Thinking about “going Paleo” to help manage your diabetes? You’re not alone. Many in the type 2 diabetes community are adopting the Paleo diet in the hopes that it will help increase insulin sensitivity and stabilize blood sugars.
The diet is based on the principle of eating as similar to our Paleolithic ancestors as is modernly possible. Although what is “allowed” and “not allowed” varies depending on which version of the diet you’re considering, the overall idea is that you’re eating foods straight from the earth – fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, eggs, meat and fish – and avoiding foods that were likely not eaten by our primal descendants.
So what’s the verdict? Is this just another trendy diet plan that will lose its luster? Or could going Paleo actually work to improve your diabetes management plan?
Here are some pros and cons to consider before taking the Paleo plunge:
Pro: The focus is on whole, unprocessed foods
As a health coach and dietitian, I am typically wary of new diet fads. One reason (among many) is that trendy diets often encourage followers to eat processed foods in the form of shakes, bars, powders or pills – all of which are far from a sustainable (and budget-friendly) approach to healthy eating.
This is where I have to hand it to the Paleo diet – it is founded on real food. In fact, the whole premise of the Paleo diet is to eat as nature intended. This means filling up on high-fiber fruits and veggies, high-quality protein sources like grass-fed meats, and heart-healthy fats like avocados and nuts. This style of eating often means less eating out and more cooking at home. When you are cooking, you have more control—control of the ingredients, control of how much you put into your mouth. and control of your blood glucose levels. By this standard, the Paleo diet gets a gold star.
Con: There are still plenty of gimmicks
Now the caveat. While the foundation of the Paleo diet was built on eating whole, nourishing foods, that hasn’t stopped food companies from creating “Paleo” versions of processed foods to attract followers. But did cavemen really eat brownies made with coconut flour or cinnamon rolls with “Paleo” icing?
If you’re considering going on this diet to help manage your blood sugars, it is important to remember to be mindful of the ingredients of any packaged food item you purchase. Anytime you pick up a package that screams “Paleo-friendly” on the front, check the nutrition label to see how nutritious that food really is and how it may affect your blood glucose levels. At the end of the day, a processed food is still a processed food, and too much carbohydrate, whether from natural sources or not, can send blood sugars soaring.
Pro: You will eat less “simple carbs”
One valuable lesson learned from our primal ancestors is that carbohydrates are best eaten from whole, nutritious, real-food sources. Because most versions of the Paleo diet restrict grains, dairy and many sweeteners, most of your carbohydrates will be derived from things like fruits and veggies.
Simple carbohydrates – like those found in processed foods like chips, candy, or products made from refined wheat – are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, making it harder to avoid peaks and valleys in your blood glucose levels. So by eliminating most simple carbohydrates from your diet it may be easier to stabilize your blood glucose throughout the day. And by pairing your fruits and veggies with protein and healthy fats (as recommended on Paleo), you help to slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream, making for overall better blood glucose control.
Con: It is restrictive…very restrictive
While the Paleo diet does include foods that help to control blood glucose and eliminate many that spike sugars, it forbids several foods that are considered nutrition powerhouses by more traditional nutrition standards.
For example, most versions of the Paleo diet recommend eliminating all dairy, whole grains and legumes based on the idea that our Paleo ancestors did not eat these food groups. Many scientists and anthropologists argue with this theory, pointing out that there is not just one true, standard Paleolithic diet. Many also will mention that depending on the population, the geographic area and timeline, there is substantial proof that ancient man did thrive on many of these foods.
So if you are thinking about following a Paleo-style plan, you may consider having some flexibility in your diet when it comes to certain food groups. By eliminating all grains and legumes, for instance, you may be missing out on some valuable nutrients that are particularly useful in steadying blood sugars.
When choosing grains, opt for whole versions like oats or barley which are packed with fiber and potassium. To incorporate legumes, add in half a cup of cooked beans or lentils to top a salad or as a filling addition to a soup. Both of these foods groups, by the way, made it to the top list of superfoods for diabetes by the American Diabetes Association.
Pro: It’s a lifestyle
Most proponents of the Paleo diet will tell you this is not a fad but a style of eating that is here to stay. In contrast to most popular diet plans that encourage heavily restricting calories for a given amount of time to induce dramatic weight loss, the Paleo method emphasizes eating in a manner that contributes to a better quality of life, not just a smaller waistline. Many advocates of the diet encourage gradual, sustainable weight reduction (if that’s your goal) and focus on disease prevention or treatment.
Whether you’re looking to go strict Paleo or not, changing your eating habits to make for a healthier lifestyle is always a better approach to crash dieting in the long run.
Con: There is still much left to learn
Even though many advocates of the Paleo diet believe this is the only way humans are meant to eat, the truth is, there is only limited amount of data to support many of the associated health claims. Many living with diabetes are gravitating to a Paleo-style approach since some research suggests followers can improve glucose tolerance and develop better blood sugar stabilization. But we’ll need more substantial evidence before we can say just how effective (and safe) this style of eating truly is for treatment of Type 2 diabetes.
If you do plan to follow a Paleo-style diet, remember to choose high quality sources of protein and fats by selecting lean cuts of meat and plant-based oils like olive or avocado. Fatty cuts of meats and oils high in trans or saturated fats should be avoided because of increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, especially in those living with diabetes.
Finally, be sure to speak with your doctor about following such a low-carbohydrate eating plan if you are regularly taking insulin or other blood sugar-regulating medications, as this may put you at risk for having blood sugars dip too low.