Could the diet of our cavemen (and cavewomen) ancestors help keep a modern health problem — type 2 diabetes — under control? The concept isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound.
In the past few years, the popularity of the so-called “paleo diet” — a high-protein, low-carb food plan that minimizes processed foods and emphasizes meats and vegetables — has skyrocketed, with its proponents touting it as a way to improve health and lose weight. Now, research has shown that it may in fact help people with diabetes to manage their blood sugar.
A study launched in 2011 at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) found that people with type 2 diabetes who followed a “caveman diet” were able to improve their blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol by significant amounts in just two weeks. Other study participants who followed a traditional diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association saw little to no improvement. The participants were given enough food to prevent them from losing weight, eliminating the possibility that the health improvements came from shedding pounds.
Researchers aren’t sure why the paleo-diet followers had better health outcomes, but it’s possible that paleo-friendly foods might be better suited for a type 2 diabetes diet than other foods, said Lynda Frassetto, MD, a nephrologist and the lead researcher on the study.
“It suggests that all carbs are not equal,” Dr. Frassetto said. “Carbs from fruit and vegetables may contain things that are better for you than carbs from grains. It may be that when you’re eating fruits and vegetables and getting antioxidants and micronutrients — maybe those are what’s missing when you get the same amount of calories from wheat and cereals.”
People with type 2 diabetes who follow a Paleo diet may find that it helps them better control their blood sugar, said Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD, LDN, CDE, a registered dietitian, diabetes educator, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You’re eating hardly anything that would raise your blood sugar,” Dobbins noted. “You’re really restricting carbs, and that can keep your blood sugar down.” The diet also encourages whole, unprocessed foods, which is a healthy approach, she added. Plus, the “bulkiness” of the foods may mean that you will feel full on fewer calories, encouraging weight loss, also beneficial for type 2 diabetes.
However, since this eating plan almost completely eliminates certain food groups, like grains, traditional wisdom would argue that it’s less healthy than a more well-rounded diet. “A lot of nutrition experts would say the paleo diet is not balanced,” Dobbins cautioned.
Many versions of the paleo diet also encourage the consumption of red meats, full-fat dairy products, and saturated fats like butter, which can cause elevated cholesterol levels. This can be an especially dangerous problem for people with diabetes, who are more likely to develop heart disease than people without diabetes. “For people with diabetes, the primary goal is to control blood sugar, but the second goal is to reduce the risk of heart disease and its complications,” Dobbins said.
It should be noted that the paleo-diet participants in the UCSF study, who were able to reduce their cholesterol levels, did not eat red meats or saturated fats; their proteins came mainly from lean sources like fish and chicken, while the fats in the diet were heart-healthy, unsaturated types.
One of the biggest supporters of a paleo diet for diabetes is 51-year-old Steve Cooksey, who began following the diet in 2009, just a few months after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Cooksey had seen two diabetic family members become increasingly unhealthy while following traditional diabetes treatments, which made him wary of the usual approach. He also found that the meal plan he was given after his diagnosis did not help control his blood sugar.
“I went home and realized that eating their way required more and more insulin,” Cooksey said. “My blood sugar should have been going down, but it wasn’t.”
Within a month of starting on a paleo diet, Cooksey was able to stop taking all of his diabetes medications, including his insulin. He still checks his blood sugar regularly, and it’s always within normal ranges.
“I have normal blood sugars for normal people, not just normal blood sugars for a diabetic,” said Cooksey, whose Web site, Diabetes Warrior, explains the benefits of a paleo diet for diabetes.
In the paleo diet plan Cooksey follows, he chooses whole foods over processed, packaged meals to help control his type 2 diabetes. On a typical day, he might have a plate of eggs, greens, and bacon for breakfast; tilapia and spinach for lunch; and ribs, made with a low-carb BBQ sauce, and mixed vegetables for dinner. Between meals, Cooksey munches on low-carb snacks like hard-boiled eggs, cheese, canned tuna, salmon, sardines, and certain vegetables, such as celery sticks, green peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Is a Paleo Diet Right for You?
Stories like Cooksey’s certainly are not unheard of, Dobbins said, because the bodies of people with type 2 diabetes do still produce insulin on their own, and it could be enough to process the small amount of carbohydrates in a paleo diet. But it may not be a permanent solution.
“Whether it’s paleo or any restricted-carb diet, yes, people may go off insulin,” Dobbins said. “But they may eventually need to go back on it, even if they don’t change their diet. It depends on how exhausted the pancreas is. It may run out, wear out.”
People with type 1 diabetes, who produce no insulin at all, would not be able to stop their diabetes medications by following a paleo diet. The effects of such a diet have not been studied in people with type 1 diabetes, but Frassetto thinks it has the potential for good results.
People with diabetes who are interested in trying a paleo diet should consult their doctor or a registered dietitian before beginning the program. If you have kidney problems or are on certain medications, you may not be able to safely follow it. Since the paleo diet also involves large quantities of “bulky” food, those with intestinal conditions may not be able to tolerate it either. “It is a huge amount of food,” said Frassetto, who slowly introduced her study’s participants to the paleo style of eating over the course of a week. “If you have problems with your intestines moving, you will have a lot of problems with this diet,” she noted.
Those who aren’t sure about following a paleo diet to manage their diabetes may see some benefit just by incorporating a few of its principles into their current diet, like eating more fresh produce and less pasta and bread.
“I think people in general eat too many carbs,” Dobbins said. “You could get rid of the excess. I’m a firm believer in getting a little more protein, making sure the fats are as heart-healthy as possible, and having fewer carbs. I think that is something people can live with and see good results with their blood sugar and their weight.”
Cooksey, however, is convinced that the “paleo lifestyle” is the one for him. “I’m blessed to be a diabetic because it made me seek out a better way of living, and I’ve found it,” Cooksey said.