Paleo diet: not dangerous and doesn’t make you fat

By Marika Sboros

The basics for a Paleo meal

The Paleo diet,  a popular form of low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) lifestyle in the US, made international headlines recently after Australian researchers of a new diabetes study published in Nutrition and Diabetes, warned that the diet is dangerous and increases weight gain.

That conclusion would have been particularly unnerving  to the 29.1 million Americans with diabetes (CDC statistics, 2012) and the millions of diabetics and Paleo fans around the world.

However, health and medical nutrition experts have pointed out serious flaws in the research, and that it actually isn’t based on Paleo at all – which does tend to make the conclusion even more suspect.

There have been calls for the journal to retract the study because of its fatal flaws and bad science.

The Paleo diet is based on the notion that for optimal health, modern humans should “go back to eating real, whole unprocessed foods that are more healthful than harmful to their bodies”. There are varieties of the Paleo diet, but the basics, according to the NomNom Paleo website are;

  • Eating whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense, nourishing foods: an emphasis on grass-fed and pastured meats and eggs, wild-caught seafood, and vegetables – fruit, nuts, and seeds in moderation.
  • Avoiding foods that  harm by causing systemic inflammation,and  straining guts and natural metabolic processes: abstain from toxic, pro-inflammatory foods such as gluten-containing grains, legumes, sugar, and the laboratory-concocted Frankenfoods found in the middle aisles of your neighbourhood supermarket.

Read also: Clean food: best way to heal your body from inside out

Prof Sof Andrikopolou
Prof Sof Andrikopolou

The University of Melbourne study, led by Prof Sof Andrikopolou used nine mice predisposed to diabetes and obesity, which were fed a low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) diet consisting of 13% protein, 6% carbohydrates, and 81% fat for 8 weeks. The result was that the LCHF mice had rapid weight gain and the diet wasn’t suitable for pre-diabetic people.

Andrikopolou is a senior research fellow, asociate professor and head of the University of Melbourne, Department of Medicine’s Islet Biology and Metabolism Research Group. While the LCHF diet is never actually referred to as Paleo in the published documents, Andrikopolou takes aim at Paleo specifically in the ensuing press release for the study.

“We are told to eat zero carbs and lots of fat on the Paleo diet. Our model tried to mimic that, but we didn’t see any improvements in weight or symptoms. In fact, they got worse,”  Andrikopolou says.

Dr Richard Feinman professor of cell biology (biochemistry) at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Centre in Brooklyn, New York, was so incensed by the study findings that he wrote to the journal editor demanding that the study be retracted. Feinman says the study’s recommendation against the use of LCHF diets  follows from presumed risk based on experiments with nine mice from a strain bred for susceptibility to metabolic abnormalities.

“The study ignored the dozens of studies, listed in their own references, comprising hundreds of human subjects, that contradicted the mice data. In addition, Dr Andrikopoulos, the submitting author, participated in a wide-spread media program that was not scientifically accurate, included ad hominem attacks on all workers in the field and was outside of normal scientific protocol.”

For these reasons, the paper should be retracted, Feinman said, and the data should be “subject to new peer review, sensibly including people with experience with LCHF in humans”.

Sounds about just right to me, after all, as Feinman points out, there are  numerous papers demonstrating the value of dietary carbohydrate restriction. And while no-one is saying that LCHF is a one-size-fits-all diet or that the latest research is the final word – science is after all, a work in progress, Feinman says the scientists involved in LCHF are very much open to criticism even as a study of nine mice for eight weeks “does not raise questions about this extensive body of knowledge”.

Dr Akil Palanisamy, a US board-certified integrative medicine physician for Sutter Health who has treated patients with diabetes and other chronic conditions for over 10 years, weighed in on the mouse research, and said public statements made by Andrikopolou are “a misrepresentation of the Paleo diet”:

“A Paleo diet, which is designed to eliminate carbs from grains and refined sugars, is definitely beneficial for patients with diabetes because it is a lower glycemic diet. That’s my clinical experience with patients as well. Paleo doesn’t have to be low-carb or high-fat, and contains plenty of carbs from fruits and vegetables.

“The diet that the test animals were fed was not Paleo. Its top four ingredients were cocoa butter, casein (dairy), sucrose (table sugar), and canola oil – none of which are part of the Paleo diet. High doses of cocoa butter are never recommended on Paleo, and canola oil is not a healthy fat.”

Dr Chad Walding, a physical therapist, co-founder of the popular health blog The Paleo Secret and partner at Lexicon Health, has years of experience with clients managing diabetes.

“There is a lot of conflicting research out there concerning the best diet for diabetes. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The great thing about Paleo is it can be customised,” says Walding.

“We have moved beyond considering Paleo as just a diet, but a lifestyle that fully incorporates healthy and natural choices for diet, mind, and movement. It’s the trifecta of good health. To scare people away from a holistic option to manage their heath for the sake of making headlines is irresponsible.” – With PR Newswire