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Can The Paleo Diet Protect Against Chronic Diseases?

By Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, MSc, CISSN, CSCS
August 20, 2020
Chinnapong/ Shutterstock.com Chinnapong/ Shutterstock.com

For the first time in human history, even now, chronic diseases have outpaced infectious diseases as the primary threat to human health. While this speaks to the tremendous scientific advancements in science and vaccine development, it also casts a shadow on the rapid rise of ‘diseases of lifestyle’ and their impact on chronic disease progression.

The technical term is chronic noncommunicable diseases (CNCDs) and over the past 15 years, they have increased sharply to account for approximately 73% of deaths and 60% of the disease burden we see today. Up from 60% and 45.9%, respectively, in 2005. [1]

What Is a CNCD?

CNCDs is an umbrella term for larger groups of diseases that are non-infectious (and thus non-communicable from person to person). There are five main categories of CNCDs;

  • Cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attack and stroke)
  • Cancer
  • Chronic respiratory disease (such as asthma and COPD)
  • Diabetes [2] and other metabolic disorders
  • Autoimmune diseases

CNCDs are classified as ‘chronic diseases’ because of the long duration of the condition and because of how much they can limit the daily activities and routines of patients. [3]

The Lifestyle and CNCD Connection

The development of CNCDs are multi-factorial and largely based in the lifestyle of patients. Leading risk factors include smoking, excess alcohol consumption, low intake of vegetables and fruit, and high consumption of salt and sugar. [1]

It’s widely accepted now in the scientific community that what you eat, how much you exercise, and lifestyle factors like sleep (total and quality) and stress are major influencers in the pathogenesis of these diseases. [4]

Weight gain is also another key factor strongly associated with markedly increased risk of developing CNCDs and the subsequent health complications (and increased mortality) that arise as a result. [5]

The Paleo Diet® & Chronic Diseases

By definition, a Paleo Diet helps clients move away from many of the risk factors of CNCDs; such as high salt and high sugar processed foods and excess alcohol consumption. A Paleo Diet also helps clients move towards foods that support better health like increased vegetable and fruit intake, as well as intake of sufficient levels of quality-protein. [6]

The Paleo Diet has shown benefits in a recent systematic review (with meta-analysis) for metabolic syndrome - a group of conditions that occur together and increase your risk of CNCDs like heart attack, stroke, type-2 diabetes and various cancers. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by a constellation of symptoms, such as high blood pressure, excess body-fat around the mid-section, high blood sugar and abnormal triglyceride levels or cholesterol levels. [8]

Other studies applying the Paleo Diet strategy have found positive effects on lowering the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes.

This would suggest a Paleo Diet could be a vital tool for reversing CNCDs. What does the research show at this point? Let’s explore.

Research on The Paleo Diet & CNCDs

Weight loss is a cornerstone of reversing chronic disease progression in CNCDs and a Paleo Diet can play a key role. A 2019 systematic review of 11 randomized control trials (RCTs) published in the Nutrition Journal evaluating the effect of a Paleo Diet on the prevention (or control) of chronic diseases was recently undertaken. [9]

How did the Paleo Diet impact weight loss and CNCDs amongst various groups?

The best results with regards to weight loss were found in overweight and obese individuals. One study found a normalization of glucose levels and reductions in bodyweight, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference over two years in overweight and obese women. [10]

Another study in post-menopausal overweight-obese women also revealed improvements in bodyweight, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference (as well as cognitive markers like memory and functional brain responses) over a 6-month time frame. [11]

Nine out of the ten studies assessing weight loss showed improvements, averaging approximately 7.7 lb. (3.5kg) reductions in bodyweight. In regard to BMI, five out of six studies found small improvements in BMI (dropping just over one point) and 4 out 7 studies showed reductions in waist circumference. [9]

How Can A Paleo Diet Help Reverse CNCDs?

What are the potential mechanisms at play that make a Paleo Diet an effective strategy for weight loss and thus reversing or preventing chronic diseases (CNCDs)?

First, the most obvious difference in the groups adopting a Paleo Diet is the omission of ultra-processed foods (i.e. cereals, confectionaries, and the like) commonly laden with excess sugars and processed fats. The Paleo Diets also excluded soft drinks, beer and added salt. Reductions in the aforementioned foods can dramatically reduce caloric intake and thus trigger weight loss.

Second, the Paleo Diet appears to play a role in satiety. One study examined the acute effects of meals on biochemical markers of satiety and found concentrations of glucagon-1 (GLP-1) and Peptide Y (PYY) peptides were markedly elevated after participants consumed a Paleo Diet meal versus a control meal. [12]

To Sum Up

The 2019 review in Nutrition Journal examining randomized control trials and the effects of a Paleo Diet on anthropometric markers – bodyweight, BMI and waist circumference - found improvements in these outcome measures. Thus indicating a potential strategy for preventing or controlling CNCDs since excessive weight gain is a major risk factor in the development and progression.

References

  1. WHO. Library cataloguing-in-publication data global status report on noncommunicable diseases 2014. 1.Chronic disease – prevention and control. 2.Chronic disease - epidemiology. 3.Chronic disease - mortality. 4.Cost of illness. 5.Delivery of health care. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2014.
  1. WHO. 10 Facts on Non-Communicable Diseases – viewed on August 3rd, 2020. ho.int/features/factfiles/noncommunicable_diseases/en
  1. Institute of Medicine. Living well with chronic disease: a call for public health action. Washington, D.C.: The National Academic Press; 2012.
  1. Ahmed T, Hsboubi N. Assessment and management of nutrition in older people and its importance to health. Clin Interv Aging. 2010;9;5:207–16.
  1. WHO. Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2003.
  1. Cordain L, Miller JB, Eaton SB, Mann N, Holt SH, Speth JD. Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71(3):682–92.
  1. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Miller JB, Mann N, Hill K. The paradoxical nature of huntergatherer diets: meat-based, yet non-atherogenic. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002;56:42–52.
  1. Manheimer EW, Zuuren EJV, Fedororowicz Z. Paleolithic nutrition for metabolic syndrome: systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;102:922–32.
  1. Menezes et al. Influence of Paleolithic diet on anthropometric markers in chronic diseases: systematic review and meta- analysis Nutrition Journal (2019) 18:41
  1. Stomby A, Simonyte K, Mellberg C, Ryberg M, Stimson RH, Larssom C, et al. Diet-induced weight loss has chronic tissue-specific effects on glucocorticoid metabolism in overweight postmenopausal women. International. Int J Obes. 2015;39(5):814–9.
  1. Boraxbekk CJ, Stomby A, Ryberg M, Lindahl B, Larsson C, Nyberg L, et al. Diet-induced weight loss alters functional brain responses during anepisodic memory task. Obes Facts. 2015;8(4):261–72.
  1. Frassetto LA, Schloetter M, Mietus-Synder M, Morris RC, Sebastian A. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009;63(8):947–55.

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