Pre-European Hawaiian high carb diet trial reverses Lupus, obesity and diabetes


This is a clinical study from 1989

In 1989 a native pre-Western contact diet was fed to a group of Native Hawaiians with risk factors for heart disease. The programme was called the Waianae Diet Programme. Twenty people were placed on the diet for 21 days.

Native pure Hawaiians have a rate of obesity second only to Pima Indians, and their lifespan is the shortest in the USA. They have the highest mortality rates in the country from cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer as compared to all other ethnic groups.

Historical evidence suggests that prior to Western contact native Hawaiians had little cardiovascular disease or obesity. Historical accounts describe pre-European Hawaiians “The common people are… of thin rather than full habit”.

The traditional native diet was high in fibre, high in complex carbohydrates, high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, low in saturated fats, and low in fat. It was estimated to contain, by calories, < 10% fat, 12 – 15 % protein and 75 – 78% carbohydrate.

The study participants were all obese; average weight 120 kg and BMI 39.6.

The participants could eat as much as they wanted (ad-libitum) of foods that were only available before Western contact. Foods eaten included: taro, poi (a mashed form of taro) sweet potato, yams, breadfruit, seaweed, greens (fern shoots and leaves of taro, sweet potato, and yams), fruit, fish and chicken. Foods were eaten raw or cooked similar to a traditional manner, i.e. steamed. Food was prepared for the participants. Fish and chicken was limited to 142 – 198 g/ day, fruit and vegetables were unlimited and fat < 10% calories. Macronutrient ratios approximated native Hawaiian diets. Participants were encouraged to eat to satiety.

Gathering taro and taro leaves in Hawaii (source)

Traditional method of pounding Taro into poi (source)


Energy intake decreased by 41%, despite never being hungry, and reporting high levels of satiety.

Waianae dietOne reason the participants could eat to satiety, yet decrease energy (calorie) intake so much is because the traditional diet is a low energy dense diet. The energy density is 0.83 calories per gram, or 3.5kJ/g. Food volume actually increased from 1711g/ d to 1872 g/d.

Weight loss: average of 7.8kg (range 2 – 15kg), and most cardiometabolic risk factors improved significantly as shown below:

waianae diet results

Adherence to the diet was excellent in sharp contrast to other diet studies in this population; the reason suggested is that there was a high level of cultural pride and that the diet was culturally appropriate for this group.

Following this initial group a further 120 people went through the 3 week programme. Their results were consistent with the first group:

Diabetes, blood sugar consistently improved. One participant who had been on 80 units of inuslin no longer required any after 5 days, 2 others n 60 units ady a no longer required it after 3 weeks.

Fasting glucose: large and consistent decrease.

Serum lipids: Total cholesterol decrease of 14%, and a reduction in total cholesterol/ LDL ratio. A significant reduction in triglycerides,

Blood pressure: both systolic (-7.8%) and diastolic (-11.5%) fell significantly.

Other health conditions also improved: Individuals reported improvement in arthritis, asthma, gastritis, fatigue, acne, headaches and impotence.

Two participants with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) improved markedly

Note: The Waianae diet is the same protocol as an Auto-Immune paleo diet which excludes : eggs, nuts, seeds, dairy, nightshades, legumes and grains

Case 1: 38year old Japanese female


  • Fevers,
  • weight loss,
  • joint pain and polyarticular synovitis in the metacarpophalangeal joints and ankles

Diagnostic tests:

  • Antinuclear ANA antibody titre of 1:80 with a speckled pattern,
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) of 53 mm/hr. (normal <20mm/h)
  • Antibodies to ribonucleoprotein and SSA


  • Prednisone, indomethacin for fevers, and then hydroxychloroquine.

 Two years after diagnosis she went on the Hawaiian diet. Response to diet;

  • ESR dropped from 70-90mm/hr to 39mm/hr.
  • Elevated platelets normalised.
  • She reported increased energy, and was able to discontinue indomethacin and had no recurrence of fevers.
  • Synovitis disappeared.

Normal diet was resumed after 3 months – the response:

  • Within a month fatigue, rashes, fevers and joint pain recurred.

Case 2: 44 year old female, mixed Hawaiian and European, presented with:

  • Synovitis in the in the metacarpophalangeal and proximal interphalangeal joints

Diagnostic tests:

  • ANA titre 1:126
  • Antibody to DNA 217IU/ml (normal < 100IU/ml)


  • Prednisone, hydroxychloroquine, ketophrofen, methotrexate

Response to Waianai diet, started 2 years after diagnosis:

  • Within 2 months patient discontinued prednisone
  • One month later she discontinued methotrexate
  • Patient free of pain and synovitis

The diet was discontinued and within one month pain and synovitis returned, prednisone and methotrexate had to be restarted.

My view on this study

This study shows that a paleo diet works even if it is high in carbohydrates. This is likely to be as a result of a number of factors:

  • reducing overall calories,
  • increasing the nutrient density of the diet,
  • reducing  the glycemic load by changing the type of carbohydrate consumed
  • reducing the fat content (reduces harmful fats and excess calories)
  • removing grains, sugars, unhealthy fats, and the numerous additives contained in a typical Western diet
  • changing the carbohydrate type from free starch found in grains (acellular) to starch contained in cells (cellular). Cellular starch has a completely different effect on gut microbiota to acellular starch.  Dr Ian Spreadbury has written an excellent paper on this subject.

This diet challenges the belief that we need to eat a low carbohydrate paleo diet to reverse metabolic syndrome and lose weight. It may be (and other studies back this up) that simply eating cellular (starchy vegetables) in the place of refines grains and sugars will be what is needed to get results.

In this instance a comparison diet would be useful, use the same food, but alter the macro-nutrient ratios and test to see if a lower carb, higher fat diet gives different results.

For those interested Dr Ian Spreadbury is speaking at the Ancestral Health Symposium in New Zealand  October 2015


Danao-Camara, T. C., & Shintani, T. T. (1999). The dietary treatment of inflammatory arthritis: case reports and review of the literature. Hawaii medical journal, 58(5), 126-131.

Shintani, T., Beckham, S., O’Connor, H. K., Hughes, C., & Sato, A. (1994). The Waianae Diet Program: a culturally sensitive, community-based obesity and clinical intervention program for the Native Hawaiian population. Hawaii medical journal, 53(5), 136-147.

Shintani, T., Beckham, S., Tang, J., O’Connor, H. K., & Hughes, C. (1999). Waianae Diet Program: long-term follow-up. Hawaii medical journal, 58(5), 117-122.

Shintani, T. T., Hughes, C. K., Beckham, S., & O’Connor, H. K. (1991). Obesity and cardiovascular risk intervention through the ad libitum feeding of traditional Hawaiian diet. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 53(6 Suppl), 1647S-1651S.

Further articles on this study

Obese Hawaiians Learn From Thin Ancestors : Diet: Nutritionists offer plan featuring food ancient islanders ate. Natives–many of whom are at high risk for heart disease and other ailments–are losing weight.