If You’re Craving Carbs, You Might Just Need Some Carbs

Paleo Muffins

Is this you?

Low-Carb Endurance Exerciser
“I run or do CrossFit 5 days a week. I’m on a Paleo diet – no grains, no high glycemic fruits, no starchy veggies because that’s what I heard I should be doing. But I have these intense cravings for sugar and I end up bingeing on cookies because I just can’t control myself. What am I doing wrong?? Maybe I just need more self control…”

Or this…

Low-Carb Moderate Excerciser
“I lift 2-3 times a week. I’m on Paleo and I’m doing really well with my carbs – keeping them below 50 or so grams a day. I feel awful after my workouts – like really tired – and all I want to do is eat carbs. I’m starting to see declines in my lifts, too. What am I doing wrong?”

Or this…

Low-Carb Light Exerciser
“I’m a 50 year-old woman and I walk for an hour 3 times a week with my dog. I’ve stopped losing weight on Paleo and I’m getting really bad headaches and having to take naps at around 3pm every day. I also get these terrible carb cravings almost every day in the afternoon. I’ve been really good, though – no fruit, very few starchy veggies, mostly just chicken and veggies for me. What am I doing wrong?”

Are you seeing a trend here? Do any of these sound remotely like you? If so, read on.

Carbs are not inherently evil.

I don’t know where we went wrong with Paleo (ahem… Loren Cordain, Jack Kruse, Ron Rosedale, etc.), but it’s not a no-carb diet, guys. A lot of people do very well with a moderate amount of carbs (between 100-150 grams a day). Even if you’re trying to lose weight. Some people even need way more than that. I have a world-class rower as a client who eats no grains, legumes, or dairy, but he eats about 350 grams of carbs a day in the form of fruits, veggies, gu-type foods, and juice. He’s super healthy, very strong, and freaking ripped. He doesn’t need to take naps every afternoon, either.

Don’t get me wrong here: No, Jimmy Moore can not tolerate anywhere close to that amount of carbs. He’s admittedly metabolically deranged after years of obesity. He, along with a lot of type 2 diabetics and otherwise metabolically challenged people, should not be consuming 100 grams of carbs a day or more. But you? The people who have some weight to lose, but are generally healthy? Athletes? Me?

Eat some carbs! And eat them often.

If you’re craving carbs, it doesn’t make you a glutton. It doesn’t make you a bad person. And it doesn’t mean you’ve failed on your Paleo diet. It means your body is hungry for carbs and you should give it what it wants. Yeah, we get good at using fat for energy blah blah blah on Paleo, but our bodies still prefer carbs. And if we want to live our stress-filled lives, exercising like compulsive maniacs, and sleeping very little, we’re going to need all the energy we can get, in whatever non-toxic form we can get it. Carbs are really easy for our bodies to use.

Now, I’m not saying you should go ahead and eat that box of Oreos. Not at all. But fruit (all kinds – not just berries), potatoes (yes, they’re fine to eat if you don’t have a sensitivity to them), sweet potatoes, tapioca flour, plantains, honey and other sweeteners (gasp!), chocolate, and all the other delicious carb-y foods are your friends. Eat them regularly. Eat some of them every day, and, for a lot of you, every meal.

That way, when you hit 8pm (or insert your own binge time here) – when you’re usually lingering in the kitchen hunting for dessert – you’ll actually feel satisfied, instead. Imagine that. It’s a novel concept, I know: not feeling deprived and incessantly hungry on your Paleo diet.

How many carbs?

Even if you were to eat a medium apple, an entire medium sweet potato, a banana, and two Paleo Pumpkin Muffins made with honey, along with your other fibrous net zero carb veggies, you’re still only looking at around 91 grams of carbs for the day. Mark Sisson’s magical carb curve says below 100 grams a day will still allow you to lose weight in general. If you’re an athlete working out hard at least a couple times a week, you’ll probably need more than that. I do.

Don’t feel guilty.

Stop it! You’re feeling guilty just THINKING about eating carbs, aren’t you?! Liberate yourself from the unjust carbism that is running rampant and unchecked in the Paleo and Primal worlds. Eat some carbs.

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  1. (I love you)

    I’m an endurance athlete training for my first half ironman and I’ve been so effing tired lately. Eating on a Paleo foundation, I always focused on my protein intake never even glancing at my carb intake.

    I mentioned it to someone and they asked if I ate enough carbs? I was like “yes of course, I eat sweet potatoes all the time”…

    (so uneducated am I).

    We took a closer look and sure enough I was barely getting 100g each day.

    I’ve introduced some grains in the mean time to get the carb ratio up while looking into other “paleo” conscious forms of carbs. And what do you know, lethargic feeling down / energy levels up!

    Thank you for posting this!

    1. Tara – I just read your story on your blog and loved every second of it! You are inspirational :) One piece of wisdom that my endurance clients have taught me is that the UCAN Sports Drinks made with “super starch” really help them when taken before workouts. A lot of the CrossFit Endurance people use those I think. The pomegranate cherry one is made with stevia instead of sucralose: http://www.generationucan.com/currentproduct.html

      Anyway, I can’t imagine being an endurance athlete on a low carb diet without some sort of “crutch” like this. Good luck to you!

  2. I also do CF 4-6 times/week and run 3-4 times/week, how many carbs should I eat? I saw you said between 100-150, but I am not trying to lose weight. I am 6’0″ and 165lbs. I am only trying to trim down the mid-section and be in amazing shape. Let me know what you think I should do. Thanks, Jeff

    1. Jeff – I really don’t know. It just depends on how you respond to carbs. My CF coach is about 6’0″ and 190 or something like that and he eats about 100-150 grams of carbs a day and is a ripped monster. He’s not trying to lose weight either, and I think he maintains his weight at that level, working out at least that much. I’d say if you’re not trying to lose weight, eat at least that many carbs, but watch your energy levels and performance. You may actually need more protein and fat on a regular basis if you’re trying to build muscle. Let me know if you want to do a consult about this.

  3. so sensible! i think if you’re sticking to paleo foods, and you’re otherwise healthy or just trying to lose a bit of weight, you don’t have to even worry about any numbers on the “magical” (teehee!) carb curve. eat sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, squash, fruit, etc. ad libitum. it will work out just fine.

  4. I was in this exact same situation — the first year or so on a Primal diet, I did great eating fairly low carb. Then, I started to get tired, cranky, no energy, etc. — exactly like you described. So, I started eating rice. And tapioca. I stayed gluten free (very strict about it) and actually went nightshade free as well (autoimmune issue) and the issue resolved immediately. I didn’t gain any weight either, in fact, I was still able to lose weight if I wanted to. It’s been a couple years, and I have either sweet potato, other root vegetables or rice on a daily basis and I feel great. This lifestyle is SO individual. :)

  5. Thank you for discussing Carbs. I really like the Paleo way of eatting, but the one problem I had was not enough carbs. Very tired, irritable & basically not motivated. It was difficult getting myself to take care of my daily chores, work, etc. I started searching for answers. I didn’t want to give up the Paleo diet, since I felt so good otherwise. When I added in more carbs it took care of that missing link. I will now pay attention to about how much I’m needing on a daily basis so I can better plan for my body’s needs.

    I also want to mention that I am nightshade free and have been for years. My body aches when nightshades are in my diet. I do not include them in my carb usage.

    It is good to read how others approach the individual needs of the Paleo way to nutrition & health.

  6. I’m so glad I read this article. My husband and I have been following a very strict Paleo plan (no dairy, no legumes, no grains) since the first of the year (mostly under my direction.) We are in our 60s. Although my cravings have disappeared, but I still go through periods of low energy. Having had problems in the past with iron, I thought that might be the problem. On the other hand, my husband has begun craving bread. I finally broke down and bought some for him. After reading through, it made me realize what my husband’s body is saying is totally different than mine. Also, thank you for mentioning the sports drink as my husband works out every day.

    Great article.

  7. Personally, I’ve never been big on fruit; love the taste, but my body says “no”, soooo… (I eat lots of raw veggies, which my body loves) On the other hand, I do crave carbs a couple of times a month and am easily satisfied with rice and refried beans, or a small plate of cheese nachos made with organic corn tortilla chips. The sugars in fruits and grains intensify my cravings, whereas beans, rice, corn and even the occasional potato (with loads of butter and sour cream) do not. ‘Course the added fat is prolly a factor.

  8. Thank you, I feel so much better after reading this!

    I have been (trying) to do Paleo for 5 months and am doing CrossFit 4 times a week as well as walking (or jogging if I have energy) and I was feeling like a failure for giving in to carb cravings after intense workouts. I have recently started doing paleo zone but I still find it hard to get my carb intake above 90g a day. It’s so true what you said about the guilt associated with eating carbs, this article makes me feel much better.

  9. Seems like there is a movement in the paleo community to this point of view. Robb Wolf notable wrote a couple posts about needing to up his carb intake for activities that are very glycolytic such as BJJ and lifting.

  10. Really enjoyed this article! So many people get caught up with the anti-nutrient stuff and are carb-nazis. While I like how people are carb conscious, there is no need to be afraid of them! Just earn them and use them strategically!

  11. Thanks for this article! Went I went full paleo, I inadvertently went very low carb (VLC) and maintained that misery for 6 months. While I initially lost weight, my strength gains stopped and my energy plummeted rendering me a limp noodle at work and the gym. All of my progress stalled until I discovered (through internet sleuthing) that I was hovering under 50 grams of carbs A DAY. I mean, I do CrossFit/run/play outdoor soccer and am active 5 times a week at least. 50 grams of carbs was completely under what I needed. Now, even though I feel a little carb happy, I’m at a nice 100-150 g a day minimum and always feed myself more when I need it. It’s been so amazing to watch myself essentially eat more but continue to cut fat. The human body is amazing/weird/freakishly efficient at energy use.

  12. Actually, Reactive Hypoglycemia relates to a huge spike in blood sugar, followed by a dysfunctional insulin response (whether it be genetic or damage from SAD), followed by a serious plummet into Hypo territory.

    I know Charles won’t see this. :)

    I have it. Don’t know whether it’s genetic (have 6 increased risk markers and 5 decreased risk markers based on Established research….23andme.com) or damage from a lifetime crappy diet. Probably both.

    Increase in carbs means RH comes back full force. What form decides how much weight gain comes with it. Complex – slower weight gain; refined – instant weight gain

  13. RH can also be considered a form a pre-diabetes. So yes, it is entirely diabetes-related. RH if left uncontrolled will eventually become diabetes. (My father is on dialysis and my older brother is diabetic. Apparently I was next in line. Yet my risk is about 3% below the ‘average’. Most people are at risk for Diabetes thanks to the PPARG gene)

  14. I’m currently training for a full Ironman and do CF 3 times a week, I follow a 90/10 paleo diet but am getting tired of sweet potatoes/potatoes for a carb source. Do you have any other suggestions ?

    1. Ryan Bush – Tapioca flour (search “tapioca” on our site and you’ll find some awesome recipes), taro, plantain, fruit juice (for you because your activity level seems very high), and potatoes if you tolerate them.

  15. Love eating paleo! I am a lifter with very little cardio and need to have some carbs before and after the workout. While I eat a ton of veges off the list and low glycemic fruit, I find I need some sweet potato/yams as well I am now going to add some rice, not much but for a change.

  16. I am going to change my eating habits to eat this way. But I do have a question. My husband has diabetes 1, is he going to have a problem eating this way?

  17. I would have the hardest time following a paleo-style diet. I love carbs and dairy. I was able to lose 50 pounds without any trouble on a high-carb, high-dairy diet — and I’m pushing 57. Eat less, move more works just fine for me.

  18. Great post, thank you! I found out about your site after listening to you on Clark Danger’s podcast. I love your writing style and your attitude and find the topics you write about all very relevant to my life and my personal health and fitness journey. When I started eating paleo, I cut out all grains but have now re-introduced rice and it feels like my body gives a big sign of relief when I take a bite.

  19. I’ve been trying to following the Paleo diet for CrossFit and trying to stray away from carbs and dairy. I am a little over 6′ and I’m 180, with a body fat percentage of 13. I still have an inch or so of fat around my lower abdominals. should I limit myself with carbs and dairy?

  20. “Please don’t comment anymore or you’ll be spammed.”

    Haha, I thought the post was great but I came across this in the comments and you lost some credibility in my mind. :( (Mostly for overreacting (IMO) to someone who wanted to talk more about the science and also for that hilarious typo.)

    I think I still agree with the post though.

    1. Chris – After dealing with so many inflammatory comments every day for so many years, I just don’t have tolerance for anything besides civil conversation on here anymore…

  21. Thanks:) I am 23 . Don’t do cross fit, or Train hard, but unfortunately I restrict and binge, thanks too a shocking eating disorder that started when I was 17 and I have been in and out of hospital twice. I came across your post tonight after I was craving carbs, which I normally try cut when I’m restricting. This post allowed me to have a small bit of chocolate and brown bread with almond butter and a banana on top of it. ….even if it was to satisfy my emotional need. And I feel way less guilty after reading your post. There is so much negative output out there about carbs, but I suppose listening to your body is key. Thank you :)

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience Emma! I’m under the personal belief that most all foods can be nourishing for the body if they are eaten with love and appreciation. I also beat myself up for eating certain foods (i.e. too many carbs) for too many years, but thankfully came to realize that my body actually does better with more carbs in my diet, especially when I first started down the Paleo path. Over the years, I’ve naturally decreased my carb intake without even thinking about it. Our bodies are so wise, it truly behooves us to listen to them! One of my best girlfriends really struggled with restricting and binging all thoughout her 20s, and unfortunately her digestive system just quit working one day in her early 30s, and she is now being fed intravenously (after a failed intestinal feeding tube). Having her in my life reminds me that while our bodies are resilient (especially in our 20s), they are also fragile and need our help to give them the nutrients they need to function properly. It’s a blessing to be able to digest and assimilate food, and I admire you for efforts to get past the mental mindtricks and slay negativity and guilt! Keep up the great work Emma.

      In good health,
      Kinsey Jackson, MS, CNS
      Paleo Plan

  22. Does anyone have any suggestions for carbs that are more local to colder climates? I live in BC and I know there must be something up here that doesn’t taste “wrong” in the middle of winter.

    1. Hi Beverley,

      I’m down in Bellingham…howdy neighbor! :) There are lots of carb sources to choose from during the winter–all vegetables are almost completely made from carbohydrates. Tubers such as sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes, carrots, beets, etc are particularly loaded with carbohydrates. Of course, any fruit is also very high in carbohydrate content (consume in moderation). It’s almost time for the seasonal farmers markets to get going again (yay!), but I’ve been shopping for my veggies at the local food cooperative (health food store) and Trader Joes over the winter. Hope this helps!

      In good health,
      Kinsey Jackson, LMP, MS, CNS®

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