While carbs from Paleo-friendly vegetable and fruit sources as well as nuts and seeds add interest to our diets, taste great, and provide fiber and valuable micronutrients, we should only eat enough to support our individual needs and goals. Why? Because excess carbohydrates result in metabolic disturbances that create inflammation, fat accumulation, and associated diseases.
So how much is enough? The Paleo diet is referred to as low carb but is it really? Is eating just enough carbohydrates to support our needs and goals automatically low carb? Is carb quality important? And what does “low carb” mean anyway?
What Is a Low Carb Diet?
While there isn’t an official definition, the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and the World Health Organization (WHO) define a low carb diet as <130 grams/day. The research community breaks dietary carbohydrate levels down further to prevent ambiguity in the literature and agrees on the following four standards: (1)
- Very Low Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet (VLCKD): 20-50 grams/day or <10 percent carb/day.
- Low Carbohydrate Diet (LCD): <130 grams/day or 26 percent total calories.
- Moderate Carbohydrate Diet (MCD): 26 to 45 percent total calories. The upper level of this standard (43 percent) is based on the average carbohydrate intake of Americans prior to the obesity epidemic.
- High Carbohydrate Diet (HCD): >45 percent total calories. The standard American diet (SAD) currently recommends a carbohydrate intake of 45 to 65 percent.
Is the Paleo Diet Low Carb?
Where does the Paleo diet fit into all this? Research shows that when possible, hunter-gatherers consumed 45 to 65 percent of their energy not as carbohydrate (the current recommendation) but as animal food.
In a study of 229 hunter-gatherer populations, findings showed that 73 percent derived between 56 to 65 percent of their intake from animal foods, and only 14 percent of these societies derived this much from gathered plant foods. Most of the populations studied had a carbohydrate intake in the range of 22 to 40 percent. (2)
If we base our definition of Paleo nutrition on the majority of contemporary hunter-gatherer intakes, and take into account the carbohydrate standards above, it can be said that the Paleo diet is a relatively low carbohydrate diet compared to the high carbohydrate SAD diet.
But Paleo doesn’t have to be low carb! The beauty of the Paleo diet is that you can tailor it to your specific needs and make it work for you. However, many people benefit from reining in their carbs.
The Benefits of Low Carb Diets
Although traditional approaches to diseases of civilization such as heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome have involved low fat interventions, the lackluster results and reliance on drug therapy have driven interest in low carb approaches.
The research on low carb diets involves different versions. Some are low carb, and some are very low carb, while some are short term and others are longer term. However, across the carb spectrum and in both the short and long term, low carb diets are beneficial for health. (3, 4, 5, 6)
Low carb diets have been shown to:
- Improve glycemic control and diabetes
- Result in the reduction or discontinuation of diabetes medication
- Reduce circulating insulin
- Be effective for weight loss
- Decrease heart disease risk factors
- Improve features of metabolic syndrome
- Reduce markers of inflammation
- Reverse heartburn (GERD)
- Improve fertility in overweight and obese women with PCOS
- Show benefits independent of weight loss
In addition to the benefits above, very low carb ketogenic diets have therapeutic value for a number of conditions: (7)
- Bipolar symptoms
- Dementia / Alzheimer’s
- Certain cancers
The Research for a Relatively Low Carb Paleo Diet
As a consequence of excluding grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar-laden processed food, Paleo is relatively low carb by default. The research comparing the Paleo diet to other mainstream diets bears this out and reveals the benefits.
In one recent study, thirty nine healthy women were randomized to either the Paleo diet comprised of lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, and coconut oil, or the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) comprised of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and reduced quantities of high-sugar products and refined grains. A comparison dietary patterns, and an examination of metabolic and cardiovascular risk factors, revealed that the Paleo group had lower intakes of carbohydrate, and higher intakes of fat and over the four weeks of the study, the Paleo diet resulted in more weight loss and decreased waist circumference compared to the AGHE. (8)
In another randomized study thirteen patients with type 2 diabetes consumed a standard diabetes diet (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, berries, and lower total fat) and a Paleo diet (lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, root vegetables, eggs, and nuts) while spending three months in each diet period. Compared to the diabetic diet, the Paleo diet was lower in total carbohydrate, even though it was higher in fruits and vegetables, and resulted in improved glycemic control, higher HDL, and lower risk factors for heart disease including triglycerides, diastolic blood pressure, weight, BMI, and waist circumference. (9)
The researchers in this study tested the theory that a Paleo diet would induce weight loss and improve hyperlipidemic parameters: plasma total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, in adults to a greater extent than a traditional American Heart Association diet. After four months on each diet, only the Paleo dieters significantly lowered total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides and increased HDL, independent of changes in body weight. (10)
And finally, a meta-analysis of four randomized controlled trials revealed that when compared to diets based on distinct but similar national food guidelines, the Paleo diet showed greater short-term improvements in metabolic syndrome components including waist circumference, triglycerides, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, HDL cholesterol, and fasting blood sugar. (11)
Can Low Carb Diets Hurt?
People who meet the following might feel better or require higher levels of carbohydrate consumption:
- Women who are pregnant
- Women who are breastfeeding
- Women with fertility issues and or amenorrhea (delayed or absent menstruation)
- Athletes interested in maximizing high intensity performance
- Those suffering from hypothyroidism
- Those with symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Can High Carb Diets Have Benefits?
There are many traditional societies known for their good health and high carb intakes. The Kitavans, traditional Okinawa, and Tukisenta all thrive on diets that we would consider very high carbohydrate, between 70 and 95 percent!
Other populations known for their low fat, high carb intakes include the Tarahumara Indians, the pre-industrialized Thai, the traditional Hawaiian, the traditional Taiwanese, the African Bantu, and the traditional Pima.
How Many Carbs Do You Need?
It’s up to you to personalize your diet depending on your current state of health, your unique physiology, and your goals. If you’re not sure of where to start, take a look at Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint Carbohydrate Curve.
The Carbohydrate Curve provides a guide for how much carbohydrate is generally needed to counter the ill effects of metabolic dysfunction and facilitate better health and weight management. Although individual needs will differ, Sisson’s carbohydrate ranges predict the following impacts on the human body:
- 0-50 grams/day: induces ketosis and accelerated fat burning.
- 50-100 grams/day: Sisson calls this the “sweet spot for effortless weight loss”.
- 100-150 grams/day: for weight maintenance.
- 150-300 grams/day: promotes steady weight gain.
- >300 grams/day: unless your energy expenditure is extreme, this is the danger zone where there is a high risk for weight gain and metabolic derangements including inflammation that leads to chronic disease.
Carbohydrate Quality is Important
Whether you eat a high carb or a low carb diet, carb quality is key to health. What are high quality carb sources? Starchy and non-starchy vegetables and fruits.
In addition to containing fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, these whole foods are “cellular” because they retain intact cell walls. Contrary to this, the majority of the carb sources in Western diets such as refined grains, sugar, and processed foods lack not only the nutrients but the structural integrity of whole veggies and fruits as well. Refined carbohydrates are “acellular”.
Acellular carbs have a much greater carbohydrate density than cellular carbs and it’s hypothesized that we are not adapted to the effects these carbs have on our gut microbiota as it is only very recent in our history that humans have largely abandoned whole food carbohydrate for processed types. Acellular carbs are thought to cause gut bacteria imbalance, leaky gut, systemic inflammation, weight gain, and obesity. (24)
Recipes Rich in High-Quality Carbs
The Paleo diet is all about eating high-quality food that drives individual genetic expression towards health and away from disease. Although generally lower carb than standard diets, the Paleo template supports any carb range from very low ketogenic to high.
Here are 21 delicious high-quality carb recipes that will keep you feeling satisfied and full.
- Plantain Tortillas
- Springtime Pasta
- Basic Riced Cauliflower
- Sweet Potato Casserole
- Paleo Shepherd’s Pie
- Traditional Mashed Potatoes
- Roasted Root Vegetable Ratatouille
- Spicy Roasted Root Vegetable Soup
- Berry Coconut Chia Smoothie
- Butternut Squash with Garlic and Thyme
- Roasted Acorn Squash
- Spaghetti Squash with Garlic and Herbs
- Lamb and Spaghetti Squash
- Beef and Sweet Potato Casserole
- Paleo Spaghetti
- Paleo Pizza
- Coconut Bread Stuffing
- Winter Slaw with Quick Salmon Cakes
- Spaghetti Squash Pasta Salad
- Vegetable Trinity
- Roasted Beets with Balsamic Glaze