Following Paleo diet principles means you are focused on food quality that will maximize your nutrient intake while minimizing the chemicals, toxins and biological disruptors that you may be exposed to.
While the Paleo diet also neither a low-calorie diet nor an eating plan that requires counting calories, the elimination of so many calorie-dense and inflammatory foods like grains, dairy and legumes may support fat loss goals. Food choices revolve around well sourced, ethically raised protein from animals, fat from nuts and naturally occurring oils, and fiber from vegetables and some fruits. All these foods are highly satiating, ideally leaving you comfortably full and satisfied after every meal. Depending on your food choices, you often naturally eat less without feeling hungry or counting calories.
When it comes to carbohydrates, the Paleo diet offers no explicit limits on consumption but thanks to the elimination of grains, refined sugars, and processed foods, it does tend to significantly reduce carbohydrate intake. The most common carbohydrate sources permitted on the Paleo diet are fruits and starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams. It is absolutely possible to eat a moderate or even high-carb diet on Paleo (especially if you happen to be someone who indulges in regular Paleo treats and snacks), but due to the focus is on high-quality animal protein, it is likely your intake of carbohydrates will be significantly reduced as compared to the amounts consumed when following a standard Western diet.
The origins of the Paleo diet are not necessarily low in carbohydrates.
Hunter-gatherer diets (our best modern-day estimation for Paleolithic diets) are not standard or uniform, in carbohydrate consumption or anything else. People living towards the equator tend to eat more carbohydrates; people living towards the poles tend to eat fewer carbohydrates and higher amounts of fat. The claim that all these diets are low in carbohydrates is based on the study of the Inuit or a few other groups, with less focus on the bigger picture. Hunter-gatherer groups get their carbohydrates from roots, tubers, fruit starchy nuts, and other plant foods. Although few fossilized records of edible plant matter exist there is no reason to suspect that these foods were not available in some form back in the pre-agricultural era.
Carbohydrates are not inherently evil
Carbohydrates serve as a highly useful fuel for the body along with nourishment for the bacteria living in your gut. However, consistent over-consumption of carbohydrates over a period of timer could contribute to:
- chronic inflammation
- blood sugar problems
- weight gain.
If you are challenged with a metabolic imbalance (diabetes, insulin resistance) or struggle with excess fat, especially around the waist area, reducing carbohydrate intake can support reclaiming metabolic flexibility and begin to reduce the accumulation of belly fat. Following a low carbohydrate Paleo diet can also work extremely well for general weight loss, digestive issues, and mental focus.
However, this does not imply, by default, that carbohydrates are a poor food choice.
Paleo foods that are carbohydrate dense include:
- Sweet potatoes and starchy vegetables like pumpkin, squash, yams, carrots, and parsnips
- High-sugar fruits like bananas, peaches, grapes and pineapples
- Paleo-approved sugars like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and dried fruits (raisins, dates, dried mango)
Is a low carbohydrate diet necessary for fat loss?
The answer to this question is dependent on a few considerations:
It is the inability to metabolize carbohydrates effectively, rather than the carbohydrates themselves that cause weight gain.
If you are new to the Paleo diet, you may need to reduce your carbohydrate intake relative to what you were eating previously. Unfortunately, lower does not always imply better. The key is finding the carbohydrate level which is optimal for your individual circumstances, needs, goals and physiology, the level at which your body functions best, neither too low (yes, you can eat too few carbohydrates) nor too high.
The thyroid is the gland that controls metabolism. It has a minimum requirement for carbohydrates to make the hormones necessary to keep the body running. Inadequate carbohydrate intake is a signal of nutrient scarcity: the thyroid assumes there is a famine and reacts accordingly.
In a state of nutrient scarcity or famine, the body will hold on to and store as many nutrients as possible. This can be experienced as fat gain.
The thyroid is not mindful of personal weight-loss goals. Its primary function is survival, to keep the body alive. Humans evolved in a world where food was often scarce and precious thus creating a thyroid gland that is very sensitive to sign of potential famine. When there is insufficient energy being consumed, the thyroid responds by slowing the metabolic rate, decreasing body temperature, shutting off reproductive and immune function and anything else necessary to spare the energy that is required for acquiring more food. This is clearly not the ideal environment for fat loss.
To prevent this scenario, it is vital to eat enough food as well as sufficient carbohydrates. Glucose (the carbohydrate found in Paleo starchy foods like sweet potatoes) sends a hormonal signal that there is an abundance of nutrients available and the next meal is assured allowing for the release of body fat.
This is why severely limiting carbohydrate intake can sometimes stall weight loss. Ketosis can work for some people, but not everyone responds well to it, and it is not always necessary. Eating the right types of carbohydrates, those that are Paleo friendly and nutrient dense will be effectively metabolized and utilized by the body for energy. If you struggle to metabolize carbohydrates efficiently, it may be time to seek the advice of your medical practitioner and address the cause of this imbalance before making too many dietary adjustments.
A low-carbohydrate Paleo-based diet can serve as a good ‘reset’ for the first few weeks of weight loss but may not be necessary to continue once your metabolism has recovered enough to handle carbohydrates again.
The insulin response experienced from eating a healthy amount of unrefined carbohydrates in the form of whole foods will not stimulate fat accumulation and although a temporary low-carbohydrate diet may initially yield fat loss results, continuing it in the long term is not useful.
There is no need to fall into the trap of believing the persistent myths about carbohydrates and weight loss that can leave you with an unnecessarily restrictive diet or even hamper your athletic performance. While a low-carbohydrate diet may be helpful for restoring insulin sensitivity at the very beginning of your weight loss efforts, eliminating carbohydrates is not required for weight loss in the long term. Counting every and all carbohydrates consumed can become detrimental both mentally and physiologically, hampering even the most diligent of fat loss efforts.
Carbohydrates are important for many body functions including fertility, immune function, thyroid health, athletic performance, and for mental health. Fat loss goals do not shift the importance of these systems functioning optimally.
For those struggling with metabolic disorders, like diabetes or insulin resistance, there is a true benefit to be gained from a period of low-carbohydrate eating to support recovery. It should be noted, however, that simply because a philosophy or strategy is an effective intervention for someone who is ill does not make it required (or even better) for healthy people.
Do not fear carbohydrates, even when trying to lose body fat. When they are Paleo friendly and whole-food based you can eat them, enjoy them, and experience the positive health benefits they can bring you.