Primal diet found to be more satisfying than a Mediterranean one

For many of us, this time of year brings with it generally greater opportunity to eat more than is strictly necessary. While I do not particularly believe in sacrifice or deprivation, I do think it’s useful to be aware of strategies that can be used to prevent over-consumption of food and drink with ease and, importantly, without hunger. And one approach that tends to reap dividends here is focusing on eating a diet that sates the appetite most effectively.

For a given number of calories, not all types of food sate the appetite to the same extent. While many factors can play a part here, two factors that appear to be particularly important are the protein content of food and its glycaemic index (the speed and extent to which it disrupts blood sugar levels). Generally speaking, protein is the most sating element of the diet, and lower GI foods are more sating than those of higher GI. I wrote about this most recently here, where I reported on a study which suggests that higher-protein, lower-GI diets are best for those seeking to keep weight off once they’ve lost it.

One type of diet that fulfils these criteria is a Paleolithic or ‘primal’ diet, essentially a ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet based on foods eaten prior to the introduction of reltaively novel foods including grains and dairy products. Such a diet would include meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Most people who revert to this sort of diet find themselves generally well-sated by food, to the extent that they eat less than they ordinarily do without any undue hunger. The usual result? Weight loss (where there is weight to lose) without pangs of hunger that gnaw at the resolve. In short, such a diet generally makes successful weight loss sustainable.

I was interested to read a recent study in which the appetite-sating properties of a Paleolithic diet were pitted against a Mediterranean diet in men [1]. The Paleolithic diet emphaised lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, root vegetables, eggs and nuts. The Mediterranean diet was based on wholegrains, low-fat dairy products, vegetables, fruit, fish, vegetable oils and margarine. Study participants were able to eat as much as they liked of the foods available to them. The study lasted 12 weeks.

Left to their own devices, individuals eating the Paleolithic diet ate an average of 1385 calories per day. The Mediterranean diet eating group, on the other hand, ate an average of 1815 calories per day. Both groups were similarly sated. The interpretation? The Paleo diet, for a given number of calories, was significantly more sating than the Mediterranean diet.

This finding, I think, is utterly in line with the experiences of individuals I describe above, who when they shift to a primal diet find themselves less hungry and less in need of food quite naturally.

There can be a tendency at this time of year to cut back on food at certain times of the day (breakfast is a classic time for this) in an effort to balance out expected excesses at other times (e.g. lunch and dinner). I don’t recommend this at all. In fact, I encourage the opposite approach: eat enough of the right foods to ensure that we’re not ravenous before meals which makes it easy to eat moderately, particularly of not-so-healthy foods. A good ‘primal’ start to the day might be some eggs, perhaps with some smoked salmon, and maybe some mushrooms and tomatoes. Such a breakfast, coupled with some nuts in between meals if necessary, will usually ensure that we can enjoy whatever festive foods are available, with little or no tendency to overeat.


1. Jonsson T, et al. A Paleolothic det is more satiating per calorie than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2010;30(7):85 [epub ahead of print]

15 Responses to Primal diet found to be more satisfying than a Mediterranean one

  1. Joanne Lonergan 13 December 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    I’m not so sure that ‘mediterraneans’ base their diets on wholegrains anyway. My partner’s family are half Italian and I’ve spent a lot of time, over the years, eating with Italian families in Italy and the meals always seem to be meat/fish-based and with lots of amazingly cooked vegetables and a beautiful fruit bowl for everyone to pick at. There will always be a bread bowl but I notice hardly anyone dips into it and if they do they take the smallest piece to have with a little parma ham or other antipasti or to dip in the soup. I mentioned this point once, to a large and boisterous group of Italian friends, saying dieticians in Britain seem to imagine that the Italian long-livedness is down to all the risottos and pastas they’re consuming. ‘Oh no’, they all said. ‘That stuff’ll make you fat’. According to these friends that ‘pasta is good for you stuff’ is spun by the tourist industry, it’s cheaper to produce with a bigger profit line for the restaurant. It’s good for the economy, they said.( I told them they were killing the British and nobody stopped laughing for about ten minutes!)
    I wonder if anyone has researched what mediterraneans actually eat rather than what we’re told they eat, and maybe we’re concentrating on the wrong thing, eg how much meat and veg do they buy compared to the British? How ironic if nobody but the British are actually eating ‘The Mediterranean Diet’!

  2. Jill H 14 December 2010 at 4:59 am #

    I agree with Joanne. The description given of a ‘mediterranean’ diet is not as I have experienced or understood but sounds very much like a ‘food experts’ interpretation. The non specific vegetable oils or margarine; based on wholegrains and low-fat dairy products seem to me ‘modern’ additions. It is my understanding that the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are a lesson in synergy – generations handing down a way of eating that has proved very healthful not from one component, but because of the ‘whole’. The magic is in the way the foods interact in the recipes.Using fresh foods in season. Daphne Miller writes in her book ‘The Jungle Effect’ on the cuisine of Crete “fava beans, lentils, wild greens and fresh green herbs, tomatoes, olives, artichokes, fish and octopus, hard barley rusks goat and sheep cheeses, snails, lamb, chicken, yogurt, figs, lemons, oranges …. and pool after pool of delicious olive oil washed down with a glass of wine. ….the olive oil and lemon increased the availability of the nutrients in the greens; the wine and lemon broke down the phytic acid in the rusks; … antioxidants in the greens and olive oil prevented lipid peroxidation of fats’. The eating of ‘meze’ similar to the ‘tapas’ of Spain – small dishes that collectively make up a meal and shared by everyone is also thought to be a very healthful and satisfying way of eating.

  3. claz 15 December 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    very interesting article. i have always struggled with my weight and was looking into the atkins diet. but i think dr briffa’s arguments re. the primal diet makes more sense. i do find that protein based foods satisfy me longer, and i couldnt live without fruit and veg, but i could eat a loaf of bread and keep going back for more.
    just wondering has anyone here lost weight eating along the principles of the primal diet?

  4. Kate 16 December 2010 at 2:03 am #

    claz – I lost about 3 stones 3 years ago following a primal diet and I’ve kept it off by sticking (more or less) with primal eating. The key thing is to listen to your body and you will find you eat less, as Dr Briffa says in this article. After a while, the desire for bread etc will go.

    Dr Briffa, what do you think of intermittent fasting? After following a primal diet, I found I’m not hungry until about 3pm so I don’t eat until then. If I have breakfast (family events etc) I feel sluggish all day. I’ve since read about IF and it seems I was doing this unintentionally.

  5. claz 17 December 2010 at 8:44 am #

    thanks kate for your comment. have ordered ‘waist disposal’ to equip myself with a good understanding of what’s involved but have a positive feeling about embarking on this change.

  6. simon 17 December 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    I’ve carried extra weight for two decades or more. When I had managed to get lean in the past it had been down to exercise. But shin splints on one occasion and a knee injury on another interrupted regular routine of running and any ambitions to enter half-marathons. Weight gain followed despite being fairly active. For much of the last twenty years I have been 25 kg overweight and insulin resistant; ‘officially’ type 2 diabetic in the eyes of our health service.

    I had become increasingly interested and alerted to the weaknesses of the ‘modern diet’ by making comparisons to the diets of pre-history. I was coming around to thinking that two features of the modern diet are especially disruptive. First, too much reliance upon, and consumption of, the energy dense carbohydrate sources such as sugar, bread, wheat, pasta, rice, potatoes not in step with our past, and second, the modern diet, with inclusion of food subject to process, includes a lot of fats and oils of type and quantity that are not in step in step with our past either.

    For the last eighteen months I have been more selective in my choice of oils, ditching margarine for butter, avoiding processed foods containing vegetable oils, and eating animal fats without a conscience. I noticed a difference. I no longer experience the muscle lethargy can be a symptom of type 2 diabetes, and i experience less moodiness too.

    Recently I chanced upon Waist Disposal. It is a fantastic book. Its cram packed. I had to read it twice! But it was the jolt I needed to put the theory to the test. Thank you Dr Briffa!

    I now avoid or limit those energy dense ‘staples’. I eat lots of eggs either as eggs and spinach, or as an oven baked tortilla (omelette), Cubes of tortilla are regularly in my lunchbox. And I follow Dr Briffas ‘primal principles’. The experience is a revelation! Pangs are a thing of the past. I generally graze regularly rather than gorge. The ‘feel’ of my stomach is different – generally no sense of bloating, reduced compulsion to eat more at a sitting, and a distinct rise in my energy levels, physical and mental.

    Because I feel so different I do not feel so conscious about the progress of weight loss BUT the scales do confirm the loss of 5 kg over a month or two.

    Waist Disposal works. TY Dr B.

  7. Peter Deadman 17 December 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    There are many valid arguments against the primal diet. Unless one is vegetarian, it seems to rely on a high proportion of meat, fish and other animal foods. Apart from weight and health issues, such a diet is probably economically and ecologically unsustainable. My understanding is that studies of still extant hunter-gatherers has shown that the gatherers (mostly women) supply the vast proportion of the calories (vegetable foods mostly) while the hunters (men) bring home the bacon much less often than we suppose. So a mostly vegetarian diet with small amounts of meat or fish is probably sustainable and healthy. I feel, though, that it’s hard to renounce or denounce the enormous development in human civilisation that farming cereal carbohydrates has brought us. And we should remember that most of the world is still fed on (and would starve without) cereal based diets (rice, wheat, maize, millet, buckwheat etc.). Within a traditional diet there’s no reason to suppose these make people fat or unhealthy. But then traditional peoples usually work hard and eat relatively little which is likely to be the most important factor in diet.

  8. rayUSA 17 December 2010 at 9:54 pm #

    Primal diet works!!! and more energy too.

    I agree with this. Also avoiding grains and gluten AND DAIRY can help with many illnesses.

    Read up on the GF/CF diet for Autism cures.


  9. Joseph Putnoki 17 December 2010 at 11:22 pm #

    To post 2:
    I also have Italian and Greek friends. Some run a traditional cuisine home some others are just a corrupted version of it. The two ends of the scale for me illustrate my Greek friend and family who are reluctant to eat out and prefer home cooked meals started off with some herring, salads bread then soup or fish or meat varieties, steamed vegetables, salad that includes greens that gardeners treat as weed, sometimes rice, noodles, chickpeas, but often peas dried beans and lentils. No desert. Greek coffee. They growled at me calling it Turkish coffee! They don’t make pizzas, but do sometimes spaghetti or lasagna. They eat fruit and bake some cakes. The Italian friend loves spaghetti and cook it often eat bread with it, eat little meat or salad, eat some fruit, eat6 pizza if going out, no concept of nutrition, both obese.
    I visited a number of Italian restaurants where spaghetti is served with bread and grated Parmesan cheese, Minestrone soup served with bread rolls etc.

  10. Liz Downunder 18 December 2010 at 11:55 am #

    Excellent article and closely mirrors the experiences of myself and my husband. Since going ‘primal’ we rarely need to snack and when hungry we don’t have the desperate, gnawing hunger we used to. Going without food for hours during the day is easy.

    And Peter Deadman, you are dead wrong. I haven’t yet heard a valid argument against the primal diet.

  11. Barbara Shead 18 December 2010 at 1:49 pm #

    I agree with this article and have found that my diet has evolved to a diet very similar to the primal diet as I find I cannot tolerate a high carb diet due to inflammatory bowel conditions.
    I have studied nutrition and recently qualified as a Nutritional Therapist and this knowledge has helped to me further modify my diet to include some low GI carbs but I would say that I personally find I have to include some oats in my diet to help bowel regularity both for the fibre and bulk. Oats are naturally low GI of course but are a grain but oats are purported to have lots of other positive attributes including assisting hormonal clearance and helping to regularise cholesterol. I would personally therefore recommend such a primal diet with the inclusion of low GI plus some oats.

  12. Richard 19 December 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    Peter Deadman – You probably are right that a primal diet is not sustainable, or at least I would add that it is probably not sustainable for the whole of the world’s population, there are just so many of us, we are a plague. However, it may be possible for developed countries to eat a primal diet.

    Also some people can seemingly eat anything and still be robust and healthy, though this is not the case for the majority. Cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, diabetes and cancer are very common and these seem to have strong lifestyle and dietary connections.

    I think that the Chinese knowledge of ‘food energetics’ is a way of making the best of a survival diet that includes grains and beans… but it can be a very complex system. Many Chinese are heavily reliant on rice to survive and diabetes is a problem there.

    There is no doubt that civilisation is built on grains, but long term health is not, especially if there is a heavy reliance on them.

  13. George 25 February 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    I never really figured out what the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ was. I know that some Mediterranean countries (Spain and Italy) have twice the rate of diabetes than we have in the UK (all that pasta?). And my Spanish friend (albeit slim) informed me that the Catalan diet was very much bread based. However, this was at odds with what I saw where the diet was quite heavy in seafood, cured meats and cheese. What I HAVE noticed in different Mediterranean countries is the prevalence of quality breads, not the cotton wool that we are used to seeing.


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