food of the distant past because we have selectively interfered with nature to breed livestock or cultivars to our perceived advantage. The goal would be to establish how modern food and what of its’ properties best resemble a healthy ‘evo-diet’.

    Clearly this study and others like it suggests some properties and qualities that are helpful to us.

    For anyone who might want to further explore the theme of archeo-nutrition the book “Human Diet; Its’ Origin and Evolution” (Ungar & Teaford pub. 2002 Bergin & Garvey) is highly illuminating, though possibly not without minor fault.
    “The Quest for Food” by Ian Crowe was also recommended to me and took some hunting down. (Try ‘World Books’)

  12. Hilda Glickman 5 April 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    We should be eaten food in an unadulterated form. This would be similar to a Paleolithic diet. Man has adapted food so much that it is now not what we need and does not contain enough nutrients whereas it is full of fats found nowhere in the natural world. Hilda Glickman Nutritionist/ University Lecturer

  13. johnsamuels 26 May 2009 at 9:59 am #

    Julie Craker : A paleolithic diet would not contain potato.

  14. Armando Strain 7 June 2009 at 12:56 am #

    I’m currently in the process of writing a research paper comparing paleo-diets to Western diets and their their link to disease. Does anyone know where to find information relating to the fossil record and its forensic evidence proving the lack of cancers, obesity, tooth decay, diabetes and other Diseases of Civilization in post-modern man? Thanks for the help, everyone!

  15. Dusklover 7 July 2009 at 10:02 pm #

    I’ve been on a paleo-type diet for several months now and the results are amazing. Where the diet excludes legumes and processed oils, I include grapeseed and olive oils , and natural peanut butter.

    I try to eat local produce, and tend to stick to eating seasonally to allow my body temperature to regulate naturally.
    I’ve lost 20 lbs (lost within the first month), have lot’s of energy through the entire day, I’m less irritable and more balanced, my skin is clearer, I don’t need to use deoderant anymore, I have no more joint pains or headaches, my intestinal tract is working optimally, and my immune system is stronger.

    I think that anyone suffering from irritable or inflammatory bowl diseases should try this diet, it pretty much cured me. For IBS and IBD it is a life long diet decision. I also recommend reading “Food and the Gut Reaction” which describes what is happening in the intestines on a molecular and cellular level.

    I just think that the diet makes good sense. We don’t have to be products of our current socio-cultural environments when it comes to food and health.

  16. food dood 30 October 2009 at 5:17 am #

    These “paleo” diets are nothing like our ancestors would have eaten.

    Humans evolved on the grasslands of east Africa. None of the the common fruits, vegetables and nuts in the modern diet were available to our ancestors on the African savannah.

    We know from bone isotope analysis that the human diet prior to agriculture was comprised around 96% meat with almost no plant matter at all.

    The most authentic paleodiet is actually an Inuit Diet – fatty meat and fish with almost no fruit or vegetables and no dairy or grains.

  17. Rich 3 February 2010 at 4:16 pm #

    Hi,

    I’ve recently made some changes to my diet which are similiar to paleolithic – details on my recent blog post – and I’ve got a few questions about this…

    1) Legumes… are they really necessary to omit? The only ones I’ve been eating at the minute are black-eyed beans because they are nutrient rich and highly anti-oxidant.

    2) In the study at the top, beef and lamb are not included in the list of meats. Is there a reason for this?

    3) Currently I am not eating nuts – is there a major reason why I should include them?

    4) I have read that potatoes, parsnips and turnips are poisonous, highly calorific, and low on nutrients – but parsnips were included in the study you mentioned. What is your opinion on them?

    Thanks for the info mate, great article.

    Rich

  18. Drazub 7 June 2010 at 10:08 pm #

    My sister has been forced into using the paleo diet just because she has become intolerant of all the stuff you can’t eat on this diet (and some that are). She has never heard of it.
    I’m convinced. Unfortunately I’m also vegetarian. Meat really doesn’t agree with me and I haven’t eaten it for 35 years so I’m pretty sure it’d be too complicated.

  19. Allan Luchenitser 1 October 2011 at 7:49 pm #

    I’m quite surprised at the inclusion of mayonnaise in the study. Dairy & gluten are usually no no’s on paleo. BTW, my personal experience when on paleo is excellent. You might poop weird for a bit but afterwards the improvement of body and mind is undeniable. Shocking, even. USDA food pyramid is a joke.

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