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Paleo Eating Vs Low-Carb Eating

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Updated June 04, 2014

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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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