Paleo Diet: Starch or Sugar for Workout Days?


Fruit! Curtesy of Wikipedia

The question of proper nutrition before and after workouts seems to come up all of the time. The whole subject of health and nutrition is such a broad topic, it’s really easy to get caught up in all of the details. There are certain items that you can eat if you’re already at or close to your ideal weight, that people who have a lot of weight to lose can’t even contemplate eating.

Just eating “real food”, and heeding the nutritional clues left behind by our ancestors is an easy basis for the average person’s diet. Following this approach will usually make it easy for a person to maintain their current weight, or even to lose a little weight over an extended period of time. It gets a little more complicated when people have a specific goal in mind, such as losing some weight, or gaining some muscle.

There have been several attempts at teaching people how to simultaneously eat in a Paleo/Primal way, and still push the performance boundaries in whatever sports they chose to pursue, by tweaking their diet accordingly. In 2005, Loren Cordain, Grandfather of the Paleo movement, published a book called “The Paleo Diet for Athletes”, but it was met with mixed reviews. Apparently, Loren is working on an updated version, so I’ll be interested to see how that one turns out. Robb Wolf has maintained for a long time, that people who want to build muscle, or participate in endurance sports should increase the amount of carbohydrates they intake directly before and after a workout. Robb’s carbs of choice are from the “starchy” variety, including mainly yams and sweet potatoes. Robb’s assertion is that, out of all of the possible carbohydrate sources, sweet potatoes have the lowest level of lectins, anti-nutrients and other toxins in them, as well as a large amount of vitamins and some protein. Plus, the Kitavans supposedly get 69% of their daily caloric intake from yams, sweet potatoes and such, and live long healthy lives that are free from heart disease or cancer. I can definitely see where these foods could be considered a good choice.

Having said that, some people have a different opinion on this. Several experts in the field seem to agree that a raised carbohydrate intake is necessary for people who have high energy demands, but there are multiple opinions on what the source of these additional carbohydrates should be.

Paul Jaminet of The Perfect Health Diet, thinks that any of the “Safe Starches” would be appropriate to use, in order to meet athletic energy requirements. Some of the PHD Safe Starch choices are white rice, white potatoes without the skin, and sweet potatoes, which also all seem like perfectly good choices. Originally, white rice was shunned by the Paleo world, because of the “NO GRAIN!” mantra, but it has recently gained a widening acceptance as a viable option, because of it’s very low level of inherent toxins.

So far, all of these options have been starchy foods, but is there an argument against using starches for our carbohydrate of choice? Wouldn’t regular old sugar make an equally good, or possibly even a better choice? Ray Peat thinks so.

“Starch and glucose efficiently stimulate insulin secretion, and that accelerates the disposition of glucose, activating its conversion to glycogen and fat, as well as its oxidation. Fructose inhibits the stimulation of insulin by glucose, so this means that eating ordinary sugar, sucrose (a disaccharide, consisting of glucose and fructose), in place of starch, will reduce the tendency to store fat. Eating “complex carbohydrates,” rather than sugars, is a reasonable way to promote obesity. Eating starch, by increasing insulin and lowering the blood sugar, stimulates the appetite, causing a person to eat more, so the effect on fat production becomes much larger than when equal amounts of sugar and starch are eaten. The obesity itself then becomes an additional physiological factor; the fat cells create something analogous to an inflammatory state. There isn’t anything wrong with a high carbohydrate diet, and even a high starch diet isn’t necessarily incompatible with good health, but when better foods are available they should be used instead of starches. For example, fruits have many advantages over grains, besides the difference between sugar and starch. Bread and pasta consumption are strongly associated with the occurrence of diabetes, fruit consumption has a strong inverse association.

Although pure fructose and sucrose produce less glycemia than glucose and starch do, the different effects of fruits and grains on the health can’t be reduced to their effects on blood sugar.

Orange juice and sucrose have a lower glycemic index than starch or whole wheat or white bread, but it is common for dietitians to argue against the use of orange juice, because its index is the same as that of Coca Cola. But, if the glycemic index is very important, to be rational they would have to argue that Coke or orange juice should be substituted for white bread.”

“Oxidation of sugar is metabolically efficient in many ways, including sparing oxygen consumption. It produces more carbon dioxide than oxidizing fat does, and carbon dioxide has many protective functions, including increasing Krebs cycle activity and inhibiting toxic damage to proteins. The glycation of proteins occurs under stress, when less carbon dioxide is being produced, and the proteins are normally protected by carbon dioxide.

When sugar (or starch) is turned into fat, the fats will be either saturated, or in the series derived from omega -9 monounsaturated fatty acids. When sugar isn’t available in the diet, stored glycogen will provide some glucose (usually for a few hours, up to a day), but as that is depleted, protein will be metabolized to provide sugar. If protein is eaten without carbohydrate, it will stimulate insulin secretion, lowering blood sugar and activating the stress response, leading to the secretion of adrenalin, cortisol, growth hormone, prolactin, and other hormones. The adrenalin will mobilize glycogen from the liver, and (along with other hormones) will mobilize fatty acids, mainly from fat cells. Cortisol will activate the conversion of protein to amino acids, and then to fat and sugar, for use as energy. (If the diet doesn’t contain enough protein to maintain the essential organs, especially the heart, lungs, and brain, they are supplied with protein from the skeletal muscles. Because of the amino acid composition of the muscle proteins, their destruction stimulates the formation of additional cortisol, to accelerate the movement of amino acids from the less important tissues to the essential ones.)” – Ray Peat.

Ray is also very anti-fiber and anti-starch, because of how it ferments in the gut, which causes inflammation, and he says that it also causes the production of a lot of endotoxin.

So when I considered whether to use starch or sugar for workout days, I actually opted for the sugar (fructose), based upon the reasons above. I have to say that I’ve been pretty pleased with the outcome so far. What about you guys….starch, sugar, or neither?


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Barry Cripps is a Paleo-based Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, who operates out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

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2 Responses to Paleo Diet: Starch or Sugar for Workout Days?

  1. Eric January 22, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Real sugars like fruit seem to bother me less than rice and potatoes, though I do enjoy hash browns once in a while in bacon grease or butter.

    • Lila Solnick January 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      Personally I stay away from starches and prefer fruit as well. I make a type of hash brown from mashed cauliflower fried in bacon grease. Oh my!