The Natural Human Diet

NF-Nov15 The Problem with the Paleo Diet Argument copy.jpg

Our epidemics of dietary disease have prompted a great deal of research into what humans are meant to eat for optimal health. In 1985, an influential article highlighted in my video The Problem With the Paleo Diet Argument was published proposing that our chronic diseases stem from a disconnect between what our bodies ate while evolving during the Stone Age (about 2 million years ago) and what we're stuffing our face with today. The proposal advocated for a return towards a hunter-gatherer type diet of lean meat, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

It's reasonable to assume our nutritional requirements were established in the prehistoric past. However, the question of which prehistoric past we should emulate remains. Why just the last 2 million? We've been evolving for about 20 million years since our last common great ape ancestor, during which our nutrient requirements and digestive physiology were set down. Therefore our hunter-gatherer days at the tail end probably had little effect. What were we eating for the first 90% of our evolution? What the rest of the great apes ended up eating--95 percent or more plants.

This may explain why we're so susceptible to heart disease. For most of human evolution, cholesterol may have been virtually absent from the diet. No bacon, butter, or trans fats; and massive amounts of fiber, which pulls cholesterol from the body. This could have been a problem since our body needs a certain amount of cholesterol, but our bodies evolve not only to make cholesterol, but also to preserve it and recycle it.

If we think of the human body as a cholesterol-conserving machine, then plop it into the modern world of bacon, eggs, cheese, chicken, pork, and pastry; it's no wonder artery-clogging heart disease is our #1 cause of death. What used to be adaptive for 90% of our evolution--holding on to cholesterol at all costs since we weren't getting much in our diet--is today maladaptive, a liability leading to the clogging of our arteries. Our bodies just can't handle it.

As the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology noted 25 years ago, no matter how much fat and cholesterol carnivores eat, they do not develop atherosclerosis. We can feed a dog 500 eggs worth of cholesterol and they just wag their tail; a dog's body is used to eating and getting rid of excess cholesterol. Conversely, within months a fraction of that cholesterol can start clogging the arteries of animals adapted to eating a more plant-based diet.

Even if our bodies were designed by natural selection to eat mostly fruit, greens and seeds for 90% of our evolution, why didn't we better adapt to meat-eating in the last 10%, during the Paleolithic? We've had nearly 2 million years to get used to all that extra saturated fat and cholesterol. If a lifetime of eating like that clogs up nearly everyone's arteries, why didn't the genes of those who got heart attacks die off and get replaced by those that could live to a ripe old age with clean arteries regardless of what they ate? Because most didn't survive into old age.

Most prehistoric peoples didn't live long enough to get heart attacks. When the average life expectancy is 25 years old, then the genes that get passed along are those that can live to reproductive age by any means necessary, and that means not dying of starvation. The more calories in food, the better. Eating lots of bone marrow and brains, human or otherwise, would have a selective advantage (as would discovering a time machine stash of Twinkies for that matter!). If we only have to live long enough to get our kids to puberty to pass along our genes, then we don't have to evolve any protections against the ravages of chronic disease.

To find a population nearly free of chronic disease in old age, we don't have to go back a million years. In the 20th century, networks of missionary hospitals in rural Africa found coronary artery disease virtually absent, and not just heart disease, but high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, common cancers, and more. In a sense, these populations in rural China and Africa were eating the type of diet we've been eating for 90% of the last 20 million years, a diet almost exclusively of plant foods.

How do we know it was their diet and not something else? In the 25 year update to their original paleo paper, the authors tried to clarify that they did not then and do not now propose that people adopt a particular diet just based on what our ancient ancestors ate. Dietary recommendations must be put to the test. That's why the pioneering research from Pritikin, Ornish, and Esselstyn is so important, showing that plant-based diets can not only stop heart disease but have been proven to reverse it in the majority of patients. Indeed, it's the only diet that ever has.

For more on the absence of Western diseases in plant-based rural populations, see for example:

I've touched on "paleo" diets in the past:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Nathan Rupert / Flickr

Original Link

The Natural Human Diet

NF-Nov15 The Problem with the Paleo Diet Argument copy.jpg

Our epidemics of dietary disease have prompted a great deal of research into what humans are meant to eat for optimal health. In 1985, an influential article highlighted in my video The Problem With the Paleo Diet Argument was published proposing that our chronic diseases stem from a disconnect between what our bodies ate while evolving during the Stone Age (about 2 million years ago) and what we're stuffing our face with today. The proposal advocated for a return towards a hunter-gatherer type diet of lean meat, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

It's reasonable to assume our nutritional requirements were established in the prehistoric past. However, the question of which prehistoric past we should emulate remains. Why just the last 2 million? We've been evolving for about 20 million years since our last common great ape ancestor, during which our nutrient requirements and digestive physiology were set down. Therefore our hunter-gatherer days at the tail end probably had little effect. What were we eating for the first 90% of our evolution? What the rest of the great apes ended up eating--95 percent or more plants.

This may explain why we're so susceptible to heart disease. For most of human evolution, cholesterol may have been virtually absent from the diet. No bacon, butter, or trans fats; and massive amounts of fiber, which pulls cholesterol from the body. This could have been a problem since our body needs a certain amount of cholesterol, but our bodies evolve not only to make cholesterol, but also to preserve it and recycle it.

If we think of the human body as a cholesterol-conserving machine, then plop it into the modern world of bacon, eggs, cheese, chicken, pork, and pastry; it's no wonder artery-clogging heart disease is our #1 cause of death. What used to be adaptive for 90% of our evolution--holding on to cholesterol at all costs since we weren't getting much in our diet--is today maladaptive, a liability leading to the clogging of our arteries. Our bodies just can't handle it.

As the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology noted 25 years ago, no matter how much fat and cholesterol carnivores eat, they do not develop atherosclerosis. We can feed a dog 500 eggs worth of cholesterol and they just wag their tail; a dog's body is used to eating and getting rid of excess cholesterol. Conversely, within months a fraction of that cholesterol can start clogging the arteries of animals adapted to eating a more plant-based diet.

Even if our bodies were designed by natural selection to eat mostly fruit, greens and seeds for 90% of our evolution, why didn't we better adapt to meat-eating in the last 10%, during the Paleolithic? We've had nearly 2 million years to get used to all that extra saturated fat and cholesterol. If a lifetime of eating like that clogs up nearly everyone's arteries, why didn't the genes of those who got heart attacks die off and get replaced by those that could live to a ripe old age with clean arteries regardless of what they ate? Because most didn't survive into old age.

Most prehistoric peoples didn't live long enough to get heart attacks. When the average life expectancy is 25 years old, then the genes that get passed along are those that can live to reproductive age by any means necessary, and that means not dying of starvation. The more calories in food, the better. Eating lots of bone marrow and brains, human or otherwise, would have a selective advantage (as would discovering a time machine stash of Twinkies for that matter!). If we only have to live long enough to get our kids to puberty to pass along our genes, then we don't have to evolve any protections against the ravages of chronic disease.

To find a population nearly free of chronic disease in old age, we don't have to go back a million years. In the 20th century, networks of missionary hospitals in rural Africa found coronary artery disease virtually absent, and not just heart disease, but high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, common cancers, and more. In a sense, these populations in rural China and Africa were eating the type of diet we've been eating for 90% of the last 20 million years, a diet almost exclusively of plant foods.

How do we know it was their diet and not something else? In the 25 year update to their original paleo paper, the authors tried to clarify that they did not then and do not now propose that people adopt a particular diet just based on what our ancient ancestors ate. Dietary recommendations must be put to the test. That's why the pioneering research from Pritikin, Ornish, and Esselstyn is so important, showing that plant-based diets can not only stop heart disease but have been proven to reverse it in the majority of patients. Indeed, it's the only diet that ever has.

For more on the absence of Western diseases in plant-based rural populations, see for example:

I've touched on "paleo" diets in the past:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Nathan Rupert / Flickr

Original Link

Paleo Diet May Undermine Benefit of CrossFit Exercise

NF-Sept6 Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.jpeg

Much of the low-carb and paleo reasoning revolves around insulin. To quote a paleo blogger, "carbohydrates increase insulin, the root of all evil when it comes to dieting and health." So the logic follows that because carbs increase insulin, we should stick mostly to meat, which is fat and protein with no carbs, so no increase in insulin, right?

Wrong.

We've known for half a century that if you give someone just a steak: no carbs, no sugar, no starch; their insulin goes up. Carbs make our insulin go up, but so does protein.

In 1997 an insulin index of foods was published, ranking 38 foods to determine which stimulates higher insulin levels. Researchers compared a large apple and all its sugar, a cup of oatmeal packed with carbs, a cup and a half of white flour pasta, a big bun-less burger with no carbs at all, to half of a salmon fillet. As you can see in the graph in my video Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise, the meat produced the highest insulin levels.

Researchers only looked at beef and fish, but subsequent data showed that that there's no significant difference between the insulin spike from beef, chicken, or pork--they're all just as high. Thus, protein and fat rich foods may induce substantial insulin secretion. In fact, meat protein causes as much insulin release as pure sugar.

So, based on the insulin logic, if low-carbers and paleo folks really believed insulin to be the root of all evil, then they would be eating big bowls of spaghetti day in and day out before they would ever consume meat.

They are correct in believing that having hyperinsulinemia, high levels of insulin in the blood like type 2 diabetics have, is not a good thing, and may increase cancer risk. But if low-carb and paleo dieters stuck to their own insulin theory, then they would be out telling everyone to start eating plant-based. Vegetarians have significantly lower insulin levels even at the same weight as omnivores. This is true for ovo-lacto-vegetarians, lacto-vegetarians, and vegans. Meat-eaters have up to 50% higher insulin levels.

Researchers from the University of Memphis put a variety of people on a vegan diet (men, women, younger folks, older folks, skinny and fat) and their insulin levels dropped significantly within just three weeks. And then, just by adding egg whites back to their diet, their insulin production rose 60% within four days.

In a study out of MIT, researchers doubled participants' carbohydrate intake, and their insulin levels went down. Why? Because the researchers weren't feeding people jellybeans and sugar cookies, they were feeding people whole, plant foods, lots of whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.

What if we put someone on a very-low carb diet, like an Atkins diet? Low carb advocates such as Dr. Westman assumed that it would lower insulin levels. Dr. Westman is the author of the new Atkins books, after Dr. Atkins died obese with, according to the medical examiner, a history of heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. But, Dr. Westman was wrong in his assumption. There are no significant drop in insulin levels on very low-carb diets. Instead, there is a significant rise in LDL cholesterol levels, the number one risk factor for our number one killer, heart disease.

Atkins is an easy target though. No matter how many "new" Atkins diets that come out, it's still old news. What about the paleo diet? The paleo movement gets a lot of things right. They tell people to ditch dairy and doughnuts, eat lots of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and cut out a lot of processed junk food. But a new study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science is pretty concerning. Researchers took young healthy people, put them on a Paleolithic diet along with a CrossFit-based, high-intensity circuit training exercise program.

If you lose enough weight exercising, you can temporarily drop our cholesterol levels no matter what you eat. You can see that with stomach stapling surgery, tuberculosis, chemotherapy, a cocaine habit, etc. Just losing weight by any means can lower cholesterol, which makes the results of the Paleo/Crossfit study all the more troubling. After ten weeks of hardcore workouts and weight loss, the participants' LDL cholesterol still went up. And it was even worse for those who started out the healthiest. Those starting out with excellent LDL's (under 70), had a 20% elevation in LDL cholesterol, and their HDL dropped. Exercise is supposed to boost our good cholesterol, not lower it.

The paleo diet's deleterious impact on blood fats was not only significant, but substantial enough to counteract the improvements commonly seen with improved fitness and body composition. Exercise is supposed to make things better.

On the other hand, if we put people instead on a plant-based diet and a modest exercise program, mostly just walking-based; within three weeks their bad cholesterol can drop 20% and their insulin levels 30%, despite a 75-80% carbohydrate diet, whereas the paleo diets appeared to "negate the positive effects of exercise."

I touched on paleo diets before in Paleolithic Lessons, and I featured a guest blog on the subject: Will The Real Paleo Diet Please Stand Up?

but my favorite paleo videos are probably The Problem With the Paleo Diet Argument and Lose Two Pounds in One Sitting: Taking the Mioscenic Route.

I wrote a book on low carb diets in general (now available free full-text online) and touched on it in Atkins Diet: Trouble Keeping It Up and Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow.

And if you're thinking, but what about the size of the cholesterol, small and dense versus large and fluffy? Please see my video Does Cholesterol Size Matter?

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: Vincent Lit / Flickr

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Low Carb Diets Found to Feed Heart Disease

NF-May19 Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow.jpg

People going on low carb diets may not see a rise in their cholesterol levels. How is that possible? Because weight loss by any means can drop our cholesterol. We could go on an all-Twinkie diet and lower our cholesterol as long as we didn't eat too many. A good cocaine habit could do it. Anything that drops our weight can drop our cholesterol, but the goal isn't to fit into a skinnier casket; the reason we care about cardiovascular risk factors like cholesterol is because we care about cardiovascular risk, the health of our arteries.

Now we have studies that measure the impact of low carb diets on arteries directly, and a review of all the best studies to date found that low-carb diets impair arterial function, as evidenced by a decrease in flow-mediated dilation, meaning low-carb diets effectively stiffen people's arteries. And since that meta-analysis was published, a new study found the same thing: "A dietary pattern characterized by high protein and fat, but low carbohydrate was associated with poorer peripheral small artery function," again measuring blood flow into people's limbs. But peripheral circulation is not as important as the circulation in the coronary arteries that feed our heart.

There has only been one study ever done measuring actual blood flow to the heart muscles of people eating low-carb diets. Dr. Richard Fleming, an accomplished nuclear cardiologist, enrolled 26 people into a comprehensive study of the effects of diet on cardiac function using the latest in nuclear imaging technology-so-called SPECT scans, enabling him to actually directly measure the blood flow within the coronary arteries.

He then put them all on a healthy vegetarian diet, and a year later the scans were repeated. By that time, however, ten of the patients had jumped ship onto the low carb bandwagon. At first I bet he was disappointed, but surely soon realized he had an unparalleled research opportunity dropped into his lap. Here he had extensive imaging of ten people before and after following a low carb diet and 16 following a high carb diet. What would their hearts look like at the end of the year? We can talk about risk factors all we want, but compared to the veg group, did the coronary heart disease of the patients following the Atkins-like diets improve, worsen, or stay the same?

Those sticking to the vegetarian diet showed a reversal of their heart disease as expected. Their partially clogged arteries literally got cleaned out. They had 20% less atherosclerotic plaque in their arteries at the end of the year than at the beginning. What happened to those who abandoned the treatment diet, and switched over to the low-carb diet? Their condition significantly worsened. 40% to 50% more artery clogging at the end of the year. In heart scans of the patients, as seen in my video, Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow, the yellow and particularly red areas represent blood flow through the coronary arteries to the heart muscle. The scan of one of the patients who went on a plant-based diet, shows how their arteries opened right up increasing the blood flow. Another person, however, started out with good flow, but after a year on a low-carb diet, they significantly clogged down their arterial blood flow.

So this is the best science we have, demonstrating the threat of low-carb diets, not just measuring risk factors, but actual blood flow in people's hearts on different diets. Of course the reason we care about cardiac blood flow, is we don't want to die. Another meta-analysis was recently published that finally went ahead and measured the ultimate end-point, death, and low-carb diets were associated with a significantly higher risk of all-cause mortality, meaning living a significantly shorter lifespan.

The reason I have so few videos about low-carb diets is that I already wrote a book about it. Carbophobia is now available free online full-text at AtkinsFacts.org. Atkins' lawyers threatened to sue, leading to a heated exchange you're sure to enjoy that I reprint in the book. I did touch on it Atkins Diet: Trouble Keeping it Up, though low carb diets don't necessarily have to be that unhealthy (see my video Plant-Based Atkins Diet).

Here are some videos I've done on conquering our #1 killer:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: ryan.dowd / Flickr

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