If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you must have heard about the various diets that are thought to improve it.
IBS is often difficult to treat and requires a holistic approach. Treatment methods include medications, lifestyle changes, dietary changes, and psychological measures. If you’ve been thinking about trying out some dietary changes and wondering what a paleo diet is, you’re at the right place.
In this article, we’ll discuss what a paleo diet is, what are its benefits, whether it will help you with IBS, and what other dietary changes you can make to improve IBS.
Let’s get started!
What is a paleo diet?
A paleo diet consists of food items that our ancestors consumed thousands of years ago.
The idea is that since people in the Paleolithic era were fit and healthy (because they had to hunt), replicating their diet can improve one’s health.
People following a paleo diet only consume foods that could be once obtained by hunting and gathering. These include fruits, vegetables, lean meat, nuts, and seeds.
Proponents of the paleo diet believe in what’s called the discordance hypothesis, which states that our body’s natural makeup is mismatched to the modern diet.
The modern diet emerged due to farming practices, which introduced legumes, grains, and dairy foods that are now staple foods in many parts of the world. It is believed that since these foods are “unnatural”, they can bring about diseased conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
What are the health benefits of a paleo diet?
You should know that very limited research exists on the benefits of the paleo diet. But the data so far points towards the following benefits:
- Reduced weight
- Reduced cholesterol and triglycerides
- Improved response to insulin, which may help treat diabetes
- Optimized blood sugar levels
- Healthy blood pressure
However, there are many potential risks of the paleo diet as we’ll discuss in the next section. If you’re thinking of trying it out, you must weigh these risks against the benefits. You must also keep in mind that large-scale studies are needed to say anything about the benefits of the paleo diet conclusively.
Risks of the paleo diet that you should know
There are several criticisms about the effectiveness and potential risks of the paleo diet that you should know about.
For starters, there is a lack of clinical studies on the diet. In today’s age of evidence-based medicine, you should be very careful about interventions that aren’t proven to be effective by science.
This is especially true if you have other science-backed interventions for a condition. For example, in the case of IBS, the low-FODMAP diet has been scientifically demonstrated to help IBS patients and would be a better alternative to the paleo diet.
Then, many people have questioned the underlying hypothesis behind the paleo diet. Many researchers believe that we overestimate the health of our ancestors and it’s highly likely that they suffered from nutrient deficiencies due to a restricted diet.
People have also pointed out that a dietary shift to grains, legumes, and dairy was not only due to farming. Other factors like geographical location and genetics have also played a role. For example, we know that since the Paleolithic era, there has been an increase in the number of genes related to the digestion of dietary starches in the human genome.
Interestingly, there is some evidence that wild grains were a part of the human diet well before farming. If this is true, the entire foundation underneath the paleo diet would collapse.
Finally, as pointed out earlier, the paleo diet does not allow the consumption of many important foods like dairy and grains. This can easily lead to nutrient deficiencies with adverse health consequences.
For example, lack of dairy consumption can lead to vitamin D and calcium deficiencies. This can be especially harmful for postmenopausal women, who already suffer from bone weakening due to lack of estrogen.
Similarly, lack of grains can deprive you of fibre, which has been shown to have wide-ranging health benefits including a healthy digestive system.
Should you follow a paleo diet for IBS?
There are two things you should know before following a paleo diet for IBS:
- There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that it helps with the condition
- There is very little scientific evidence that it helps with the condition
Theoretically, a paleo diet may help with IBS because it eliminates legumes and grains, which contain FODMAPs.
FODMAPs are sugars that are hard to digest and have been shown to play a role in causing IBS symptoms.
However, many fruits and vegetables are also rich in FODMAPs and since a paleo diet focuses on these foods, it may worsen your IBS if you don’t choose your fruits and veggies carefully.
If you decide to go with the diet, remember to talk to your doctor first to discuss potential risks and benefits. It’s also a good idea to consult a dietitian who can create a well-balanced paleo diet plan for you. But keep in mind that the diet can get expensive.
What other diets can you try for IBS?
Unlike the paleo diet, the low-FODMAP diet has been shown to be very effective for IBS. And it’s highly recommended that you try a low-FODMAP diet before considering a paleo diet.
Foods you want to avoid on a low-FODMAP diet include:
- Fructose-containing foods like sweeteners, corn syrup, and many fruits
- Fructans, which are found in vegetables like broccoli and beetroot as well as wheat and rye
- Lactose-containing foods, which include dairy products, custard, ice cream, and pudding
- Polyol-containing foods like sorbitol, mannitol, some vegetables, and fruits
- GOS-rich foods like legumes, nuts, and soy products
As you can see, the low-FODMAP diet eliminates dairy items and grains just like the paleo diet, but it’s much more holistic and evidence-based, which is why it’s superior to the paleo diet when it comes to treating IBS.
And just like with the paleo diet, make sure to consult a doctor before starting a low-FODMAP diet to ensure your diet plan remains balanced and you don’t develop nutrient deficiencies.
Medically Reviewed by Onikepe Adegbola, MD PhD