Paleolithic Diet Clinical Trials Part IV

Dr. Staffan Lindeberg has published a new study using the "paleolithic diet" to treat type II diabetics (free full text). Type II diabetes, formerly known as late-onset diabetes until it began appearing in children, is typically thought to develop as a result of insulin resistance (a lowered tissue response to the glucose-clearing function of insulin). This is often followed by a decrease in insulin secretion due to degeneration of the insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells.

After Dr. Lindeberg's wild success treating patients with type II diabetes or glucose intolerance, in which he normalized the glucose tolerance of all 14 of his volunteers in 12 weeks, he set out to replicate the experiment. This time, he began with 13 men and women who had been diagnosed with type II diabetes for an average of 9 years.

Patients were put on two different diets for 3 months each. The first was a "conventional diabetes diet". I read a previous draft of the paper in which I believe they stated it was based on American Diabetes Association guidelines, but I can't find that statement in the final draft. In any case, here are the guidelines from the methods section:
The information on the Diabetes diet stated that it should aim at evenly distributed meals with increased intake of vegetables, root vegetables, dietary fiber, whole-grain bread and other whole-grain cereal products, fruits and berries, and decreased intake of total fat with more unsaturated fat. The majority of dietary energy should come from carbohydrates from foods naturally rich in carbohydrate and dietary fiber. The concepts of glycemic index and varied meals through meal planning by the Plate Model were explained [18]. Salt intake was recommended to be kept below 6 g per day.
The investigators gave the paleolithic group the following advice:
The information on the Paleolithic diet stated that it should be based on lean meat, fish, fruit, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, eggs and nuts, while excluding dairy products, cereal grains, beans, refined fats, sugar, candy, soft drinks, beer and extra addition of salt. The following items were recommended in limited amounts for the Paleolithic diet: eggs (≤2 per day), nuts (preferentially walnuts), dried fruit, potatoes (≤1 medium-sized per day), rapeseed or olive oil (≤1 tablespoon per day), wine (≤1 glass per day). The intake of other foods was not restricted and no advice was given with regard to proportions of food categories (e.g. animal versus plant foods). The evolutionary rationale for a Paleolithic diet and potential benefits were explained.
Neither diet was restricted in calories. After comparing the effects of the two diets for 3 months, the investigators concluded that the paleolithic diet:
  • Reduced HbA1c more than the diabetes diet (a measure of average blood glucose)
  • Reduced weight, BMI and waist circumference more than the diabetes diet
  • Lowered blood pressure more than the diabetes diet
  • Reduced triglycerides more than the diabetes diet
  • Increased HDL more than the diabetes diet
However, the paleolithic diet was not a cure-all. At the end of the trial, 8 out of 13 patents still had diabetic blood glucose after an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT). This is compared to 9 out of 13 for the diabetes diet. Still, 5 out of 13 with "normal" OGTT after the paleolithic diet isn't bad. The paleolithic diet also significantly reduced insulin resistance and increased glucose tolerance, although it didn't do so more than the diabetes diet.

As has been reported in other studies, paleolithic dieters ate fewer total calories than the comparison group. This is part of the reason why I believe that something in the modern diet causes hyperphagia, or excessive eating. According to the paleolithic diet studies, this food or combination of foods is neolithic, and probably resides in grains, refined sugar and/or dairy. I have my money on wheat and sugar, with a probable long-term contribution from industrial vegetable oils as well.

Were the improvements on the paleolithic diet simply due to calorie restriction? Maybe, but keep in mind that neither group was told to restrict its caloric intake. The reduction in caloric intake occurred naturally, despite the participants presumably eating to fullness. I suspect that the paleolithic diet reset the dieters' body fat set-point, after which fat began pouring out of their fat tissue. They were supplementing their diets with body fat-- 13 pounds (6 kg) of it over 3 months.

The other notable difference between the two diets, besides food types, was carbohydrate intake. The diabetes diet group ate 56% more carbohydrate than the paleo diet group, with 42% of their calories coming from it. The paleolithic group ate 32% carbohydrate. Could this have been the reason for the better outcome of the paleolithic group? I'd be surprised if it wasn't a factor. Advising a diabetic to eat a high-carbohydrate diet is like asking someone who's allergic to bee stings to fetch you some honey from your bee hive. Diabetes is a disorder of glucose intolerance. Starch is a glucose polymer.

Although to be fair, participants on the diabetes diet did improve in a number of ways. There's something to be said for eating whole foods.

This trial was actually a bit of a disappointment for me. I was hoping for a slam dunk, similar to Lindeberg's previous study that "cured" all 14 patients of glucose intolerance in 3 months. In the current study, the paleolithic diet left 8 out of 13 patients diabetic after 3 months. What was the difference? For one thing, the patients in this study had well-established diabetes with an average duration of 9 years. As Jenny Ruhl explains in her book Blood Sugar 101, type II diabetes often progresses to beta cell loss, after which the pancreas can no longer secrete an adequate amount of insulin.

This may be the critical finding of Dr. Lindeberg's two studies: type II diabetes can be prevented when it's caught at an early stage, such as pre-diabetes, whereas prolonged diabetes may cause damage that cannot be completely reversed though diet. I think this is consistent with the experience of many diabetics who have seen an improvement but not a cure from changes in diet. Please add any relevant experiences to the comments.

Collectively, the evidence from clinical trials on the "paleolithic diet" indicate that it's a very effective treatment for modern metabolic dysfunction, including excess body fat, insulin resistance and glucose intolerance. Another way of saying this is that the modern industrial diet causes metabolic dysfunction.

Paleolithic Diet Clinical Trials
Paleolithic Diet Clinical Trials Part II
One Last Thought
Paleolithic Diet Clinical Trials Part III