Is The Paleo Diet Just Low-Carb in Disguise?

After the recent Ancestral Health Symposium, there was a lot of talk in the blogosphere about how a large percentage of the presenters were from the low-carb community. Tom Naughton, Dr. Eades, and Gary Taubes to name but a few. But does that mean that the Paleo diet is just another low-carb diet in disguise, or that Paleo has to be low-carb?

Low Carb

More Ketosis Please!

The answer to those questions is a resounding “No”. Paleo isn’t inherently a low-carb diet, and low-carb diets are not inherently Paleo, but the two tend to go hand in hand for a lot of practitioners, and can be very complimentary. There are several reasons that people find their way to the Paleo lifestyle, one of which is weight loss. A person can easily lose weight on a standard Paleo protocol, because it is by default a “lower carbohydrate” diet than standard American fare, thanks to the exclusion of grains and other processed carbohydrates. It’s difficult to eat a large amount of carbs when your main sources are Fruit, Nuts and Vegetables, but for some this can still be too much to facilitate any kind of significant, high-speed weight loss.

The question is, where are you starting out? Are you starting a Paleo diet as an obese or overweight person, who has a high degree of metabolic derangement, or are you already a lean, active person? Paleo can be a very different animal for each of these two classes, and different still for all of the increments between the two extremes.

Someone who is obese and/or metabolically damaged would almost certainly do better using a version of the Paleo diet that doesn’t include many (if any) fruits, and starchy foods, because eating those items would invariably slow down or halt any weight loss, and metabolic repair. People who are insulin resistant can be very sensitive to carbs, and actually gain weight from even including small amounts in their diet. This style of Paleo would definitely be very-low-carb and possibly fall into the category of a Ketogenic diet, where long periods of time are spent in Ketosis. Does this type of person have to utilize this type of Paleo diet? No. Anyone can stick to a totally standard type of Paleo lifestyle and still experience the positive health benefits, but the results will generally occur at an invariably slower rate.

On the other hand, lean athletic people with properly working metabolisms, and no insulin resistance, could easily do better with a decent amount of Paleo-friendly fruits, and some strategically placed starches. These “energy foods” can help support the demanding energy needs of a highly active person, without much worry about gaining weight, or furthering insulin resistance.

The Paleo diet can be tailored for the individual to be very-low-carb, or relatively high-carb in content, which makes it very diverse and feasible for anyone. I firmly believe that if you are a human, then Paleo is for you. However, the style of Paleo that works for you, is something you have to discover on your own. This is where the now famous term “N=1” comes into play; it simply signifies self-experimentation.

Mangos – definitely Paleo friendly

There are a few good reasons that so many active low-carb practitioners eventually gravitate towards the Paleo diet. Standard low-carb diets, such as Atkins for example, are notoriously unconcerned with actual food quality and origin. They are only concerned with the carbohydrate content of what they place in their mouths. Grass fed beef, pastured meats, and over-all Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid balance are not a consideration. Artificial sweeteners, and other additives are not restricted in a standard low-carb protocol, whereas all unnatural processed chemicals and additives are excluded from the Paleo lifestyle. It is therefore a natural progression for people who start out in a standard low-carb approach to ultimately end-up in Paleo circles as they become more concerned about food quality. Just as Paleo is an example of the evolutionary human diet, it is also the evolved form of the standard low-carb diet.

What Paleo is definitely not, is just another low-carb diet in disguiseThe Paleo diet is simply the way that humans were designed to eat. The strictest form of Paleo addresses autoimmune issues, allergies, gastrointestinal problems, acne, infertility, and a whole host of modern chronic diseases. It’s a veritable cure-all when carried out with commitment. In my opinion it’s fair to say that a standard, low food quality, low-carb diet, would have some of the same positive effects, but obviously not all.

Here’s a great quote from Angelo Coppola of The Latest in Paleo Podcast:

“Another thing that comes to mind with the growth of the Paleo diet is, hey — just look at what has happened to low-carb and gluten-free.  They’re big enough for industrial food to jump in and offer a lot of processed food options that are just garbage.

Frankly, this is what happens when we hone in on a single macronutrient, or even a protein in the case of gluten-free.  See, businesses can deal with that.  It’s numbers.  You want low-carb, we can make low carb.  You want gluten-free? We can figure out how to isolate, put stuff in, pull stuff out.

Just look at low-calorie, low-fat, the point system diets, the pharmaceuticals.  It’s all stuff that business can deliver.

But you know what?  It’s about quality.  And that’s a tough one.

Quality means avoiding shortcuts. And business is really good exploiting shortcuts.

Quality means straight from the ground freshness.  That makes distribution a problem, you know.

Quality means respecting the essence of whatever it is you’re talking about.  It means feeding grass to cows.  It means letting chickens run around and eat bugs.  It means things can take a little longer.  It means relinquishing some control — or more accuratey it means not trying to usurp and wrestle total control from nature.

And that’s a good segue into another point. Part of the quality equation is definitely learning to make things for yourself.  If you want to avoid processed foods, you have to learn how to make things.

And you know what, it’s not that hard.” – Angelo Coppola, 2011

At the end of the day, Paleo practitioners justify their food choices with evolutionary evidence, and revere the use of almost all available fats and proteins in their diet, because our ancestors did. We also shun grains because of evolutionary and physical health reasons. Low-carbers do much of the same. So, it’s no wonder that many people who start out in the standard low-carb world, find that taking refuge under the strong scientific and scholarly umbrella that is the Paleo community today, is the beneficial maturation of their initial break from the status quo.

Personally, I’m glad to have the low-carb folks in our camp. I started out there in the standard low-carb world too, after all. Together, united as one force, maybe we can turn America’s dietary tide of ill-health towards a more healthy Paleo one; low-carb or not.

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Barry Cripps is a Paleo-based Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, who operates out of Bowling Green, Kentucky. For more information please visit: www.undergroundnutritionist.com

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3 Responses to Is The Paleo Diet Just Low-Carb in Disguise?

  1. Patty Strilaeff August 23, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Great article Barry! I agree about being happy to have the low carb folks in the Paleo camp (for one thing, they are very likable and generally pretty funny!), and the quote from Angelo is dead on. I have missed his last few pod casts and must catch up!

  2. DB January 20, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Thats a great article and I thought I would comment as I have actually gone in the opposite direction from paleo to low carb. I think you covered it well but I do think there are some key differences with both approaches and it stems from the very mindset that you begin from. The paleolithic diet believes we should eat foods that resemble that of our ancestors and as such is inherently opposed to any processed foods (essentially) and that is the general approach paleo dieters take. I would say that most paleo dieters have moderate intake of carbs, and fair enough since most hunter gatherers also had moderate carb intake. But this is not acceptable on a low carb diet and again it comes back to the intent of the diet. I believe Gary Taubes (who is the best advice for why we should low carb) has instead gone back from modern day to a point where we no longer had our current health problems and determined that it is insulin that is our problem. Thus for him it is not so much the processed foods but lowering insulin. As a result we need to lower our carb intake to less than 20g a day.

    Now as Gary Taubes states protein has a ceiling on how much we eat so if we lower carbohydrates then we must eat more fat and vice versa. I don’t believe that this is possible (or at least easy) on a proper paleo diet. Dr Loren Cordain, who I greatly respect, states that one should have lean meat and so by default you are reducing fat and therefore increasing carbs. Even if this is not true and you add more fat through olive oil, for example, I believe most paleo dieters would not be below 20g of carbs since they would readily be eating many vegetables and fruits, which so easily put you over that 20g mark.

    I dont think paleo is the ‘natural progression from low carb. I believe that keeping your diet under 20g of carbs is as difficult as making choices to only eat unprocessed foods. They just take different skills, and I think anyone would find it very restrictive and difficult to attempt both approaches simultaneously. And if you did that then I would argue you are no longer paleo anyway since most hunter gatherer populations (except the inuit) had well over 20g of carbs anyway.

    In the end though I agree that the too communities have more in common than they don’t and need to unite together. Even Gary Taubes eats organic grass fed meat and therefore already is approaching those unprocessed paleo lines, and Im sure some paleo dieters eat really low carbs approaching the low carb line.

    Well I hope that all makes sense and when I press ok to the comment and read it back it doesn’t sound like gibberish.

    • Barry Cripps January 20, 2012 at 9:33 pm

      No DB, you made perfect sense….Thanks for commenting!!