Paleo diet linked to heart disease biomarker in new study

Edith Cowan University

People who follow the Paleo diet have twice the amount of a key blood biomarker linked closely to heart disease, according to a new study examining the impact of the diet on gut bacteria, published in the European Journal of Nutrition.  

Researchers from Edith Cowan University in Joondalup, Australia, compared 44 people on a Paleo diet with 47 people following a traditional Australian diet. The team measured the amount of trimethylamine-n-oxide (TMAO) in participants' blood. High levels of TMAO, an organic compound produced in the gut, are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, researchers said.

The controversial Paleo diet advocates eating meat, vegetables, nuts, and limited fruit, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils.

Angela Genoni, PhD, lead researcher, said with the diet's growing popularity, it was important to understand the impact it could have on overall health.

"Many Paleo diet proponents claim the diet is beneficial to gut health, but this research suggests that when it comes to the production of TMAO in the gut, the Paleo diet could be having an adverse impact in terms of heart health," she said. "We also found that populations of beneficial bacterial species were lower in the Paleolithic groups, associated with the reduced carbohydrate intake, which may have consequences for other chronic diseases over the long-term."

Genoni said the reason TMAO was so elevated in people on the Paleo diet appeared to be the lack of whole grains in their diet. The researchers also found higher concentrations of the bacteria that produces TMAO in the Paleo group.

"The Paleo diet excludes all grains and we know that whole grains are a fantastic source of resistant starch and many other fermentable fibers that are vital to the health of your gut microbiome," said Genoni. “Because TMAO is produced in the gut, a lack of whole grains might change the populations of bacteria enough to enable higher production of this compound. Additionally, the Paleo diet includes greater servings per day of red meat, which provides the precursor compounds to produce TMAO, and Paleo followers consumed twice the recommended level of saturated fats, which is cause for concern.”