Primal Nutrition

Carbs Aren’t Evil!

In general, Paleo/Primal eating is considered “low carb dieting.”  At least, that is, when you compare it to the usual carb intake of the average American.  However its important to free yourself from the rigid concept of what “Paleo” is or is not.  Its a mental framework or foundation from where we make educated decisions about what we include or restrict from our diets, but it is not a religion or set of rules we all must abide by.  One of the largest sacred cows of people who latch on to Paleo as if it were a religion is that carbs are bad and need to be kept very low.  In this instance, context is key.  If you’re overweight, diabetic, or otherwise metabolically deranged, yes you should more than likely skew your diet towards the very low carb (VLC) range.  But what about the average healthy adult, or even the athlete?  Shouldn’t their needs differ?  Just what is it about carbohydrates that makes them inherently evil?

Many Paleo/Primal gurus blame rampant carbohydrate increases with the rise in diseases of civilization.  Some even go so far as to dismiss the concept of calories altogether, instead claiming that hormonal changes within the body are entirely to blame for weight shifts either positive or negative.  First of all, plenty of folks have dieted down to single digit bodyfat percentages on very high carb diets.  The path to doing so is to restrict calories.  When calories are restricted body weight goes down.  When calories are increased, body weight goes up.  Now…might there be some hormonal reaction to the increase in food volume eaten that is somehow unconnected to the concept of a calorie?  Perhaps…but do I really need to understand how the light bulb works to know that when I flip the switch on there is light and when I flip it off the light goes away?  Granted, when there is electrical problems, just like when there are metabolic problems, it might require a closer look, perhaps by a professional.  But that doesn’t change the fact that in the majority of cases the light switch constitutes and excellent tool for controlling light in your house.

Now, as for blaming carbohydrates for all of our modern woes, I believe the answer is a little too simple.  In reality the issue is more likely multifactorial, involving tons of moving parts.  In fact, in a post regarding “fructose alarmism”  Alan Aragon posted some interesting statistical data re:  our caloric intake over the last 30 or so years (for source data click on the link to check out Alan’s post):

  • Meats, eggs, and nut kcals decreased 4%.
  • Dairy kcals decreased 3%.
  • Percentage of fruit kcals stayed the same.
  • Percentage of vegetable kcals stayed the same.
  • Flour and cereal product kcals increased 3%.
  • Added fat kcals are up 7%,
  • Added sugars kcals decreased 1%
  • Total energy intake in 1970 averaged 2172 kcal. By 2007 this hiked up to 2775 kcal, a 603 kcal increase.
Interestingly enough there hasn’t been a sharp increase in cereal grains and sugars to account for the obesity epidemic?  The story I take away from these numbers is that modern man is awash in plentiful calorie-dense food sources and yet does no physical activity!  And exercise, whenever it is done, is often done incorrectly.  People either run themselves ragged or don’t do enough, either extreme.  Furthermore, our diets consist of calorie-dense but nutrient-sparse prepackaged pseudo-foods.
Why then, do people lose weight on ketogenic diets?  #1, when a person goes on a low carb or VLC diet, they generally restrict their calories.  While its true that fat has 9 kcals per gram while carbs have only 4, bread and pastas are exceedingly dense sources of carbohydrate!  It would take quite a massive amount of real foods to replace every single kcal you would have been receiving from your grains.  And if the VLC dieter previously tended to drink their calories in the form of soft drinks then the calorie-reducing effect of the VLC diet is compounded!  Furthermore, it is less that carbs are always stored as fat and more that the presence of glucose halts the burning of fat.  The body burns glucose preferentially (just as the body burns alcohol before any other energy source).  In the words of Martin Berkhan, the carbohydrates inhibit lipolysis, allowing dietary fats to be stored as fat but aren’t necessarily always stored as fats themselves.
You may ask yourself, “why bother with Paleo at all?”  Well, Paleo is not really a fad diet that collapses like a house of cards when challenged.  Paleo is a diet revolving around eating real whole foods, minimally processed, without additives and hormones.  Its about choosing the most nutrient dense food sources and restricting the toxic ones.  Even the mainstream medical community is acknowledging conditions such as celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity .  Robb Wolf’s site is filled with tons of testimonials of people who have reduced or entirely reversed various chronic illnesses they have suffered with for  years.  Reducing the inflammation that comes along with rampant gluten and lectin intake seems to be a good thing.  Even the gluten concept is not quite black and white, as expanded upon by Matt Lalonde on Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution Podcast #68.  Here are some salient points:
  • In every instance of autoimmune conditions that have been tested for the presence of gluten sensitivity, it has been present
  • Not every autoimmune condition has been tested, but again, see the above bullet
  • This may not mean anything to those who do not suffer any autoimmune conditions or show any symptoms of gluten sensitivity, we can’t be sure.
  • That being said, there isn’t a lot of valid arguments to including cereal grains in your diet.  There is absolutely nothing grains can provide you that vegetables or fruit cannot provide you in a more nutritious and less calorie dense package.
I personally have never experienced any sort of symptoms for gluten or lectin intolerance.  I have gone 30 day stretches with zero gluten and then gone back and experienced zero flare ups.  I restrict gluten intake to the occasional cheat meal because the evidence that we do have points to it being potentially dangerous and because it would only displace the more nutrient dense valuable vegetables and fruits I eat.  That being said, I’m very strict and do not cheat much beyond the aforementioned cheat meal perhaps once per week.

2 thoughts on “Carbs Aren’t Evil!

  1. Great post Jerry. The anti-carb has gone too far.

    Personally, I lose weight faster on a low-fat diet than a low-carb. Even while doubling the calories. The keto diets aren’t very good if you want to have a life other than that of a sloth as well.

    • Yeah results vary by individual, don’t they? And I bet there’s even a little wiggle room for (gasp!) personal preference, haha! There are folks (like Keith Norris) who don’t seem to need much in the way of starch in order to handle really intense workouts. I like to eat high carb in the window surrounding exercise for the anabolic effects of insulin and also to piggyback nutrients into the muscle. I’m low carb on my non workout days.

      Really I don’t get the emotional investment people have with what someone else is eating. As long as you aren’t eating other people, I’m not going to dislike someone just because they don’t exactly as I do?

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