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Laura Dolson

Paleo Eating Vs Low-Carb Eating

By April 9, 2012

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low Low-carb diets and and paleo-oriented diets are sometimes mentioned together, because there is a fair amount of overlap in the approaches. Paleo eaters base what they eat on a model of eating as our pre-agricultural ancestors did, since our physiology is essentially the same as theirs was. This means that paleo folks generally don't eat much in the way of grains, legumes, processed foods, and often dairy. So the paleo diet (think meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts) tends to be naturally low in carbohydrate, and it has been thought by many that part of the benefit of a paleo diet is due to this. In fact, the dramatic health improvements people report from shifting to a paleo way of eating are remarkably similar to the thousands of descriptions I've heard from people following a low-carb way of eating.

Recently, there seems to be somewhat of a backlash in some of the paleo community regarding its relationship to carbohydrates. There are a couple of aspects to this, including a) people adding so-called "safe starches"* (e.g. yams) to their diets with good results, and b) rejecting the idea that the benefits of a paleo diet is in any way related to the fact there is generally less carbohydrate. Most paleo folks subscribe to the idea that it is simply that they are eating "real whole foods", which includes not eating added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and artificial ingredients, but not necessarily less carbohydrate overall.

One prominent paleo blogger, Stephan Guyenet, has offered an explanation as to why both low-carb and paleo diets tend to result in weight loss: both diets eliminate what we could call "hyper-palatable foods" -- foods manufactured to be highly palatable and, it is argued, producing a reaction in our bodies that has some similarities to addiction, or at least "wanting to eat a whole lot". Dr. Guyenet engaged in a long public discussion with Gary Taubes about this issue.

More recently, Richard Nikoley, of the Free the Animal Blog did some experiments adding potato to his diet and finding positive results. This and other research led him to form a synthesis of his thinking to date on the subject which he posted in his blog. He includes in his musings thoughts about why people don't always get to their goal weight on a low-carb diet.

I think all this thinking and debating is as healthy as eating real whole food! So I thought I'd jump in with one or two observations, as it's a subject I'm getting asked about more and more.

I have a friend and neighbor who's family starting following a paleo way of eating a couple of years ago, with great results -- weight loss, normalized blood pressure, etc. She and I chat from time to time about paleo and low-carb eating. We've talked about the "safe starches" concept, and I've basically maintained that everyone has a different level of carb sensitivity. Recently, she told me, "well, I've come to the conclusion that there are no safe starches for me".

This is exactly it. Everyone has to find out about their own bodies. As I've recently written about, a growing segment of the population has problems with blood sugar, and the vast majority do not know it. Diabetes, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, "pre-pre-diabetes", and reactive hypoglycemia probably affect at least half of the overall adult U.S. population, with the percentage rising with age. These are disorders of carbohydrate metabolism (actually the same disorder, just at different points along the spectrum), so regulation of carbohydrate consumption must be part of the solution. The young, vital, healthy people I saw at the Ancestral Health Symposium hopefully are eating in a way to avoid becoming part of that group. But for some of us, it's too late, and there is no alternative but to pay close attention to the amount of carbohydrate we're consuming if we want to preserve our health.

As for Nikoley's thoughts on the issue of why some don't get to their goal weight, I think we also have to factor in the many appetite control mechanisms in our bodies which are part of our bodies' attempts to keep us at a certain weight (or, probably more accurately, with a certain amount of fat). A couple of recent blogs I've written about this are here and here. Hunger actually does play a role in how much we weigh! It always surprises me how little attention this gets from people talking about weight loss! Of course, we can continue to decrease the amount of food we're eating, but few people are able to fight hunger on a constant basis. Why do people losing weight level off at different places? My speculation is that it has to do with how much permanent damage there is to the metabolic system and, in particular, the pancreas. We know that by the time a person is diagnosed with diabetes, roughly half the beta cells in their pancreas are damaged, and people with pre-diabetes have significant damage. The Endocrine Society cites evidence that damgage is present quite a while before a person would be labeled prediabetic. I suspect that this factors greatly into the probability of sustained weight loss.

In any case, I think it's natural to figure out what works for you and/or the people around you, and try to generalize beyond that -- that it's true for everyone, or nearly so. To the extent that people who are attracted to low-carb eating and to paleo eating are two different (though overlapping) populations, different things may appear to work, and our ideas get reinforced when the same thing works for people who are like us.

I think the important thing is that we all keep trying things out and sharing the results, so we can all learn from each other. So hurray for everyone following the best approach of all, the "My Body, My Science Experiment" approach!

*For anyone interested in what makes some starches "not safe" -- from a paleo perspective a lot of it is thought to be due to "anti-nutrients" in many grains, legumes, and other plant foods. For an excellent discussion of this issue, I highly recommend Loren Cordain's latest book, The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel Great, Stay Young.

Photo © Joe Cicak

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April 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm
(1) Christie says:

Thanks, Laura, for another great article!!

April 9, 2012 at 3:01 pm
(2) Mary says:

I had just made up my mind to find out the difference between these two diets when I received this. Thanks for reading my mind!

April 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm
(3) Janknitz says:

There’s nothing wrong with Stephen Guyenet’s food reward theory as you’ve explained it, but you left out the part where he absolutely denies the fact that carbohydrate consumption and its subsequent effects on insulin metabolism are primary causes of obesity and CHD. He totally rejects the so- called “insulin theory”.

My observation is that the scientific community can argue the finer points of their theories forever, but the observations of clinicians who are involved in direct patient care see the connections clearly. Patients who reduce their carbohydrates get amazing results. (And the food still tastes great!) . You are right on the money in your observation that “that everyone has a different level of carb sensitivity”–Guyenet and his followers don’t necessarily agree.

The paleo movement has done a lot for low carbers because it’s moved many of us toward clean, healthy, real food and away from processed food products. But they seem to be wanting to distance themselves from us “fatties” who have to limit their carbs.

April 9, 2012 at 4:11 pm
(4) Francie says:

Last fall, when, on the advice of my general practitioner, I started low-carb eating I used your website as my first source of information. A friend recommended that I look into Paleo also. I found quite a bit of good information that is applicable to low-carb eating.
What works best for me is to take what makes sense and I find doable and useful from each source, and blend it together into a healthy eating pattern. I have been very successful using a low-carb, Paleo and low-gluten approach, which is great because I have more choices from the excellent recipes from all three sources.
Thanks for another great article!

April 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm
(5) Nicole says:

I think it’s really important for you to also point out that Paleo is centered around grass fed meat, pastured chicken, etc. If someone is just eating CAFO meat and claiming to be Paleo, they’re not. They may as well just say they’re “low carb” or Atkins. It’s a HUGE petpeave of mine when people SAY they’re Paleo but don’t take into consideration where they get their meat from and how it was treated, more like MISTREATED, before it landed on their table.

April 10, 2012 at 12:43 am
(6) Ron says:

Nicole, you nailed it. To borrow from Kurt Harris, the basis of Paleo is avoidance/minimization of the three neolithic agents of disease (fructose/sugar, grains/gluten, linoleic acid). Without consuming grass-fed meat & pastured eggs, a person clearly isn’t eating a Paleo diet. Avoid the “NAD,” & all the rest is commentary. Self experimentation is the key.

April 10, 2012 at 8:04 am
(7) TeeDee says:

Thanks, Laura, for a timely, well-balanced article about Paleo and Low-carb eating. I really enjoy your site and recipes (my husband loves your flaxseed bread so much he rarely–if ever–has his beloved baguettes anymore :)
@Janknitz: You just saved me the time of checking out Stephen’s site; I simply can’t get on board with anyone who rejects the insulin theory. Period. Much appreciated!

April 10, 2012 at 10:21 am
(8) Jamie Fellrath says:

Something that is sort of left out of the Safe Starches discussion above (though I love the entirety of it), is the need for someone to go through a 30-day Paleo Challenge before starting to introduce the safe starches back into the diet. You need to get your system to a point where you have all the anti-nutrients out and you’re eating cleanly, before you start experimenting with adding things back in.

@Nicole and @Ron – while that is certainly the ideal, almost all the Paleo bloggers and writers have discussed ways for you to eat Paleo without the grass-fed/wild-caught/etc. meats you’re discussing. The key thing is to keep your meats lean in these cases, to avoid taking in too much Omega-6 from the animal fats, and try to supplement with some healthy fat and Omega-3 fatty acids elsewhere. But yes, the non-CAFO foods are the ideal, for sure. Better for us and for the environment.

April 10, 2012 at 11:31 am
(9) cantgoback says:

Yeah It is as bit comical that some in the younger/wanna be in the hip group,(rather than the “hip-py” group) get outraged if too many outside their clique try to get into the exclusive side,as too many getting into a small group make it appear not so cool .
Personally I think the more the merrier since that means better economy and happiness if the population is less obese and sick…

And even more comical that there is the noted “distancing” from the possibly older and more diabetics and more of those who have been open about being overweight- those Atkins style eaters or other significant carb restricting lifestyles.
I’m with Laura in generally being happy to have any low carb cousins such as the Paleo followers..at least it’s closer to critical examination of the metabolic science…. limiting starches.
I think many loathe being thought of as being associated with an eating style that is famous for being effective in obese persons, possibly diabetic or over 30/40/50+!
As many in healthcare know, insulin resistance happens.
It’s more of a default than a possibility.
Those in middle age especially women discover: those dangers are looming over the hill waiting to grab the weakest links, those who have been less mindful, and those munchin’ ” “safe starches”, also adding in natural sweeteners like honey,”giving-in- to- some- cravings- not- so-bad” ..The pre diabetic or pre- pre diabetic-starts pumping out the insulin and storing fat to cover it. There is only so much exercise that is going to cover all those mounting factors. No mentioning of controlling hunger and cravings.
I get the Paleo message…more attention to health and environmentally conscious.
I wish different words could be chosen than “real food” and “clean eating”. ( I visualize the opposite as being toy plastic pieces for kids to use in play kitchens and dirty food covered in soil in garbage cans) Those marketing catch words diminish the seriousness of the message.

April 10, 2012 at 1:59 pm
(10) Darlyne Kornelson says:

Does anybody from the LBHF group have any factual opinions on fermenting (potatoes, for example) to remove the starch and sugars? Can this actually make them low carb enough to be safe for the more sensitive of us?

April 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm
(11) Janknitz says:

I think you can ferment potatoes, but the result is vodka ;o)

August 6, 2012 at 7:11 pm
(12) shirle says:

It seems like lo carb…Atkins if you will…nothing new under the sun.

October 3, 2012 at 4:15 am
(13) click here says:

Just want to say your article is as astounding. The clearness
in your post is just great and i could assume you are an expert on this subject.
Fine with your permission let me to grab your RSS feed to keep
updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the gratifying work.

November 4, 2012 at 6:27 am
(14) Diane says:

Hello, my name is Diane and I have been on a low carb diet for 6 weeks. I am consuming 800-1200 caleries/day and 25 carbs or less/day. I have lost 14 lbs. and I love this way of life. My only problem is constipation, so now I am working on increaseing my fiber intake to at least 25mg/day to see if that will help!

January 8, 2013 at 5:38 pm
(15) Foot Bath says:

I really like what you guys tend to be up too.
This sort of clever work and coverage! Keep up the good works guys I’ve you guys to our blogroll.

September 2, 2013 at 4:28 am
(16) Andre says:

Great article! The Paleo Diet was the first “diet” plan that I have ever tried, and it changed my life. Now, keep in mind that I had a good bit of extra weight to lose and my lifestyle was pretty disgusting when it came to my diet, so I probably would have seen results no matter what diet plan I switched to. However, since going full Paleo I have seen a comment worthy amount of weight loss, increased focus and more energy than I had when I was 18!

My wife is thinking of switching to a low carb diet in the near future. I will have to get her to read this article! The only pro I can see to low carb eating over Paleo eating is that maybe it allows more wiggle room for your cravings. Paleo can be very strict and hard to follow. It definitely takes some discipline, especially at first. Over time you get used to it though. For anyone interested, I wrote a full review of The Paleo Cookbook on my blog: http://www.healthy-living-info.com Feel free to check it out! Thanks for sharing!


September 10, 2013 at 5:27 pm
(17) MooseGeorge says:

Great article – I’ve been a low carber for over 5 years, losing 70 pounds, but finding myself having greater and greater interest in paleo.

I think you are spot on with the idea that some of us have experienced so much metabolic damage on the SAD that we have to be extra vigilant with our carbohydrate intake. However I think that with time a lot of that damage can be healed. I ate poorly the first 45 years of my life. It would be silly to expect to completely reverse the effects of that poor diet in just a few months or years.

I guess I need to eat a potato once a year and measure my blood glucose response! :)

February 19, 2014 at 2:30 pm
(18) Mary S says:

I think the ďLow Carb DietĒ trend was losing steam, so they decided to just slightly re-vamp it and call it a Paleo Diet. Iíve eaten low carb for 10 years, and probably will forever. Itís done wonders for my waist-line and energy levels. Carbohydrates are just so useless. I went from a fluffy size 18 down to a lean size 12. My scale weight didnít even change that much! But my body was completely transformed from a squishy blob to an actual feminine shape. What I love most is that I can still eat real foods, in real portions, and stay looking good. Being a O Blood Type, I need meat! So low calorie diets just left me feeling hungry and weak Ė those were not for me at all. The only difference Iíve found between Paleo and basic Low Carb is that Paleo costs a fortune. The food lists require you to shop at health food stores who charge 5x more for their steroid-free meat & pesticide-free veggies. Would love to eat that way, but would have to become a millionaire first.

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