Paleo Diet: When is High Carb Better Than Low Carb?

With the debate still on-going, it seems that Danny Roddy of “Hair Like a Fox”, and Paul Jaminet of “The Perfect Health Diet”, firmly have each other’s attention right now. Danny follows the teachings of Dr. Raymond Peat, who is health science historian, and proponent of a higher-carb, high sugar/fructose diet, whereas Paul follows his own scientific research…..but both philosophies are more similar than most people would understand at first glance.

In an article dated February 2nd 2012, titled “Higher Carb Dieting: Pros and Cons”, Paul examines the differences and similarities between the two dietary philosophies, how much carbohydrate is optimal for health and longevity, and when is high carb better than low carb?

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“Last week’s

post (Is It Good to Eat Sugar?, Jan 25, 2012) addressed what I see as the most problematic part of the thought of the health writer Ray Peat – his support for sugar consumption.

Apart from this difference, “an extreme amount of overlap is evident,” Danny Roddy notes, in our views and Peat’s. Both perspectives oppose omega-6 fats, support saturated fats, favor eating sufficient carbs to normalize metabolism, support eating nourishing foods like bone broth, and oppose eating toxic foods like wheat.”

It’s true. Both Perfect Health Diet, and Ray Peat’s recommendations are decidedly “Paleo” in nature, and this commonality helps to reinforce the validity of each doctrine.

“In Is There a Perfect Human Diet? (Jan 18, 2012) we noted that diseases can change the optimal diet. In some diseases it’s better to lower carb consumption, but in others it’s better to increase carb consumption. The example we gave is hepatitis; hepatitis B and C viruses can exploit the process of gluconeogenesis to promote their own replication, so high-carb diets which avoid gluconeogenesis tend to slow down disease progression.

Another disorder that might benefit from more carb consumption is hypothyroidism. A number of people with hypothyroidism have benefited from Peat-style carb consumption.”

“I’ve previously noted that increased carb consumption upregulates the levels of T3 thyroid hormone…”

This means that eating more carbs raises T3 levels, and eating fewer carbs lowers T3 levels.

For a hypothyroid person, then, eating more carbs is an alternative tactic for increasing thyroid hormone activity. It may provide symptomatic relief similar to that achieved by supplementing thyroid hormone directly.

Perhaps the two are complementary tactics that should be done together. Taking thyroid hormone pills will increase glucose utilization, creating a need to eat more carbs. A mix of the two tactics may be optimal.”

So T3 levels are directly affected by carb intake or lack thereof, which is exactly why many people (including myself) have experienced hypothyroidism after following a low-carb diet for a long time.

“Jim has experimented to find the amount of carbs that optimize his mood, and found it to be 260 g (1040 calories). On a 2400 calorie diet, typical for men, this would be 43% carbs.

If Peat typically recommends 180 to 250 g carbs, as Danny says, then on a 2000 calorie reference diet that would be 36% to 50% carbs.

Those numbers are strikingly similar to another statistic: The amount of carbs people actually eat in every country of the world.”

“At low incomes people eat mainly carbs, because the agricultural staples like wheat, rice, corn, and sorghum provide the cheapest calories.

As incomes rise, carb consumption falls, but it seems to approach an asymptote slightly below 50% carbs. The lowest carb consumption was France at 45%, followed by Spain, Australia, Samoa, Switzerland, Iceland, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and Netherlands.

We can guess that if money were no object, and people could eat whatever they liked, most people would select a carb intake between 40% and 50%.

This is precisely the range which Jim found optimized his mood.”

“I won’t enumerate studies here, but animal studies indicate that higher carb and protein intakes promote fertility and athleticism, while restriction of carbohydrate and protein promotes longevity.

In our book, we calculate the daily glucose requirements of the human body at around 600 to 800 calories, or 30% to 40% of energy on a 2000-calorie diet.

So a 30-40% carb diet is a neutral diet, which probably places minimal stress on the body.

A 40-50% diet is a carb-overfed diet, which probably promotes fertility and athleticism.

A 20-30% diet is a mildly carb-restricted diet, which probably promotes longevity.

Do we see diminished longevity with higher carb consumption in human epidemiological data? I think so.”

So around 40% of calories from carbs sounds like a good goal, since Jim, Paul, and Ray all seem to basically agree on the percentage….pretty much.

Might Stress Be Mistaken for Enhanced Energy?

Peat favors sucrose as a carb source, which is why Danny Roddy recommended orange juice and Travis Culp soda. I argued in last week’s post that it would be better to eat a starchier diet so that the carb breakdown would be at least 70% glucose, less than 30% fructose and galactose.

Eating a higher-carb diet fills up liver glycogen, removing the most rapid fructose disposal pathway. This makes a high-carb sucrose-based diet rather stressful for the body; it has to dispose of fructose rapidly to avoid toxicity, but has limited ability to do so.

We can see the stressfulness of sucrose by its effects on the “fight-or-flight” stress hormones adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). Here is a study that fed high-fat, high-starch, and high-sucrose diets for 14 days to healthy non-obese subjects, and measured the hormonal response [1; full text]. This paper was discussed by the blog Proline (hat tip: Vladimir Heiskanen). The results:

On high-fat and high-starch diets, adrenaline and noradrenaline levels are low; they are consistently elevated — almost doubled — on the high-sucrose diet.”


In our book, we recommend a slightly low-carb diet of 20-30% of calories. If we were re-writing the book now, we would probably be a bit less specific about what carb intake is best. Rather, we would say that a carb intake around 30-40% is neutral and fully meets the body’s actual glucose needs; and discuss the pros and cons of deviating from this neutral carb intake in either direction.

For most people, I believe a slightly carb-restricted intake of 20-30% of calories is optimal. Most people are not currently seeking to have children or engaging in athletic competition. There is good reason to believe that mild carb restriction maximizes lifespan, and most people desire long life. As we’ve noted, supercentenarians generally eat low-carb, high-fat diets.

But the spirit of our book is to educate, and let everyone design the diet that is best for them. And there is room for difference of opinion about the optimal carb intake.”

Personally, I know that I’ve been feeling a lot better, and packing on some muscle after switching to a higher-carb Paleo style diet, after being super-low-carb for a while. What are your thoughts and experience with this?


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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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5 Responses to Paleo Diet: When is High Carb Better Than Low Carb?

  1. Lyndsey February 7, 2012 at 6:48 am

    *disclaimer:100% anecdotal
    I’ve struggled with hypoglycemia my entire life, and had to use a glucometer for gestational diabetes (go figure) for one of 3 pregnancies. I have experimented with eating/not eating wheat, oatmeal, potatoes, rice, and fruit (and occasional chocolate). What I have found works best for me is pretty low carb, however, the source seems to make for difference than the quantity. I can’t keep my blood sugar regulated (and I most noticibly turn psycho) if I consume wheat & rolled oats. In fact, anything that comes packaged in a box or bag derails my sugar, up then down, regardless of “whole grain” (but refined pasta was especially bad). Potatoes & rice are better, but eating about 30g of this carb source at meal makes me quite hungry before my next meal. Steel-cut oats or a piece of whole fruit once or twice a day seems to be fine (if I’m staying away from wheat). I do know that more strength exercise has helped steady my blood sugar in the past. I did 25 squats before testing post meal glucose whenever I ate processed food, and it worked like a charm to get it right.

  2. Tiana Phillips February 7, 2012 at 10:30 am

    I am hypothyroid, have adrenal fatigue, hashimotos, and extreme food allergies. I can only eat meat, veggies and a few nuts, and rarely eat fruit as it messes with my adrenals. I am highly! allergic to eggs and garlic. Cannot eat potatoes, rice, any gluten. How can I add some carbs to my diet? Are there enough carbs in any veggies that I can eat,? I do eat baby carrots sometimes, but not often due to the natural sugars. Thank you for any help.

  3. Tim February 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Interesting Barry. I am assuming that all of these guys are speaking in general to people that are relatively healthy. Granted certain things like hypothyroidism from what I have read does do better on a higher carb plan than low carb, and we know that athletes and those who do not have much body fat to lose will athletically perform better eating more carbs, but considering that now in America 60+% of the population is “overweight” and almost 35% are now “obese” along with having hosts of other diseases that come with that, such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other autoimmune diseases, one knows that following a low carb paleo lifestyle virtually eliminates or cures these things.

    So while it’s interesting to read if you are healthy without much worry, most of what the world needs to hear is that they need to step away from the sugar/carb infested food at least until they reach a level such as yourself at “healthy”. That’s my .02 cents anyway.


  4. Alya M February 7, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Well it’s all very individual. I am following the ketogenitc diet. It’s Low-carb, high-fat diet. With everyday work out I have got amazing result. I am curbing up on the keto diet each week. Its is made to hit a plato in a diet.

  5. Dan February 7, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    I have to agree with Tim. When I was on paleo I ate around 100g of carbs a day which would have been 20% of my overall intake. I couldn’t lose weight though. I have now gone low carb (approx 20g Carbs) and my hunger is now, for the first time, in control and I am effortlessly losing weight. I have tried having berries this week (10g carbs) each night but as soon as I do I start thinking about food again. Not sure if it’s placebo, but I don’t want to risk it. I can’t afford to go higher in my carbs, I have to let my body heal first.