When you think of ways to fight heart disease, adopting the so-called caveman diet might not immediately jump to mind as a tried-and-true option. But given that heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States — about 610,000 Americans die from it every year — the search for solutions to improve heart health and prevent future heart events is understandably a concern for many Americans. (1)
Over the past few years, researchers have explored whether the paleo diet — a restrictive approach based on the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and one favored by an estimated 1 percent of Americans — can benefit people’s heart health. (2) So far, it’s a mixed bag: Some findings are encouraging, while some members of the medical community remain skeptical.
Is the Paleo Diet Good for the Heart?
“Overall, the effect of the paleo diet on heart disease risk really depends on how you choose to follow it,” says Kelly Kennedy, RD, a nutritionist for Everyday Health. Unlike other plans, the paleo diet doesn’t recommend portion sizes by food group, nor does it incorporate exercise — which is known to be good for overall health and preventing heart disease. (3)
But the diet does require a focus on certain foods and the elimination of others. For instance, on the paleo diet, you’re encouraged to eat lots of fruits, veggies, fats, and proteins, while processed foods like chips, cookies and candy, as well as legumes (beans), most dairy, and grains are off-limits.
This approach has pros and cons, Kennedy says. “My main concern overall would be the fact that major sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals are being eliminated by not including whole grains, soy, and dairy,” Kennedy explains. “However, if someone compensates and follows the paleo diet by having lots of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources such as skinless poultry and fish, they should be able to mostly compensate for these losses.”
There certainly has been a disconnect between some paleo enthusiasts and the medical community. For instance, while paleo recommends the elimination of whole grains, the American Heart Association states that whole grains can actually lower cholesterol and the risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. (4)
That being said, there are some encouraging signs out there. While some people may try the diet because they want to lose weight, when followed correctly, some studies suggest it could benefit your ticker.
For instance, a small study with eight participants found that those who adopted a paleo diet for eight weeks had a 35 percent increase in interlukin-10 (IL-10), a molecule that is emitted by immune cells. This is important because a low IL-10 number can indicate an increase in heart attack risk for people who have high inflammation. This could suggest that an uptick in IL-10 might present lower risk for heart disease. (5) An added benefit? The people who took part in this research lost weight by eating about 22 percent fewer calories.
The Diabetes Connection: How Paleo May Help People With Uncontrolled Blood Sugar Too
One major risk factor for heart disease is type 2 diabetes. People who have type 2 diabetes can often develop hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity — all major contributors to heart disease. (6)
Some research points to paleo’s ability to help people with type 2 diabetes. For example, one small randomized study of 13 subjects looked at people over two consecutive three-month periods who stuck to either a paleo diet followed by a diabetes diet, or a diabetes diet followed by a paleo diet. (7)
What’s the difference between the two eating approaches? Well, the diabetes diet used in the study focused on carbs for energy. For those on this diet, salt intake was kept below six grams per day. The paleo diet used by the study cut out dairy products, cereal grains, beans, refined fats, sugar, candy, soft drinks, beer, and any extra salt.
Those on the paleo diet were found to have much lower mean values of hemoglobin A1C, triglycerides, diastolic blood pressure, weight, body mass index, and waist size. Mean values for high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol) were higher. The study also found that these people had decreased blood sugar levels as well as decreased systolic blood pressure. In short, a paleo diet was found to improve people’s type 2 diabetes symptoms and, as a result, improve overall heart health.
Using Paleo for Better Heart Health: Things to Keep in Mind
Kennedy urges people who are considering adopting paleo to realize that this diet allows for some foods that are not generally considered heart healthy. She says that red meat and some of the saturated-fat-laden foods — such as ghee, coconut oil, and butter — may pose heart-health risks. “If someone eats those foods on a regular basis, their heart health will certainly suffer,” she warns.
Red meat is one of the elements of paleo that causes experts, including Kennedy, to question whether it’s good for heart health. Indeed, there’s a growing body of literature that suggests eating too much red meat can harm the organ. (8) That doesn’t mean you can’t eat any red meat — just enjoy it in moderation. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends choosing lean cuts when possible and opting for poultry and fish without skin, prepared without saturated and trans fats, to protect your heart. If you need to lower your cholesterol, aim to lower your saturated fat intake to a max of 5 to 6 percent of your total calories, or 13 grams if you’re consuming 2,000 calories per day. (9)
Kennedy also says it’s important to remember that a heart-healthy diet is one that is low in sodium, and that while paleo may be naturally lower in sodium with the elimination of processed foods, paleo diets rarely come with “any recommended sodium restrictions.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. (10)
“In addition, when cutting out foods, such as legumes and whole grains, which are rich sources of fiber and some of the best cholesterol-lowering foods, it’s not a good combination,” she adds. Not only can removing whole food groups lead to nutrient deficiencies down the line, but if you’re managing a condition such as type 2 diabetes — which can be better controlled with fiber — or have another underlying health issue, the paleo diet may have more cons than pros.
Be sure to talk to your doctor before trying the paleo diet, especially if you have an underlying health condition.
The Takeaway: Should You Try Paleo to Boost Your Heart Health?
Kennedy says that, as with any diet, paleo comes with both negatives and positives for heart health. It’s not a failproof, fully scientifically vetted cure-all, but it does have potential for yielding some heart-healthy results.
She adds that removing packaged and processed foods, refined grains, added sugar and artificial sweeteners, limiting alcohol, and including whole foods — fruits and veggies — are all major positives.
On the negative side, she says eliminating whole grains, dairy, legumes including peanuts and soy, and allowing red meat (like bacon), butter, ghee, and coconut oil as “healthy fats” could eventually lead to heart health problems.
As always, if you are are looking to improve your heart health, whether through exercise or dietary changes, it’s crucial to ask the advice of your doctor and find out what works best for you.
On – 22 Jan, 2018 By Brian Mastroianni