Here’s why you might want to ditch the Paleo diet and eat more carbs for better health (yes, really!)

By Ally Sorrells
July 22, 2019
Photo: Caitlin Bensel

Adhering to the dietary habits of our caveman ancestors, many individuals have touted the Paleo diet as a healthy lifestyle. Foods eaten on the diet include those that could be easily obtained by hunting and gathering, such as meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. At first glance, the diet seems to be filled with whole foods that are part of a healthy lifestyle, but one recent study suggests otherwise. 

Although it’s a very small study, research published in the European Journal of Nutrition associates a biomarker for heart disease in individuals who adhere to a Paleo diet. The research studied 44 Paleo dieters and compared them to 47 participants following a traditional Australian diet. When both groups’ blood was tested, those on the Paleo diet measured with higher levels of TMAO in their blood. TMAO is an organic compound produced in the gut that can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

TMAO is produced when the body digests choline, lecithin, and carnitine, which are all abundant in animal products. A study published in the European Heart Journal suggests that consuming a diet high in red meat results in higher blood levels of TMAO. Since Paleo-style eating prioritizes the consumption of animal products, it’s naturally higher in saturated fat than many other diets. But—according to the Paleo diet study—this is not the sole cause of the increased TMAO levels.

Head researcher, Dr. Angela Genoni, suggests the reason for increased TMAO levels is a lack of whole grains (which aren’t allowed on the Paleo diet). "We found the lack of whole grains were associated with TMAO levels, which may provide a link between the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease we see in populations with high intakes of whole grains," she said.

Interested in the Paleo diet? Find out more about it here: 

Aside form higher levels of TMAO in the bloodstream, researchers found a higher concentration of the bacteria that produces TMAO in the gut of Paleo dieters. “We know that whole grains are a fantastic source of resistant starch and many other fermentable fibers that are vital to the health of your gut microbiome," Dr Genoni said. The lack of whole grains may result in a gut microbiome that fosters an environment that’s favorable for TMAO production. 

The Bottom Line 

Although a small study, researchers found that eating a Paleo diet may increase your risk of developing heart disease. The two main concerns are a lack of whole grains and increased consumption of red meat. If you’re following the Paleo diet, it’s important to be cognizant of the amount of saturated fat you’re consuming—especially since eating a diet high in saturated fat could increase your risk of developing heart disease. It’s also worth swapping out some of the animal products on your plate for Paleo-friendly, probiotic-rich foods—such as fruits, vegetables, and potatoes—to slash sat fat and keep your gut health in check.

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