By John Kerr 08/08/2016

An Australian researcher has spoken out against a growing number of claims that the Paleo diet – consisting largely of low-carbohydrate food – can help to manage or even reverse diabetes.

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, Associate Professor Sof Andrikopoulos from the University of Melbourne says despite dozens of websites urging people with diabetes to go paleo, there have been no trials lasting beyond 12 weeks on type 2 diabetes sufferers.

“Both studies had fewer than 20 participants, one had no control diet, and at 12 weeks or less, neither study lasted long enough for us to draw solid conclusions about the impact on weight or glycemic control,” he says.

The ‘paleo’ or palaeolithic diet claims to be based on the diet of early ‘hunter-gatherer’ humans from the Palaeolithic period – around 2.5 million to 10,000 years BC. Interpretations of what this actually means vary, but largely the diet consists of vegetables, some fruit, nuts, naturally occurring fats and oils, meat and seafood. It excludes dairy products, grains, legumes, processed oils, sugar, salt, alcohol and coffee.

Nuts are a key part of the Paleo diet. Credit: Flickr / Mariya Chorna.
Nuts are a key part of the Paleo diet. Credit: Flickr / Mariya Chorna.

“Most paleo diets insist on avoiding refined sugar and processed food, which is consistent with dietary guidelines worldwide,” say Andrikopoulos .

“But when you start cutting out whole grains and dairy, which are absent from many forms of the Paleo diet, you may forgo important sources of fibre and calcium.

“And high-fat, zero-carb diets promoted by some celebrities make this worse, as they can lead to rapid weight gain, as well as increase your risk of heart disease.”

So what should people with diabetes be eating? Prof Andrikopoulos says people with diabetes benefit most from regular exercise and the Mediterranean diet

“It’s backed by evidence and is a low-refined sugar diet with healthy oils and fats from fish and extra virgin olive oil, legumes and protein.”

Mice fed the paleo diet didn't see any diabetes benfits
Associate Professor Andrikopoulos with the New Zealand Obese mice. Credit: Paul Burston.


It’s not the first time Prof Andrikopoulos has spoken out against the paleo diet. He publicly slammed paleo claims earlier this year after publishing a study showing that a low-carbohydrate high-fat diet increases weight gain and does not improve glucose tolerance or insulin secretion in obese pre-diabetic mice.

(Interestingly, the mice used in the study were New Zealand Obese Mice, a special strain of mice born out of a breeding programme that started at Otago University in the 1940’s).


Diabetes and the Paleo diet in New Zealand

Diabetes affects an estimated 257,000 people in New Zealand, and, according to the Health Quality and Safety Commission, this number is expected to double in the next 20 years.

A careful diet controlling sugar intake is a key part in managing the condition, but health groups in New Zealand are also skeptical of the overall benefits of the Paleo diet.

Diabetes New Zealand’s take on the issue echoes Prof Andrikopoulos’ warning:

Some aspects of these diets may be consistent with recommendations for people with diabetes such as the Paleo diet’s recommendation to avoid processed foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt. But, these diets also promote the removal of key food groups potentially leading to nutritional deficiencies.

The Ministry of Health has also taken on the paelo trend directly, last year specifically warning about the lack of evidence for general health benefits in their dietary guidelines.

The ‘paleo’ has some healthy features, but overall, based on current knowledge of healthy eating, no, it is not a healthy eating plan.

Featured image: Flickr/ Lord Jim