Clinical research studies have helped us to better understand the impact of diet on human health. Research studies comparing low-carb to low-fat diets have become more specific and selective in how they measure outcomes. Lowering HbA1C is the standard for studies involving people with Type 2 diabetes, and lipid levels such as HDL are markers for heart disease prevention. Markers for inflammation can be used to predict decreases in cardiovascular diseases and some cancers. While many are primarily interested in the weight loss advantages of a low-carb diet, weight loss is not always the only measure of good health.
Markers for inflammation can be an early sign of disease, and researchers are consequently hoping they can pinpoint problems at a stage where the issues are still amenable to lifestyle changes. There are very specific research markers for inflammation that pinpoint the cardiovascular system, and others that look at cancers and other inflammatory conditions. In general screenings, such as cholesterol tests, the C-reactive protein (CRP) is the most common marker for inflammation. Many physicians and nutrition specialists believe that inflammatory markers and lipid levels are critical pieces of information when predicting health outcomes.
All carbs are not created equally. Some foods that are typically considered starchy carbs, like butternut squash and sweet potatoes, are highly dense in nutrients. The density of the nutrients is important, but if we’re going to understand how these carbs are different, then we need to consider their fiber content, as well as how we eat, digest, and metabolize them. These factors explain how paleo carbs can reduce markers of inflammation and improve lipid levels in an otherwise low-carb diet.
Some of the most interesting research into the benefits of Paleo carbs —cooked starchy tubers, fruits, and vegetables — was conducted by Dr. Karen Hardy and her team. They were looking for dietary factors in the evolutionary gains in the size of the human brain, and the results — an interesting mix of archeology, anthropology, anatomy, physiology, and genetic testing — suggest that when humans began cooking starchy carbs from tubers, such as yams and sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots, as well as winter squashes and bananas, a concomitant increase in amylase salivary glands allowed humans to begin to chew and digest these starches more efficiently. This more efficient way of eating and digesting — cooking combined with an increase in amylase in our saliva — meant that dietary glucose, the main “brain food,” was readily available both to our brains and the brains of developing babies. Dr. Hardy’s conclusions, published in the Quarterly Review of Biology, suggest that while dietary meat jump-started human brain development, the ability to eat, digest, and obtain nutrition from cooked starchy vegetables finished the work.
One notable factor when looking at paleo carbs is their color — the deep reds, golds, and oranges of winter squashes, pumpkin, beets, and yams suggest that the foods are dense with nutrients. When cooked, especially when slow-roasted, the natural sweetness of the sugars makes these foods a delightful addition to the diet. Their bright colors are not just beautiful , but they’re also sweet and densely nutritious.
Many fruits and vegetables are part of the Paleo lifestyle. When we consider if a fruit or vegetable would fit into a low-carb diet, we also need to consider that low-carb diets allow for 20 percent of the diet to be constituted by carbs. Our big brains need the complex and dense nutrition afforded by the paleo carbs. If you want to take advantage of the natural sweetness of paleo carbs, then consider adding sweet potatoes, roasted beets, and butternut squash to your plate, and try cooking some bananas and peaches for dessert You can enjoy all of these nutrient-dense foods while remaining on a low-carb paleo diet.
When considering measures for good health, weight is only one of the factors that can predict good health outcomes. Lipid testing, inflammatory markers, and HbA1C also give critical information about general health.