Is The Paleo Diet Healthy?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Paleo Diet

Did Cave Men Have The Secret For A Longer, Healthier Life?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

the paleo dietIt seems like everyone you talk to is following the Paleo diet or knows someone who is following the Paleo diet. It is the latest diet fad. But, is the Paleo diet healthy?

If you have been around for a few years, like me, you have seen lots of fad diets come and go. They are immensely popular for a few years. Then people discover their weight loss was temporary or they aren’t any healthier, and the diet slowly fades into obscurity.

Is the Paleo diet one of those fad diets that will fade into obscurity, or is it a healthy diet that will stand the test of time? A lot has been written about the Paleo diet, both pro and con. I have analyzed the science behind the claims and counter-claims so I can bring you the truth about the Paleo diet.

 

Unicorns And the Paleo Diet

 

the paleo diet and unicornsI titled this section “Unicorns and the Paleo Diet” because both are myths. In fact, the Paleo Diet is based on several myths.

Myth #1: Our ancestors all had the same diet. What we currently know as the Paleo diet is based on the diets of a few primitive hunter-gatherer societies that still exist in some regions of the world. However, when you look at the data more carefully, you discover that the diet of primitive societies varies with their local ecosystems.

The “Paleo diet” is typical of ecosystems in which game is plentiful and fruits and vegetables are less abundant or are seasonal. In ecosystems where fruits and vegetables are abundant, primitive societies tend to be more gatherers than hunters. They eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat.

The assumption that starchy foods were absent in the paleolithic diet is also a myth. For some primitive societies, starchy fruits or starchy roots are a big part of their diet. In short, our paleolithic ancestors ate whatever nature provided.

Myth #2: Our genetic makeup is hardwired around the “paleolithic diet.” In fact, humans are very adaptable. We are designed to thrive in a wide variety of ecosystems. It is this adaptability that has allowed us to expand to every nook and cranny of the world.

For example, the enzymes needed to digest grains are all inducible, which means the body can turn them on when needed. Our paleolithic ancestors may not have eaten much grain, but we can very quickly adapt to the introduction of grains into our diet.

Myth #3: Our paleolithic ancestors were healthier than modern man: It many respects, the paleolithic diet is healthy, as I will discuss below. However, we need to remember that our paleolithic ancestors rarely lived past 30 or 40. They simply did not live long enough to experience degenerative diseases like heart disease and cancer. We have no idea whether a diet that served our paleolithic ancestors well will keep us healthy into our 70s, 80s and beyond.

However, just because the Paleo diet is based on mythology does not mean that it isn’t healthy. Let’s look at the pros and cons of the Paleo diet.

 

The Pros Of The Paleo Diet

 

the paleo diet thumbs upThere are lots of things to like about the Paleo diet. For example:

  • It eliminates sodas, fast foods, processed foods, sugar and salt. Any diet that does that is a vast improvement over the typical American diet.
  • It emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, another big improvement over the typical American diet.
  • It has a healthier profile of fats than the other low carb diets. It favors grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, and free-range chicken, so it has less saturated fat and more omega-3s. It also emphasizes healthy oils such as olive, walnut, avocado, and flaxseed. In this regard, it is clearly healthier than the other low carb diets. It does include coconut oil, which is a concern. As I have pointed out in a previous article, Is Coconut Oil Bad For You, there is no convincing evidence that coconut oil is healthy.
  • It emphasizes use of unrefined or extra virgin oils rather than refined oils. That is a plus for most oils because the unrefined oils are more likely to contain antioxidants and beneficial phytonutrients. It is, however, a concern for coconut oil because the unrefined oil is more likely to contain cancer-causing aflatoxins.
  • Like most other restrictive diets that eliminate processed foods, it can give short term weight loss, although long term weight loss is less certain.

 

The Cons Of The Paleo Diet

the paleo diet thumbs down

There are, however, some concerns about the Paleo diet. Other experts have commented on the cost and difficulty in following the diet, especially if you eat out a lot, so I won’t comment on those aspects here. I will stick with nutritional concerns with the Paleo diet. For example:

  • It eliminates cereal grains, legumes, and dairy. I am always concerned with the nutritional adequacy of diets that eliminate whole food groups. For example:
    • Dairy is a major source of calcium and vitamin D in the American diet. Eliminating dairy has the potential to increase the risk of osteoporosis.
    • Whole grains, legumes and dairy are important sources of magnesium. Magnesium deficiency has the potential to increase the risk of heart disease, among other things.
    • Most Americans are already not getting enough of these nutrients in their diet. We can scarcely afford to eliminate foods that are good sources of these nutrients.
    • It is possible to carefully design a Paleo diet so these nutrients are provided by other foods, but most people don’t carefully design their daily diet.
  • It recommends increasing protein intake to 19 – 35% of calories. Because legumes have been eliminated, the increased protein intake is coming almost entirely from animal protein, primarily red meat and fish. I will discuss the health concerns with red meat below. However, there is a practical consideration as well. Grass-fed beef is not always available, especially if you eat out frequently. If you are not eating grass-fed beef, you will be taking in more saturated fats and the healthier fat profile of the Paleo diet will disappear.
  • It has been influenced by the recent hype about health benefits of coconut oil. Coconut oil is just one of several oils that are recommended. However, if you look on the internet today, coconut oil is featured in almost every Paleo diet recipe. Until we have definitive evidence whether or not coconut oil is healthy, I would emphasize the other oils recommended for the Paleo diet, and use coconut oil sparingly.
  • There are no studies showing the Paleo diet is healthy long term. In contrast, there are long term studies showing that Vegan, Mediterranean, and DASH diets decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and Alzheimer’s.

 

Concerns About Red Meat

the paleo diet red meatThe International Agency For Research On Cancer (IARC), the agency created by the WHO to set international standards for cancer risk, has designated red meat as a class 2a carcinogen. That designation means that there is probable cause to believe that it increases cancer risk in humans. The evidence is best for increased risk of colon cancer and breast cancer, although there is some evidence that it may increase risk of pancreatic and prostate cancer.

The increased cancer risk of red meat does not seem to be due to its fat content, so grass fed beef is just as likely to increase cancer risk as conventionally produced beef. There are multiple proposed mechanisms for this effect:

  • When fat and juices from the meat drip onto an open flame, carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons are formed that stick to the surface of the meat. This can be reduced, but not eliminated, by lower fat meat choices.
  • When red meats are cooked at high temperatures, amino acids in the meat combine with a compound called creatine, which is found in all red meats, to form carcinogenic heterocyclic amines. This can be reduced by cooking the meat at lower temperatures.
  • Heme iron, which is found in all red meats, combines with other component of our diet to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds in our intestines.
  • People who eat high meat diets have an entirely different population of intestinal bacteria than people who eat no meat. Several recent studies suggest that the intestinal bacteria of meat eaters are more likely to convert the foods we eat into chemicals that increase the risk of cancer and heart disease.

To be clear, red meat is a probable carcinogen and we aren’t sure of the exact mechanism(s) that cause this carcinogenicity. We do not yet have definitive evidence that red meat causes cancer. However, there is good reason to be cautious about how much red meat we consume.

The good news is that the antioxidants, fiber and phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables can block most of these cancer-causing pathways. That means that small amounts of red meat in a largely plant-based diet may not be as concerning. Specifically, an ounce of red meat in a large green salad or stir fry is much less likely to increase your cancer risk than a 6 ounce steak.

Is The Paleo Diet Healthy?

 

As mentioned above, there is a lot to like about the Paleo diet. It is healthier than the typical American diet, and it is healthier than most of the low carb diets. I have concerns about the nutrition adequacy of any diet that eliminates whole food groups and the heavy emphasis on red meat. There is also no proof that the Paleo diet is healthy long term.

Since the restrictions of the Paleo diet are based on mythology rather than science, my recommendation would be to loosen the restrictions on whole grains, legumes & low-fat dairy, and rely less on red meat as a protein source. If you did that, the diet would more closely resemble the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which we know are healthy long term.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  1. The Paleo diet is based on a myth.
    • Our paleolithic ancestors did not eat a single diet. They followed a variety of diets depending on the foods most available where they lived.
    • Our bodies are not genetically hardwired for a single diet, but are designed to adapt to a wide variety of foods. For example, all of us have the enzymes needed to digest grains, and those enzymes are inducible.
    • We don’t know whether the paleolithic diet is healthy. The average lifespan of our paleolithic ancestors was in the range of 30 to 40 years. We have no idea whether a diet that served our paleolithic ancestors well will keep us healthy into our 70s, 80s and beyond.
  2. However, the fact that the Paleo diet is based on a myth does not make it unhealthy. In fact, there is a lot to like about the Paleo diet.
    • It eliminates sodas, fast foods, processed foods, sugar and salt which makes it much healthier than the standard American diet.
    • It emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, which is also an improvement over the standard American diet.
    • If features a relatively healthy profile of fats, which makes it healthier than most other low carb diets.
    • It favors unrefined or extra virgin oils, which are generally healthier than highly processed oils. The exception is coconut oil because unrefined coconut oil may be contaminated with aflatoxins.
    • It can give short term weight loss, although long term weight loss is uncertain.
  3. However, there are concerns about the long-term safety of the Paleo diet. The minor concerns are:
    • The elimination of whole grains, legumes, and dairy from the diet creates the potential for nutritional deficiencies that can have long-term health consequences. It is possible to carefully design a Paleo diet so these nutrients are provided by other foods, but most people don’t carefully design their daily diet.
    • Most of the recipes you find on the internet for the Paleo diet use coconut oil. This is a concern because we don’t know whether coconut oil is healthy. My recommendation would be to substitute the healthier oils that are also part of the Paleo diet.
  4. More serious concerns are:
    • The heavy reliance on red meat. Red meat is classified as a probable carcinogen, potentially increasing the risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. The potential carcinogenicity of red meat is not reduced by substituting grass-fed beef for conventionally produced beef.
    • There are no clinical studies showing the Paleo diet is healthy long term. In contrast, there are long term studies showing that Vegan, Mediterranean, and DASH diets decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and Alzheimer’s.
  5. Because the restrictions of the Paleo diet are based on myth rather than science, there are simple work arounds for the concerns. If one were to loosen the restrictions on whole grains, legumes and low-fat dairy & reduce the reliance on red meat, you would have a diet closer to the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which we know are healthy long term.
  6. For details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

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Latest Article

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

Posted July 10, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are You Just Wasting Your Money On Supplements?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

supplements for cardiovascular health wast moneyYou’ve seen the headlines. “Recent Study Finds Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.”  You are being told that supplements are of no benefit to you. They are a waste of money. You should follow a healthy diet instead. Is all of this true?

If I were like most bloggers, I would give you a simple yes or no answer that would be only partially correct. Instead, I am going to put the study behind these headlines into perspective. I am going to give you a deeper understanding of supplementation, so you can make better choices for your health.

 Should we use supplements for cardiovascular health?

In today’s article I will give you a brief overview of the subject. Here are the topics I will cover today:

  • Is this fake news?
  • Did the study ask the right questions?
  • Is this a question of “Garbage In – Garbage Out?
  • Reducing Heart Disease Risk. What you need to know.

All these topics are covered in much more detail (with references) in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths”, which will be published this fall.

 

How Was This Study Done?

supplements for cardiovascular healthThis study (D.J.A. Jenkins et al, Journal of the American College Of Cardiology, 71: 2540-2584, 2018 ) was a meta-analysis. Simply put, that means the authors combined the results of many previous studies into a single database to increase the statistical power of their conclusions. This study included 127 randomized control trials published between 2012 and December 2017. These were all studies that included supplementation and looked at cardiovascular end points, cancer end points or overall mortality.

Before looking at the results, it is instructive to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the study. Rather than giving you my interpretation, let me summarize what the authors said about strengths and weaknesses of their own study.

The strengths are obvious. Randomized control trials are considered the gold standard of evidence-based medicine, but they have their weaknesses. Here is what the authors said about the limitations of their study:

  • “Randomized control trials are of shorter duration, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.”
  • “Dose-response data were not usually available [from the randomized control studies included in their analysis]. However, larger studies would allow the effect of dose to be assessed.”

There are some other limitations of this study, which I will point out below.

Is This Fake News?

supplements for cardiovascular health fake newsWhen I talk about “fake news” I am referring to the headlines, not to the study behind the headlines. The headlines were definitive: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” However, when you read the study the reality is quite different:

  • In contrast to the negative headlines, the study reported:
    • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 20% and overall heart disease risk by 17%.
    • B complex supplements containing folic acid, B6, and B12 decreased stroke risk by 10%.
    • That’s a big deal, but somehow the headlines forgot to mention it.
  • The supplements that had no significant effect on heart disease risk (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C) were ones that would not be expected to lower heart disease risk. There was little evidence from previous studies of decreased risk. Furthermore, there is no plausible mechanism for supposing they might decrease heart disease risk.
  • The study did not include vitamin E or omega-3 supplements, which are the ones most likely to prove effective in decreasing heart disease risk when the studies are done properly (see below).

Did The Study Ask The Right Question?

Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis were asking whether a supplement decreased heart disease risk or mortality for everyone. Simply put, the studies started with a group of generally healthy Americans and asked whether supplementation had a significant effect on disease risk for everyone in that population.

That is the wrong question. We should not expect supplementation to benefit everyone equally. Instead, we should be asking who is most likely to benefit from supplementation and design our clinical studies to test whether those people benefit from supplementation.

supplements for cardiovascular health diagramI have created the graphic on the right as a guide to help answer the question of “Who is most likely to benefit from supplementation?”. Let me summarize each of the points using folic acid as the example.

 

Poor Diet: It only makes sense that those people who are deficient in folate from foods are the most likely to benefit from folic acid supplementation. Think about it for a minute. Would you really expect people who are already getting plenty of folate from their diet to obtain additional benefits from folic acid supplementation?

The NIH estimates that around 20% of US women of childbearing age are deficient in folic acid. For other segments of our population, dietary folate insufficiency ranges from 5-10%. Yet, most studies of folic acid supplementation lump everyone together – even though 80-95% of the US population is already getting enough folate through foods, food fortification, and supplementation. It is no wonder most studies fail to find a beneficial effect of folic acid supplementation.

The authors of the meta-analysis I discussed above said that the beneficial effects of folic acid they saw might have been influenced by a very large Chinese study, because a much higher percentage of Chinese are deficient in folic acid. They went on to say that the Chinese study needed to be repeated in this country.

In fact, the US study has already been done. A large study called “The Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE)” study reported that folic acid supplementation did not reduce heart disease risk in the whole population. However, when the study focused on the subgroup of subjects who were folate-deficient at the beginning of the study, folic acid supplementation significantly decreased their risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death.  This would seem to suggest using supplements for cardiovascular health is a good idea.

Increased Need: There are many factors that increase the need for certain nutrients. However, for the sake of simplicity, let’s only focus on medications. Medications that interfere with folic acid metabolism include anticonvulsants, metformin (used to treat diabetes), methotrexate and sulfasalazine (used to treat severe inflammation), birth control pills, and some diuretics. Use of these medications is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine medication use with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial.

Genetic Predisposition: The best known genetic defect affecting folic acid metabolism is MTHFR. MTHFR deficiency does not mean you have a specific need for methylfolate. However, it does increase your need for folic acid. Again, this is not a concern when the diet is adequate. However, when you combine MTHFR deficiency with a folate-deficient diet, health risks are increased and supplementation with folic acid is more likely to be beneficial. I cover this topic in great detail in my upcoming book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths”. In the meantime, you might wish to view my video, “The Truth About Methyl Folate.”

Diseases: An underlying disease or predisposition to disease often increases the need for one or more nutrients that help reduce disease risk. The best examples of this are two major studies on the effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in women. Both studies found no effect of vitamin E on heart disease risk in the whole population. However, one study reported that vitamin E reduced heart disease risk in the subgroup of women who were post-menopausal (when the risk of heart disease skyrockets). The other study found that vitamin E reduced heart attack risk in the subgroup of women who had pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.

Finally, if you look at the diagram closely, you will notice a red circle in the middle. When two or three of these factors overlap, that is the “sweet spot” where supplementation is almost certain to make a difference and it may be a good idea to use supplements for cardiovascular health.

Is This A Question Of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”?

supplements for cardiovascular health garbage in outUnfortunately, most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” rather than the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question.

In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.

Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.

 

Should We Use Supplements For Cardiovascular Health?

 

If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this meta-analysis is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but the analysis did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s.

However, if you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that we know healthy diets can decrease heart disease risk. In the words of the authors: “The recent science-based report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, also concerned with [heart disease] risk reduction, recommended 3 dietary patterns: 1) a healthy American diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and meat, but high in fruits and vegetables; 2) a Mediterranean diet; and 3) a vegetarian diet. These diets, with their accompanying recommendations, continue the move towards more plant-based diets…” I cover the effect of diet on heart disease risk in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

 

The Bottom Line

 

You have probably seen the recent headlines proclaiming: “Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Don’t Lower Heart Disease Risk.” The study behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 127 randomized control trials looking at the effect of supplementation on heart disease risk and mortality.

  • The headlines qualify as “fake news” because:
    • The study found that folic acid decreased stroke and heart disease risk, and B vitamins decreased stroke risk. Somehow the headlines forgot to mention that.
    • The study found that multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C had no effect on heart disease risk. These are nutrients that were unlikely to decrease heart disease risk to begin with.
    • The study did not include vitamin E and omega-3s. These are nutrients that are likely to decrease heart disease risk when the studies are done properly.
  • The authors of the study stated that a major weakness of their study was that that randomized control studies included in their analysis were short term, whereas longer duration studies might be required to fully capture chronic disease risk.
  • The study behind the headlines is of little use for you as an individual because it asked the wrong question.
  • Most clinical studies focus on the “Does everyone benefit from supplementation question?” That is the wrong question. Instead we need more clinical studies focused on the “Who benefits from supplementation?” question. I discuss that question in more detail in the article above.
  • In addition, most clinical studies of supplementation are based on the drug model. They are studying supplementation with a single vitamin or mineral, as if it were a drug. That’s unfortunate, because vitamins and minerals work together synergistically. What we need are more studies of holistic supplementation approaches.
  • Until these two things change, most supplement studies are doomed to failure. They are doomed to give negative results. In addition, meta-analyses based on these faulty supplement studies will fall victim to what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. If the data going into the analysis is faulty, the data coming out of the study will be equally faulty. It won’t be worth the paper it is written on. If you are looking for personal guidance on supplementation, this study falls into that category.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for everyone, this study is clear. Folic acid may decrease the risk of stroke and heart disease. A B-complex supplement may decrease the risk of stroke. All the other supplements they included in their analysis did not decrease heart disease risk, but they did not include vitamin E and/or omega-3s in their analysis.
  • If you want to know whether supplements decrease heart disease risk for you, this study provides no guidance. It did not ask the right questions.
  • However, we do know that healthy, plant-based diets can decrease heart disease risk. I cover heart healthy diets in detail in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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