They've been clinically studied for their association with healthy brain activity, insulin sensitivity, and maintaining a healthy weight.1,2 But did you know that low carb/high-fat diets, like the paleo or ketogenic diet, also support your gut health?
While not designed specifically with gut health in mind, they do include many elements that make your microbes happy. But before we dive into that, let's start by reviewing what paleo and ketogenic diets actually are, since there are some popular misconceptions out there.
The Basics of Low Carb/High Fat Diets
Do a quick Internet search and you'll come up with a library's worth of information on these types of eating plans. Both diets have many nuances and sub-cultures of fans, which is why there are some debates on how to define them. Small differences aside, the main point is that, in their simplest forms, both paleo diets and ketogenic diets are high in fat, moderate in protein, and low in carbs. They share several similarities––for instance, the reduction in carbs on both these diets gives your body a break (because there's less sugar to deal with), and helps your body relearn to process sugar appropriately, normalizing your blood glucose levels––but there are also a few key differences.
What Is a Paleo Diet?
The paleo diet focuses on eating the way our ancestors did and avoiding those things they wouldn't have had access to, like processed sugar, most grains and legumes, vegetable oils, and anything made with artificial ingredients. Basically, if it looks like it was developed after the agricultural revolution, it's probably off the menu. People on this diet tend to eat lots of fresh, non-GMO vegetables and fruit, high quality meat and fish, and fats like ghee, avocado, or plant oils.
What Is a Keto Diet?
The ketogenic diet is similar, but puts even more of an emphasis on eating high fat/low carb. In fact, you're supposed to get a mix of about 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbs on this diet, which means that people on a keto diet have to be careful about fruits and starchy vegetables in a way that those on a paleo diet don't. The main point of a ketogenic diet is to put your body in a state called ketosis, where it burns fat for fuel instead of carbs.
The Benefits of Paleo and Ketogenic Diets
Following a paleo or keto diet can be really beneficial for your health in general; many people find that it helps them maintain good energy levels, stay at their optimal weight, and support their overall health.
These diets are also great for maintaining appropriate blood glucose levels. We didn't evolve to process a lot of glucose at once, so if you're eating a typical Western, carb-heavy diet (especially refined carbs like those found in processed foods), your body is bound to struggle. By flooding your system with carbs, you'll set yourself up for mood swings and energy crashes, and over time, potential problems regulating insulin. But eating paleo or keto can help you avoid or reverse this process, since you eat far fewer carbs and those you do eat tend to be nutrient dense, not empty junk food.3
What's more, both the paleo and keto diets can actually change the way your body creates energy for the better. It all comes down to the fuel source. While most of us think that our body has to run on glucose, it can actually also run on fat––and this is great for your health. Fats burn much more cleanly and efficiently than carb-based sugars, which means that you not only get more energetic bang for your buck, your metabolism also starts to adapt, and you feel fuller longer. Plus, they create fewer free radicals when they're burned.4 Since free radicals are associated with damage to your cells and DNA, this means that eating this way may lower your chances of experiencing some of the most common long-term health conditions.
And when it comes to your gut health specifically, eating paleo or keto can:
1. Make it easier to feed your good guys.
One of the best parts about eating all that non-starchy produce on paleo and keto diets is the prebiotic fiber you get from them. (Quick reminder: prebiotics are fibers that feed probiotics. You need both for a healthy gut microbiome.)
While our ancestors got an incredible 50-100 grams of fiber a day, most of us get about 10-15 grams, which is far less even than the low recommended daily intake of 30 grams.5 This leaves your good guys starving without the nutrients they need, making it that much harder for them to colonize your gut microbiome and crowd out the bad guys.
But eating paleo or keto means that you trend towards loads of veggies and other prebiotic-rich foods, including asparagus, jicama, bananas, apples, leeks, dandelion greens, and unrefined honey. While you still might want to supplement with a prebiotic powder to make sure you get all the fiber you need, eating paleo or keto will get you much closer to your daily fiber requirements than a typical modern diet.
2. Starve the bad guys.
While prebiotic fiber is your good guys' favorite food, the not-so-good guys really go for refined sugar and processed foods––these feed unwanted bacteria, making it easier for them to get out of control and take over your microbiome.6,7 Even worse, certain types of sweeteners and processed foods actually harm your beneficial bacteria, which tips the scales even further in the bad guys' favor. Since sugar and processed foods are pretty much off the table with paleo and keto diets, you don't have to worry about undermining your efforts to help your good guys by accidentally overfeeding the bad guys.
3. Support your gut lining.
While the majority of bacteria in your gut are beneficial, lots of other substances move through your gastrointestinal system every day, and they're not all as friendly. If your gut is healthy, this is okay, because your gut barrier keeps everything in your gastrointestinal system, which can process it and eliminate it safely.
But when the tight connections between the cells of your gut lining become weakened, the barrier itself can start to break down. When this happens, anything and everything that passes through your gastrointestinal system can leak out into your bloodstream, including undesirable bacteria, tiny pieces of food, and toxins. From there, these harmful substances can affect every other part of your body, which is why people with serious stomach issues often also have problems with their hormones, skin, or brain.
So how do the paleo and keto diets tie in? Two of the main foods associated with a weak gut barrier are grains and beans. Many grains contain gluten, which can trigger the extensive immune system in your gut to go into overdrive, attacking itself.8 Gluten also triggers the production of zonulin, a protein that breaks down the connections between the cells of your intestinal walls. Additionally, grains and beans are high in lectins and phytic acid, both of which can damage your gut barrier unless you prepare these foods in very specific ways.9 Since neither grains nor beans are part of a paleo or keto diet, people who eat this way sidestep this potential issue.
What's more, the good fats you get on these diets can encourage your intestinal cells to release a protein that reduces temporary bouts of inflammation that can damage your gut lining, and they can also support the growth of bacteria that strengthen the tight junctions between the cells of your gut barrier.10,11
4. Encourage microbial diversity.
One of the big differences between the paleo and keto diets and the modern Western diet is the amount and types of fat involved. While the mainstream diet focuses on being as low in fat as possible (or high in damaging trans fats), paleo and keto diets are much higher in healthy fats, and encourage people to get specific types of dietary fats from ghee, plant oils, oily fish, and organic meat.
Eating this way means you get way more omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 fatty acids, which is important because omega-3s are closely correlated with microbial diversity.12 Combine this with all the fiber you get from eating paleo or keto (which also increases microbial diversity), and you've got a recipe for an extremely diverse microbiome. And since, like any ecosystem, the gut microbiome tends to thrive the more diverse it is, this means that your microbes enjoy all those good fats as much as you do!
5. Remove some of the most common threats to your microbiome.
Unfortunately, many common factors in our modern Western way of living and eating are extremely damaging to the gut microbiome. Exposure to pesticides, GMO foods, or antibiotics in food or medication can quickly devastate the balance of your gut bacteria, but eating paleo or ketogenic often means that you naturally end up avoiding many of these gut-unfriendly substances.
While it's possible to eat GMO foods or meat and dairy products that contain antibiotics and still technically be eating paleo or keto, it's really not in the spirit of the diets, and most people who follow them eat as high quality seasonal, local, and organic food as they can. This is fantastic for your health overall, and makes eating gut-healthy part of your regular routine, instead of something you have to consciously think about or try to maintain.
If you're looking for a little extra support as you reduce the impact of carbs in your life, try a premium probiotic like Better Body––it not only helps replenish your gut microbiome, it also contains white kidney bean extract, which has been clinically studied to reduce the absorption of carbohydrates.
Whether or not you decide to go full paleo or keto, there are clearly huge benefits to shifting your dietary balance more in favor of fats and proteins and less in favor of carbs from grains, legumes, and sugar, so it's well worth giving this style of eating a try.
Your microbes will certainly thank you for it, and you might be surprised by how you feel after a few weeks of giving your gut the type of nutrition and support it needs to truly thrive.
1. Neal, E.G., Chaffe, H., Schwartz, R.H., Lawson, M.S. . . . Cross, J.H. (2008). The Ketogenic Diet for the Treatment of Childhood Epilepsy: a Randomised Controlled Trial. The Lancet Neurology, 7(6), 500-6. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(08)70092-9
2. Boden, G., Sargrad, K., Homko, C., Mozzoli, M., Stein, T.P. (2005). Effect of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Appetite, Blood Glucose Levels, and Insulin Resistance in Obese Patients with Type 2 Diabetes. Annals of Internal Medicine, 142(6), 403-11. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-142-6-200503150-00006
3. Frassetto, L.A., Schloetter, M. Mietus-Synder, M. . . . Sebastian, A. (2009). Metabolic and Physiologic Improvements From Consuming a Paleolithic, Hunter-Gatherer Type Diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 63, 947–955. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2009.4
4. Veech, R.L. (2004). The Therapeutic Implications of Ketone Bodies: the Effects of Ketone Bodies in Pathological Conditions: Ketosis, Ketogenic Diet, Redox States, Insulin Resistance, and Mitochondrial Metabolism. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 70(3), 309-319. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2003.09.007
5. Leach, J.D., Sobolik, K.D. (2010). High Dietary Intake of Prebiotic Inulin-Type Fructans in the Prehistoric Chihuahuan Desert. British Journal of Nutrition, 103(11), 1558-61. doi: 10.1017/S0007114510000966
6. Magnusson, K., Hauck, L., Jeffrey, B., Elias, V., Humphrey, A., Nath, R., . . . Bermudez, L. (2015). Relationships between diet-related changes in the gut microbiome and cognitive flexibility. Neuroscience, 300, 128-140. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2015.05.016
7. David, L. A., Maurice, C. F., Carmody, R. N., Gootenberg, D. B., Button, J. E., Wolfe, B. E., . . . Turnbaugh, P. J. (2013). Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature, 505(7484), 559-563. doi: 10.1038/nature12820
8. Biesiekierski, J. R., Newnham, E. D., Irving, P. M., Barrett, J. S., Haines, M., Doecke, J. D., . . . Gibson, P. R. (2011). Gluten Causes Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Subjects Without Celiac Disease: A Double-Blind Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. The American Journal of Gastroenterology,106(3), 508-514. doi:10.1038/ajg.2010.487
9. Gundry, S. R. 2017. The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in "Healthy" Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain. New York, NY: Harper Wave.
10. Bentley-Hewitt, K. L., Guzman, C. E., Ansell, J., Mandimika, T., Narbad, A., & Lund, E. K. (2015). How Fish Oils Could Support Our Friendly Bacteria. Lipid Technology, 27(8), 179-182.
11. Rao, R. K., & Samak, G. (2013). Protection and Restitution of Gut Barrier by Probiotics: Nutritional and Clinical Implications. Current Nutrition & Food Science, 9(2), 99-107.
12. Menni, C., Zierer, J., Pallister, T., Jackson, M.A., Long, T. . . . Valdes, A.M. (2017). Omega-3 Fatty Acids Correlate with Gut Microbiome Diversity and Production of N-carbamylglutamate in Middle Aged and Elderly women. Scientific Reports, 7. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-10382-2
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.
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