Paleo Diet: Do Carbs Cause Insulin Resistance?

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A Yummy Potato With Butter

Gary Taubes was one of the founding fathers of the “carbohydrate insulin hypothesis”……at least, he made it semi-famous, even if he didn’t invent it. The hypothesis is simply that the over-consumption of carbohydrates lead to repeated and sustained releases of insulin, which our body ultimately builds up a resistance or immunity to. This supposedly leads to obesity and possibly diabetes.

So… it true? Do carbs cause insulin resistance?

Matt Stone from the 180 Degree Health Blog, wrote a guest article on the Cheeseslave blog……sometime in the past (it’s not dated)….entitled “Carbohydrates Don’t Cause Insulin Resistance”. Don’t get me wrong here, Matt Stone isn’t what most people would call an authority on just about anything, and doesn’t even have an applicable certification….but he has gained some popularity of late, by publicly attempting to debunk the Paleo lifestyle. He exhibited his anti-Paleo standpoint in his presentation in the recent Paleo Summit, and has an eBook called “12 Paleo Myths: Eat Better Than a Caveman”… it’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t buy-into many of the theories that us Paleo folks are betting our health on.

Carbohydrates raise glucose levels, which causes insulin levels to spike, and over time this causes our cells to become resistant to the effects of insulin. This is called insulin resistance, a metabolic state that is the root problem in diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and many other conditions.

The Low-Carb Honeymoon

Trust me, when I came across this I was so excited! And when I reduced the carbohydrates in my diet I felt awesome and got really lean without even exercising! Wow! All so simple and sitting right under our noses the whole time. I did what any weak-minded health and nutrition noob would do… I quickly started a website business and wrote a book about how cutting back on the carbs would heal everyone on earth of all health problems. Your welcome world!

Things worked out great until I started getting a lot of comments and emails from people who were losing their hair, couldn’t sleep, were having anxiety attacks, stopped menstruating, developed gout, had chest pains, lost their sex drive, had freezing cold hands and feet, and on and on and on (and on). That and of course, I developed some of the same problems myself, even eating a puritanical diet of grass fed, pastured, organic, local everything.”

I’ve got to be honest….I’ve heard MANY of the same complaints for lots of avid low-carbers, and I’ve experienced a few of them myself.

“Eating Carbohydrates Doesn’t Raise Glucose Levels in the Blood

Eating carbohydrates doesn’t raise glucose levels in the blood. Especially not on a chronic basis. I regularly help people lower their blood glucose levels by increasing the carbohydrate content of their diets.

A type 2 diabetic that I’ve been communicating with recently lowered her postmeal glucose levels from 359 mg/dl to 132 mg/dl in just 3 weeks by switching from a low-carb diet to a diet with lots of starches, and plenty of tasty ice cream of course, and other important changes (like reducing her water consumption, eating a bigger breakfast, getting more sleep, etc.).

And eating more carbs most certainly doesn’t raise baseline insulin levels. In fact, my most talked about individual case was a girl who achieved one of the most impressive drops in fasting insulin levels (from 33 IU/m to 4.7 IU/m) perhaps ever recorded without relying on temporary tricks like cutting out entire food groups or cutting calories down to starvation levels (both of which lead to rebound and a net worsening of pretty much all lab values of not just glucose and insulin, but also triglycerides, HDL, LDL, etc.).”

Matt draws a lot of his theories from Ray Peat, but you know, I’ve read a lot of Ray Peat’s work, and even after thinking really hard about the possible mechanisms involved in the two paragraphs above, I can’t for the life of me, come up with a solid reason of why these reported effects would occur. I’ve honestly never seen anyone, even a diabetic, raise their post prandial blood-glucose to that kind of ridiculous level, while eating a low-carbohydrate diet…..have you? I don’t see how it’s possible, but if you’ve experienced it, or seen it in others, please let me know.

Eating more carbs doesn’t raise baseline insulin levels…..I can see the logic in that, but insulin resistance can certainly raise baseline insulin levels….so what DOES cause insulin resistance Matt?

Carbs Cause Insulin Resistance?

Most people think they are stuck with insulin resistance. Like it is some kind of diagnosis of some kind that is a chronic, lifelong disease. Not at all. Insulin resistance, in my experience, is a condition that is easy to overcome assuming you are consuming plenty of carbohydrates and doing other important things to stimulate metabolism and decrease stress hormone secretion.

The girl mentioned above with the huge drop in baseline insulin levels saw this drop due to her dramatic improvement in her sensitivity to insulin. Once again, this was achieved by adding more than 200 daily additional grams of carbohydrates to the low-carb diet she had consumed for four years prior.

And her level of insulin resistance, measured by the HOMA-IR test, dropped from 4.1 to 0.6. 1.0 is considered perfect, more or less. So she actually went to the other end of the spectrum to have far above-average insulin sensitivity. Her blood glucose levels dropped by a third as well. Even 2 hours after a meal her fasting glucose is

remaining around 80 mg/dl these days. Glucose metabolism excellence.

If anything, insulin resistance is a natural state to be in when metabolism is low and/or stress hormones like cortisol are too high. If you do even the most basic research on the disease of having an excess of cortisol (Cushing’s Syndrome), you see immediately that abdominal fat, severe insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, astronomical risk of heart disease –- these are all brought about by excesses of cortisol.

And we know that there are all kinds of things that produce increased cortisol production. Carbohydrate restriction is one of them. Dieting is another. Carbohydrate consumption is not, and frequent carbohydrate feedings actually keep the stress response of the body suppressed (once glucose metabolism has been restored, and wild blood sugar fluctuation, a disorder caused by a low metabolism, has been corrected), which is why they are useful in restoring insulin sensitivity.”

Whoa!! Matt is making some wild sweeping claims here.

We know that glucocorticoids like cortisol can contribute to insulin resistance [], and a long-term low-carb diet can significantly increase cortisol levels, thanks to the stress of creating the glucose the body needs, by way of gluconeogenesis…..but breaking the cycle is surely not as simple as raising carbohydrate intake significantly. Cortisol pushes insulin resistance, which pushes cortisol, in a viscous circle. Raising carbohydrate intake could certainly help to lower the stress response, thanks to eliminating the need for the body to convert protein to glucose….and getting proper sleep would help too, but that doesn’t take into account any other social or environmental stresses the person may encounter on a daily basis; the stresses that potentially caused the excess cortisol in the first place.

This sounds like the same kind of circular logic that is behind the “carbohydrates cause insulin” hypothesis. A low-carb diet can cause insulin resistance, because the body becomes very frugal with it’s glucose supply when there isn’t a lot of it around, but I’ve certainly never heard of a person becoming a diabetic from a low-carb diet. And, I would very much doubt that an average person is FIRST going to experience cortisol problems while on a low-carb diet. After all, the people who benefit most from a low-carb diet, are the people who already have some level of insulin resistance, and oftentimes the obesity that is associated with it. People, who tend to do well with a reduced carbohydrate diet, are the ones who tend to be sensitive to carbohydrates.

Insulin resistance while on a high carbohydrate diet is not the same as insulin resistance while on a low-carbohydrate diet. While on a high-carb diet, when carbs and calories are abundant, insulin resistance means that there will often be a significant amount of excess calories turned away from cells, and stored as fat because glycogen stores are most likely already full. There’s no need for the glucose, and nowhere else for it to go. However, on a low-carbohydrate diet, some less important cells will refuse entry of any available glucose, because there is not a lot to be had, so whatever IS in circulation is needed for the brain. There will seldom be any excess glucose calories, and any excess probably wouldn’t get stored as fat anyway.

Say Goodbye to Carbophobia

So please, enough with the carbophobia. In the right context, carbohydrates are an absolutely essential tool in achieving many physiological improvements – certainly raising metabolic rate, decreasing insulin resistance, lowering blood glucose levels, building muscle, increasing fertility and sex drive, improving mood, lowering inflammation, and just about anything else that you could attribute to increased metabolism and decreased insulin resistance. You can even rebuild your gut and change your gut flora by changing your metabolism – a process that simply cannot happen without adequate carbohydrate intake.

The belief that carbohydrates, or any basic constituent of food, is single-handedly responsible for our modern disease epidemics is extremely foolish, and holding us all back from openly exploring the true medical use of dietary change. In more plain language… Don’t be no tater hater!

If this challenges your beliefs, I would like you to know that I actually think Bob Saget is pretty funny. So we are not all that different, you and me. And come on! A global cooling cycle? Like my Texan stepmother says, “It’s hotter’n sheeit!”

Seriously, though. If you are under the influence of low-carbism and not getting very far with it, I can promise that if you follow some of my most basic guidance I can show you a whole new world where carbs are our friends and can help us achieve everything a low-carb diet was promised to deliver but didn’t. And after all the dietary enslavement we’ve put ourselves and our families through trying to eat some puritanical diet –- befriending carbs once again is a gluten tootin’ good time!”

Let’s face it, carbophobia is silly, unless you’re heavily insulin resistant, diabetic, or fighting cancer (which is also debatable), because blaming a single macronutrient for all of the diseases of civilization is a little unwarranted. Granted, if low-carb isn’t working for you anymore, it’s probably because your body has adjusted to the new lower calorie level, your metabolism has dropped thanks to reduced Thyroid output, or your cortisol levels have gone way up….maybe all three. So add some carbs back in for a while, and see what happens. Unlike Matt, I wouldn’t recommend anyone go adding gluten containing grains back into their diet, no matter what, but some of those good safe starches, and some fruit would probably do the trick. I’m also not talking about 400+ grams of carbs per day…the Perfect Health Diet level of 150 grams per day sounds more appropriate to me.

Like I’ve mentioned before, I think that one of the contributing factors to insulin resistance, and type II diabetes is our friend Polyunsaturated fat. I think that to say, “my body can’t handle glucose anymore, because I ate too many carbs!” is simplistic, short sighted and probably just plain wrong. But if we’re talking carbs + PUFA + Cortisol + Oxidative stress, plus a multitude of other factors…..maybe we’re starting to see the whole picture.

Learn More About Taubes Ideas


[]. Glucocorticoids and insulin resistance: old hormones, new targets


Do you think carbs cause insulin resistance? Have you experienced any of the conditions mentioned by Matt Stone when reducing carbs? Did you increase carbs to alleviate the problem? Did it help? Please leave your comments below to share your experience with others. If you found this article useful, please share on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Thanks for visiting!


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

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3 Responses to Paleo Diet: Do Carbs Cause Insulin Resistance?

  1. Ken O'Neill April 3, 2012 at 8:05 am

    You guys need to go back to simple evolutionary physiology. Insulin resistance is a downstream outcome of inactivity resulting in lowering AMP-K and GLUT4 production to below healthy thresholds: both impact not only mitochondria, skeletal muscle endocrine functioning, but more significantly systemic insulin sensitivity. The article summarizing state of the art work is, frankly, Paleo Tunnel vision.

  2. HeatherT April 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Well, if you are talking oxidative stress … the main culprit is probably isn’t carbs, either too many or not enough. It’s likely *excess iron* … the US diet is really high in iron, since it is added to many foods, and wheat, beef, and soda probably make it absorbed more than it should be. Anyway, iron in the blood raises insulin levels, and unlike a carby meal, the iron sticks around.

    It’s even easy to test … if you raise iron levels in the blood, the tissues in the heart start getting damaged.

    Anyway, I think carbs are a red herring. It’s fairly obvious that worldwide, there are very high-starch diets that don’t result in insulin problems, while other high-starch diets do result in insulin problems. You have to look at the rest of the diet.

    • Barry Cripps April 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      As usual Heather, I agree with you completely…’s amazing how many people don’t think about Iron toxicity. Women actually absorb more iron than men do, but because of menstruation in early life, it seldom becomes a problem. However, after menopause, iron toxicity can quickly become a problem for some women….often catching up with, and surpassing some men’s levels. I would practice giving blood if I wasn’t deathly afraid of needles, and if they would take my foreign blood anyway. :-)