February 22, 2016

Is The Paleo Diet Unhealthy?

Is The Paleo Diet UnhealthyIs The Paleo Diet Unhealthy?

We feel compelled to respond to this study out of Melbourne, Australia and published in the journal of Nutrition and Diabetes that concluded that The Paleo Diet is unhealthy. The results of this study have hit media outlets and here is one such report published in Telegraph on the study

There are four points I will address on this recent study.

One, The Paleo Diet is mischaracterized in the study and media reports as a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet which is only partially correct.

Secondly, people are warned to avoid “putting faith in so-called fad diets” implying that The Paleo Diet is a fad.

Thirdly, the diet fed to mice in the study is not representative of the actual Paleo Diet.

And finally, why is such a study being done on mice when it could have been done on humans just as easily, if not more easily? Is The Paleo Diet unhealthy? We don’t think so.

Is the Paleo Diet Really High-Fat?

The Paleo Diet is not a high-fat diet, though it is considered a low-carbohydrate one. But, what is it really? Here is a breakdown the carbohydrate, protein, and fat content of The Paleo Diet, Typical American Diet, and Low Carbohydrate Diet. This information comes for the book, The Paleo Diet written by Paleo expert, Loren Cordain, PhD.

The Paleo Diet 28-47% 22-40% 19-35%
US Diet 34% 49% 15.5%
Low Carb Diet 51-78% 4-26% 18-23%

We can see that The Paleo Diet has an average fat content  slightly higher than the typical American Diet, but much less than the typical low-carbohydrate diet and with more carbohydrate than low-carbohydrate diet. In reality is it neither high-fat or low-carbohydrate, though even Dr. Cordain refers to it as a low carbohydrate diet which it is only in comparison to the American Diet, but not in comparison to the typical low-carbohydrate diets we hear about today.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to consider the American Diet as high carbohydrate and especially high in simple sugars and The Paleo Diet as moderate carbohydrate that emphasizes complex carbohydrates. Terms like ‘high’ and ‘low’ are relative but when we see The Paleo Diet stacked up against the typical American diet and low-carbohydrate diets we see that in comparison to those two diets The Paleo Diet, if anything, is a high protein diet and moderate in carbs and fats.

Is The Paleo Diet a Fad Diet?

While the concept of The Paleo Diet (the book The Paleo Diet was published in 2002) may be new to us the actual diet has been around for at least 2.5 million years. Anything that has survived that long should not be considered a fad diet. If anything is a fad diet it is the diet that has evolved since agriculture came into being 10,000 years ago.

Even more faddish is the highly processed diet with artificial coloring and flavors, packaged in unhealthy plastic, and so on, that most Americans now eat. The advent of agriculture marked a dramatic change in our diets to which our gene pool is still trying to adapt.

Our gene pool has only changed 0.02% in 40,000 years, but our diet and way of eating has changed far more than 0.02% during that time, and not all of our bodies have adapted to these changes.

Were Mice Really Fed a Paleo Diet?

When we look at the actual diet the mice were fed in the study published in Nutrition and Diabetes we see it differs from The Paleo Diet. The mice in the study fed the so-called Paleo Diet received carbohydrates almost exclusively in the form of simple sugars which is not the source of carbohydrates in The Paleo Diet.

The mice were fed bad carbohydrates that will cause a spike in insulin and weight gain. They were not fed complex carbohydrates – the mainstay of carbohydrates in The Paleo Diet. Complex carbohydrates minimize insulin spikes and facilitate weight loss. High insulin also causes chronic and silent inflammation increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

The fat content fed to the study mice included 55% saturated fats, 37% monounsaturated fats, and 8% polyunsaturated fats which varies drastically from the actual Paleo Diet. The actual Paleo Diet stresses eating more monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats than saturated fats. The study mice received the opposite. So ‘no’, the study mice were not fed a true Paleo Diet.

In fact, just knowing what the mice were fed one could have predicted the results of the study. The findings in the study represent the effects of simple sugars and saturated fats, not a true Paleo Diet.

Why Was this Study Performed on Mice?

Performing a study on mice and extrapolating the results to humans when the study could have easily been done on humans makes no sense outside other than maybe it was less expensive to conduct the study that way. If you want to know what happens in humans, use humans whenever possible. That seems common sense not requiring a Ph.D. or medical degree.

This was not a study on some novel drug with potentially serious or unknown side effects, or questionable benefit for which an animal study would be more appropriate. This was a nine week study and many humans have consumed a Paleo Diet since man first walked this earth. Such a study on humans would not be considered dangerous to perform.

We also forget that we – each of us individually – can serve as our own controls when it comes to dietary changes. We can measure your cholesterol, blood sugar, HgA1C, insulin levels, body weight, body fat, and more. We can then change your diet and remeasure those parameters and see what improves and what doesn’t.

And, then try another diet and see what happens. At the end of the day what matters is what is the best diet for you. Not everybody responds to a low-fat diet or low cholesterol diet the same way.  And, many times trial and error is the best way to discover that. We do not always need scientific studies to tell us what to do and what to eat. Your body can tell us what is best for it.

Lessons from Bad Research

Is The Paleo Diet Unhealthy? We don’t think so. What is unhealthy is bad research. Bad research is many times an out birth of the “publish or perish” mindset of academia. The world would be far better off if there were less emphasis on quantity of research, some of which serves little purpose other than to pad resumes and meet a research requirement, and more emphasis on good research that makes a real difference. Quality over quantity. Here’s why.

It can take years to overcome bad research and/or wrong conclusions. A classic example of the challenge presented by bad research and/or incorrect conclusions deals with a 1941 study involving testosterone. Since 1941 we have been misled that testosterone causes prostate cancer. That conclusion was based on a single patient who already had metastatic prostate cancer that flared up when he was administered testosterone – not exactly the same thing as testosterone causing prostate cancer.

But, until recently that is what physicians have been taught – that testosterone causes prostate cancer – and for decades doctors shied away from prescribing testosterone to men deficient in the hormone adversely affecting quality of life for million of men throughout those years. Now it is accepted that testosterone does not cause prostate cancer. Recent research even shows that higher testosterone levels actually may protect against aggressive forms of prostate cancer.

So we now see almost a complete mind shift on testosterone at least when it comes to prostate cancer, a mind shift that could have been avoided if not for wrong conclusions drawn 75 years ago that went unchallenged until about 10 years ago. Guidelines on cholesterol management are based on questionable research as well. See our article, The Great Cholesterol Myth of Today.

Why does bad research get published? That discussion we will save for an upcoming article. In the meantime recognize that……..

Bad research frequently does more harm than the good that comes from good research. In our opinion, this study falls in the category of bad research that does more harm. 



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Dr. Joe Jacko

Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio at Grandview Primary Care. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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