The paleo diet averages about 30% of total calories from carbohydrates, with a range of about 22 to 40%. That 30% average is much lower than the standard 50–60% in the developed world. Is that lower percentage healthy or not? It depends on the quality of the carbs and the remainder of the diet. It most certainly can be healthy.
As much as possible, I base my nutrition and medical recommendations on science-based research published in the medical literature. In the early 2000s, a flurry of scientific reports demonstrated that very-low-carb eating (as in the style of Dr. Robert Atkins) was safe and effective for short-term weight management and control of diabetes. Eighty hours of literature review in 2009 allowed me to embrace low-carbohydrate eating as a logical and viable option for many of my patients. The evidence convinced me that the relatively high fat content of many low-carb diets was nothing to worry about long-term.
I’d like to share with you some of the pertinent low-carb research findings of the last few years.
- Low-carb diets reduce weight, reduce blood pressure, lower triglyceride levels (a healtlhy move), and raise HDL cholesterol (another good trend). These improvements should help reduce your risk of heart disease. (In the journal Obesity Reviews, 2012.)
- Dietary fat, including saturated fat, is not a cause of vascular disease such as heart attacks and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). (Multiple research reports.)
- If you’re overweight and replace two sugary drinks a day with diet soda or water, you’ll lose about four pounds over the next six months. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2012.)
- United States citizens obtain 40% of total calories from grains and added sugars. Most developed countries are similar. Dr. Stephan Guyenet notes that U.S. sugar consumption increased steadily “…from 6.3 pounds [2.9 kg] per person per year in 1822 to 107.7 pounds [50 kg] per person in 1999. Wrap your brain around this: in 1822 we ate the amount of added sugar in one 12-ounce can of soda every five days, while today we eat that much sugar every seven hours.”
- A very-low-carb diet improves the memory of those with age-related mild cognitive impairment. Mild cognitive impairment is a precursor to dementia. (University of Cincinnati, 2012.)
- High-carbohydrate and sugar-rich diets greatly raise the risk of mild cognitive impairment in the elderly. (Mayo Clinic study published in the Journal of Alzheimers’ Disease, 2012.)
- Compared to obese low-fat dieters, low-carb dieters lose twice as much fat weight. (University of Cincinnati, 2011.)
- Diets low in sugar and refined starches are linked to lower risk of age-related macular degeneration in women. Macular degeneration is a major cause of blindness. (University of Wisconsin, 2011.)
- A ketogenic (very-low-carb) Mediterranean diet cures metabolic syndrome (Journal of Medicinal Food, 2011.)
- For type 2 diabetics, replacing a daily muffin (high-carb) with two ounces (60 g) of nuts (low-carb) improves blood sugar control and reduces LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol). (Diabetes Care, 2011.)
- For those afflicted with fatty liver, a low-carb diet beats a low-fat diet for management. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011.)
- For weight loss, the American Diabetes Association has endorsed low-carb (under 130 g/day) and Mediterranean diets, for use up to two years. (Diabetes Care, 2011.)
- High-carbohydrate eating doubles the risk of heart disease (coronary artery disease) in women. (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2010.)
- One criticism of low-carb diets is that they may be high in protein, which in turn may cause bone thinning (osteoporosis). A 2010 study shows this is not a problem, at least in women. Men were not studied. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.)
- High-carbohydrate eating increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.)
- Obesity in U.S. children tripled from 1980 to 2000, rising to 17% of all children. A low-carb, high-protein diet is safe and effective for obese adolescents. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010.
Steve Parker, M.D.
PS: The paleo diet is also referred to as the caveman diet, Paleolithic diet, hunter-gatherer diet, Stone Age diet, and ancestral diet.