A 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that diabetes, heart disease and stroke are among the top 10 leading causes of death for Americans.
The risk factors for these conditions could be mitigated through lifestyle and dietary choices. For example, according to U.S News, the paleo diet ranks among the top 30 best diets for “Best Diets Overall,” “Best Heart-Healthy Diets,” “Best Diabetes Diets,” and “Best Diets for Healthy Eating.”
The Mayo Clinic defines the paleo diet as “a dietary plan based on foods similar to what might have been eaten during the Paleolithic era.” During this era, the farming practices which directly alter the composition of food before consumption were not yet developed. Specifically, this diet mainly consists of lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, which are all whole foods- foods that are minimally processed or refined before consumption.
The paleo diet has gained popularity over the years because it aims to return to a dietary regime similar to what early humans ate, according to a study by Harvard University. The reasoning for this diet stems from the discordance hypothesis — the idea that the human body does not genetically match the diet that has emerged from farming practices. The changes that farming instilled in the human diet are hypothesized to have occurred more quickly than we can biologically adapt, a mismatch which is believed to be a factor in the increasing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, three of the main causes of death among older adults.
Though they do not explicitly use the term “diet,” Maryam Alamoutinia, a nurse practitioner of the Family Practice of Dr. Alan Nili, and Aida Sadeghi, a nutritionist part of the Family Practice of Dr. Alan Nili, encourage clients to pursue a “whole foods” based diet to reduce factors that put them at risk for future illness.
Alamoutinia says that she advises her patients to reduce cholesterol and increase cardiovascular exercise to reduce the risk for chronic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes.
“I usually encourage my patients with high LDL and high cholesterol, or other warning signs in their blood test results, to have low-fat low cholesterol diet, with red meat once a week, egg yolk once a week, while staying away from fatty and fried food. It is important to use plant-based oils and include plant-based fats in the diet as well as portion control,” she said.
The discordance hypothesis plays a role in the change in our diet as well, as Sadeghi emphasized:
“The quickest and most readily accessible food in our society today has been manufactured to a point where it becomes addictive and makes our bodies crave it more, making it harder for us to correctly read hunger signals from the body. It has come to a point where minimizing restrictions and increasing convenience and ease of implementation are the best ways to make changes in eating habits.”
A research study explains the addictive properties of food, stating that food high in processed sugar pushes the body to release more dopamine than unprocessed food, which creates a positive feedback loop encouraging the body to get more junk food, increasing the chance of fatty buildup in the arteries or dangerous peaks in blood sugar.
Sadeghi also encourages her clients to include lots of whole grains and an overall balanced whole-food-based diet not only because it is scientifically proven to improve health, but also because, in her experience, it lowers cases of obesity, heart disease, cancer, inflammatory diseases, and even mental health issues.
“Eating a balanced diet, such as the USDA guidelines of 42% carbohydrates, 10 to 20% protein, 10 to 20% fat, which many do not follow, is just as important as consuming nutrients. Both of these help nutrients enter the gut and release healthy microflora, which supports the immune system, serotonin release and dopamine release which actually play a part in mood and therefore mental health as well,” Sadeghi says.
On the other hand, the paleo diet includes some drawbacks as well. A post by UC Davis Health states that it “puts most at risk for deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D, which are critical to bone health.” In addition, a study done by Angela Genoni worked with participants who followed strict and pseudo paleo guidelines. In the follow-up period, scientists found that “the lack of whole grains was associated with high trimethylamine N-oxide levels, which may provide a link with the reduced risks of cardiovascular disease we see in populations with high intakes of whole grains.”
Although it may be hard to directly pinpoint the best way to combat chronic illness, studies have shown that small and thorough changes to avoid processed foods and instead include plant-based foods and lean meats can help reduce the risk of health issues later in life.