Dances With Carbohydrates

The hot topic on Paleo blogs these days is “the return to carbohydrates”. There is a slow but growing trend of those following a Paleo diet to abandon the low-carb approach to one with moderate carb intake. Although my initial approach to a more Paleolithic diet was low-carb, I began dancing with carbohydrates early last summer. At the end of the summer of 2010, I started a one-year experiment of eating seasonally. Before the safe starch debate even began, I had already concluded a year experiment of eating seasonally, which included eating safe starches. Safe starches are sweet potatoes, yams, white potatoes, taro root, and white rice.

My idea was to vary carbohydrate levels based upon the length of daylight. More daylight, more carbs. Less daylight, fewer carbs. It was a fun experiment and you can read my conclusions in the post Concluding Seasonal Strategies For Fitness and Nutrition. At the end of the experiment, I switched from seasonally adjusting my carbohydrate levels to adjusting them based upon my activity level. I outlined that strategy in the post The Paleo/HIT Cyclical Approach to Fitness and Nutrition.

What Did I Learn?

Although I leaned out using a low-carb Paleo diet, I found adding the safe starches back into my diet did not cause any weight gain. Could I have leaned out as effectively had I consumed safe starches the entire time? I have no idea. I suspect we all have varying degrees of carbohydrate tolerance and it changes over time. But I could be wrong. What I do know is that I can now eat varying degrees of safe starches without adding an ounce of fat.

Was it Ever About the Carbs?

Did I lean out because I reduced my carb intake or was it something else? Was it from eliminating unsafe starches such as bread? Maybe it was that I started cooking all my own meals? My year-long experiment with safe starches had planted a seed of doubt that carbohydrates were the cause. I read a lot of nutrition blogs and I listened to numerous podcasts. For every expert stating carbs were bad, there is another standing by to rip that argument to shreds. At times it feels like watching a tennis match that never ends.

Last year I was exposed to the Food Reward theory for obesity in the book The Shangri-La Diet, the site Getting Stronger, and the series on Whole Health Source. From my review of the Seth Roberts book:

This book provides an alternate hypothesis to reversing obesity, but it doesn’t contradict anything that Ive learned about nutrition over the past few years. The Shangri-La Diet offers an explanation, which if true, provides a framework for understanding why diets succeed or fail despite identical macro-nutrient ratios. This diet doesn’t restrict calories or carbohydrates, but instead uses a goal of adjusting the body’s fat point by reducing the flavor signal. Note that I use the term Flavor Signaling to describe what is going on, even though that term isn’t used in the book. In short, flavors that are stronger, more frequent and more predictable will push the body’s fat set point higher. Those that do the opposite, will lower the fat set point.

This week Free The Animal posted Synthesis: Low-Carb and Food Reward/Palatability, and Why Calories Count. It is a brilliant post that connects the dots between low-carb Paleo and Food Reward. Go read it and the comments. The takeaway message of the article is that the magic of low-carb dieting is reduced Food Reward. Lower carbohydrate foods tend to have a lower food reward. Less food reward results in fewer calories consumed to achieve a similar state of fullness. However, a low-carb dieter could stall their fat loss by consuming low-carb foods with a high food reward. And adding back in safe starches, which tend to have lower Food Reward could result in resumed fat loss for someone stalled following a strict low-carb diet.

Leaving the Church of Low Carb?

What I currently eat would still be considered low-carb by most. But for the past year or two, I haven’t identified myself as low-carb. My diet today can best be described as a cyclical carbohydrate approach to Paleo plus Weston Price. Yesterday I was moderate in carbs. Today I’m in ketosis. It seems to be working for me, but I’ll continue to experiment.


Add yours

  1. Thanks for the mention, Michael. I really appreciate those out there drawing more attention to all this.

    Yesterday I recorded an almost hour long podcast with Jimmy Moore and it airs this Tuesday.

  2. I have been doing VLC Paleo for about 8 months with awesome results. Lost 60lbs and 5 pant sizes. So I think its a great start but for the last 6 weeks or so all progress stopped, I didn’t feel right, and I was exhausted all the time doing the exact same thing I was doing. So with some research this past week I tripled my carb intake through mostly safe starches (I had pizza one meal). It took about 3 days and the fog and the tiredness was gone. I haven’t weighed in or tried on my small clothes yet but from a feeling stand point the carbs have been awesome.

    Thanks for your post the more I read the more i see don’t fear the starch.

  3. James Steele II

    Mar 3, 2012 — 1:10 pm

    Even from the beginning after readingin GCBC I was unsure of jumping straight onto the low-carb wagon. I thought there was definitely something there though, but it seemed evidently more important to remove noxious non-foods than to just blame a single macronutrient. I’m much like yourself and despite being ‘low-carb’-ish (50-150g), it varies and i’d rather describe my dietary approach as being a synthesis of paleo and WAPF. I’m still not entirely convinced by the food-reward hypothesis however, though it certainly appears to be a factor. Its just I’m unsure of whether it is as dominant as its being made out to be. Instead I feel more convinved by the inflammatory model that Chris Kresser presented a while back as being probably most influential. Again though, much of it depends on context as to what out of a myriad of potentially causative variables is the most predominant in creating said effects. Even in my own field of research (back pain), despite having my own hypothesis as to what is likely the most dominant factor in the majority of cases I’d never want to go as far giving a blanket statement suggesting that its the only factor. Context matters.

  4. @Richard – I’ll be sure to listen to the podcast. Thanks for the heads up!

    @Matt – Congrats on your success safe starch experiment.

    @James – I’m not sure the Food Reward hypothesis is accurate either. But I am wiling to accept that it may be an important part of the puzzle. I too like Kresser’s inflammation thesis. It is interesting that foods with high reward are often inflammatory.

  5. Richard Nikoley

    Mar 3, 2012 — 2:49 pm

    I think that even if inflammation turns out to better explain health problems than obesity, per se, you’re still left with the reality that most of the most highly rewarding foods (the thngs you’ll eat when not hungry vs. those you won’t, basically) are also the highest inflammatory. Reward is easier to work with, in my view.

    Don’t have those foods in your house is a good start. Make it so you usually have to go out of your way to get them.

  6. Ketosis question: Since you are in the experimenting mode try this one which has been un-answered after my time on Atkins in the 1970’s: Does ketosis cause your metabolism to become so efficient that even a small amount of carb that takes you out of ketosis cause a greater than normal insulin response and add fat quicker than under normal metabolism.

    I found that after being in ketosis for about a year and really losing weight and leaning out, I decided to splurge on weekends by having say a pizza and beer. I would very quickly gain weight the following week and it would take at least 3 days to get back into ketosis.

  7. @Mike – I go in and out of ketosis on almost a daily basis via 14-16 hour fasts. My carb level is never high, so I haven’t tested the pizza+beer scenario. My last beer was in 2008 and my last pizza was in 2009.

    I am not a ketosis expert. A good podcast episode on the topic can be found here:

  8. let’s face it, low carb is relative. what is low carb? 20% of calories, 30%? i suspect many paleo eaters would be considered low carb in the eyes of an American dietician. High carb compared to an eskimo. quite honestly i don’t give shit about the smeatics anymore.

    i know that chronically elevated blood sugar is a problem. naturally occuring, minimally processed, carb laden foods that don’t have antinutrients also don’t tend to raise blood sugar all that high anyway. i will eat fruit, yams, squashes, an white rice without fear. i have maintained health, strength, and body comp this way for the last year plus. i did a blogpost in december 2010 about adding more “carbs” into my diet. if anything, i would guess i have put a pound or 2 of muscle on in the last year without putting on fat.

    i distinctly remember a post on this site stating you wanted to stay out of the carb wars. i thought it was a good idea then and still think it is a good idea now.

  9. @Chuck – For some reason I think of one of those dog shock collars when I think about carbs. If the dog gets too far from the house, he gets a little shock. When many of us started this Paleo journey, we assumed the shock line was much closer than it was in reality. Now we are figuring out that we can go further without getting blasted. 🙂

    So in my mind, this thread is the opposite of the carb wars. It is letting others know that our yard is much bigger than we thought it was.

  10. Thanks,MAS. What I like about your post (and Richard’s) is that you place the carb issue in the context of self-experimentation. To me, that’s the key to the “safe starches” debate. As long as I’ve been reading you and Richard have promoted self-experimentation, and I think posts like yours are essential in getting others to let go of their concerns about questioning how paleo dogma fits within the context of their lives. Thanks for continuing to encourage us to explore our own individual “yards”.

  11. MAS, thanks for the referal to the ketosis podcast.
    You say you are not a ketosis expert but if you are indeed going in and out of k. regularly I think it would be worth becoming an expert to see what long term effects would be.
    Paleo or not, I don’t think being in ketosis is a natural state and more akin to starvation than metabolic nirvana.

  12. @mike

    Re: carb splurges. remember, glucose and sodium cause the body top retain water. i suspect weight gain after adding processed carbs back into the diet is just water retention.

  13. @Geoff – Thanks for the kind words.

    @Mike – I did my own research on ketosis and came to the conclusion that it was a perfectly healthy and natural state for humans. I’ve also done my own self experimentation and I feel great while in ketosis. I didn’t want to fork this comment thread into a discussion of ketosis. I think it deserves its own post. Thanks for the idea.

  14. I haven’t done any weight or metabolism tracking, but I’ve added sweet potatoes to a fairly low-carb (50g/day) diet with no negative consequences, and they’re so delicious I consider eating them a positive consequence.

    My take:

    – Low-carb (under 50g/day) can be very effective for weight loss, particularly in very overweight individuals, but may have negative consequences in the long term (over 6 months)
    – For individuals who are not overweight, have a functioning metabolism, and exercise, consuming carbohydrates in moderate or high amounts (over 200g/day) from safe starches should be absolutely fine

  15. @Dan – You may be right. I haven’t pushed the carbs that high yet, but I am willing to experiment. I still like the cyclical approach. Being married to a single carb level doesn’t seem Paleo to me.

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