Swedish researchers compared a Paleolithic-type diet against a lower-fat, higher-carb diet so often recommend in Nordic countries and in the U.S. Test subjects were obese but otherwise healthy older women. The study lasted two years. Dieters could eat as much as they wanted.
They found that the paleo-style dieters lost more weight, lost more abdominal fat, and lowered their trigyceride levels. When measured six months into the study, the paleo dieters had lost 6.5 kg (14 lb) of body fat compared to 2.6 (6 lb) kg in the other group.
Measured at two years out, the paleo dieters had lost 4.6 kg (10 lb) of body fat compared to 2.9 kg (6 lb) in the other group, but this difference wasn’t statistically significant.
The greatest weight loss was clocked at 12 months: Paleo dieters were down 8.7 (19 lb) kg compared to 4.4 kg (10 lb) in the other group.
But this study was about more than weight loss. The investigators were also interested in cardiometabolic risk factors and overall body composition.
I don’t know what the researchers told the women to get them interested. Weight loss versus healthier diet versus ? This could have influenced the type of women who signed up, and their degree of commitment.
A newspaper ad got the attention of 210 women in Sweden; 70 met the inclusion criteria, which included a body mass index 27 or higher and generally good health. Average age was 60. Average BMI was 33. Average weight was 87 kg (192 lb). Average waist circumference was 105 cm (41 inches). The women were randomized into one of two diet groups (N=35 in each): paleolithic-type diet (PD) or Nordic Nutrition Recommendations diet (NNR). There were no limits on total caloric consumption. (Were the women told to “work on weight loss”? I have no idea.)
We don’t know the ethnicity of these women.
Here’s their version of the paleo diet:
- 30% of energy (calories) from protein
- 40% of energy from fat
- 30% of energy from carbohydrate
- high intake of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids
- based on lean meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, berries, and nuts
- additional fat sources were avocado and oils (rapeseed [canola] and olive) used in dressings and food preparation
- cereals (grains), dairy products, added salt and refined fats and sugar were excluded
- no mention of legumes, potatoes, or tubers
The NNR diet:
- 15% of energy from protein
- 25-30% of energy from fat
- 55-60% of energy from carbohydrate
- emphasis on high-fiber products and low-fat dairy products
Over the 24 months of the study, each cohort had 12 group meetings with a dietitian for education and support, including “dietary effects on health, behavioral changes and group discussion.”
Various blood tests and body measurements were made at baseline and periodically. Body measurements were made every six months. Body composition was measured by dual energy x-ray absorptiometry. Diet intake was measured by self-reported periodic four-day food records.
30% of participants (21) eventually dropped out by the end of the study and were lost to follow-up, leaving 27 in the PD group and 22 in the NNR cohort.
Food record analysis indicated the PD group indeed reduced their carb intake while increasing protein and fat over baseline. Baseline macronutrient energy percentages were about the same for both groups: 17% protein, 45% carb, 34% (I guess the percentages don’t add to 100 because of alcohol, which wads not mentioned at all in the article.) Two years out, the PD group’s energy sources were 22% protein, 34% carb, 40% fat. For the NNR group, the energy sources at two years were 17% protein, 43% carb, and 34% fat. As usual, dietary compliance was better at six months compared to 24 months. The PD group failed to reach target amounts of protein energy (30%) at six and 24 months; the NNR group didn’t reach their goal of carbohydrate energy (55-60%). The PD group ate more mono- and poly unsaturated fatty acids than the NNRs.
In contrast to the food record estimates of protein intake, the urine tests for protein indicated poor adherence to the recommended protein consumption in the PD group (30% of energy). Both groups ate the same amount of protein by this metric. (This is an issue mostly ignored by authors, who don’t say which method is usually more accurate.)
“Both groups had statistically significant weight loss during the whole study, with significantly greater weight loos in the PD group at all follow up time points except at 24 months.” Largest weight loss was measured at 12 month: 8.7 kg (19 lb) in the PD group versus 4.4 kg (10 lb) in the NNRs.
The PD group lost 6.5 kg (14 lb) of body fat by six months but the loss was only 4.6 kg (10 lb) measured at 24 months. Corresponding numbers for the NNR group were 2.6 and 2.9 kg (about 6 lb). So both groups decreased their total fat mass to a significant degree. The difference between the groups was significant (P<0.001) only at six months. The greatest weight loss was clocked at 12 months: PD dieters were down 8.7 kg (19 lb) compared to 4.4 kg (10 lb) in the NNRs. Both groups saw a significant decrease in waist circumference during the whole study, with a more pronounce decrease in the PD group at six months: 11 versus 6 cm (4.3 versus 2.4 inches).
Fasting blood sugars, fasting insulin levels, and tissue plasminogen activator activity didn’t change.
Both groups had improvements in blood pressure, heart rate, c-reactive protein, LDL cholesterol, PAI-1 activity, and total cholesterol. The PD group saw a greater drop in triglycerides (by 19% at two years, but levels were normal to start with at 108 mg/dl or 1.22 mmol/l).
Reported daily energy intake fell over time for both groups, without statistically significant differences between them.
As measured at six months, the paleo dieters lost 10% of their initial body weight, compared to 5% in the NNR group. That’s worth something to many folks. However, the researchers didn’t find much, if any, difference in the groups in terms of cardiometabolic risk factors. They wonder if that reflects the baseline healthiness of these women. Would a sicker study population show more improvement on one of the diets?
I’m surprised the NNR group lost any weight at all. In my experience it’s hard for most folks to lose weight and keep it off while eating as much as they want, unless they’re eating very-low-carb. We’ve seen short-term weight loss with ad libitum paleo diets before (here for example, and here, and here). I bet the women signing up for this study were highly motivated to change.
Legumes and potatoes are a debatable part of the paleo diet. Most versions exclude legumes. We don’t know if these women ate legumes and potatoes. Other than this oversight, the study paleo diet is reasonable.
The authors noted that the paleo diet group failed to reach their protein intake goal (30% of total calories), and suggested reasons “such as protein-rich foods being more expensive, social influences on women’s food choices or a lower food preference for protein-rich food among women.”
The results of this study may or may not apply to other population subgroups and non-Swedes.
The authors write:
In conclusion, a Palaeolithic-type diet during two years with ad libitum intake of macronutrients, including an increased intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids reduces fat mass and abdominal obesity with significantly better long-term effect on triglyceride levels vs an NNR diet. Adherence to the prescribed protein intake was poor in the PD group suggesting that other component of the PD diet are of greater importance.
Does this study have anything to do with diabetes? Not directly. But it suggests that if an overweight diabetic needs to lose excess body fat without strict calorie control, a lower-carb paleo-style diet may be more effective than a low-fat, higher-carb diet. I would have liked to have seen lower fasting blood sugar and insulin levels in the paleo dieters, but wishing doesn’t make it so.
Steve Parker, M.D.
Reference: Mellberg, C., et al (including M. Ryberg and T Olsson). Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, advance online publication January 29, 2014. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2013.290