Do you need to be ultra low carb on a Paleo diet?
This is a question I get asked constantly.
As with everything, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
There are some things you should consider as you begin (below). Understand that you MUST pay attention to how your body is responding and feel comfortable adjusting your macros (carbs, fats, and protein ratios) as you go or as your lifestyle/goals/health conditions change.
Paleo is not just one way of eating:
When the Paleo diet first emerged on the scene, it was both low fat AND very low carb. Since that time, Paleo has morphed and several different "camps" have emerged.
Under the Paleo umbrella, there are those who follow a:
- Ketogenic diet (ultra low carb, typically less than 50g per day)
- Low Carb/High Fat (LCHF) which is a slightly less restrictive version of keto
- Primal Diet which includes some high quality dairy and rice
- Moderate carb Paleo (100-200g per day)
- High carb Paleo which is higher in carbs and lower in fats and is generally used by athletes
- There are even more off-shoots which include: The Autoimmune Paleo diet which restricts nuts, seeds, coffee, chocolate, and nightshades; the Low Fodmap Diet which is low in fermentable fibers; the Low Histamine diet for those with histamine intolerance; and carb cycling diets where carbs are lower on sedentary days and higher on workout/training days.
What are the Paleo Carbs?
PALEO CARBS INCLUDE:
- starchy root vegetables: Potato, sweet potato, yam, turnip, carrot, parsnip, squashes, cassava
- fruit: All whole fruits
- natural sugars: Molasses, honey, pure maple syrup, coconut sugar, dates, and other dried fruits
*for the purposes of this discussion, I am not talking about non-starchy vegetables. However, all vegetables ARE carb sources. They are so rich in fiber and so low in carbs that they should be included liberally and not factored into this discussion of dense Paleo carbs unless you are on a ketogenic or other restricted diet such as low FODMAP or low histamine.
- grains (wheat, buckwheat, sorghum, millet, oats, etc.)
- refined sugar
- dairy (many dairy products are high in milk sugar)
Avoiding overwhelm and self-sabotage:
If you are new to Paleo, I recommend you focus on eating whole, nutrient dense foods and not worry so much about your macros.
It's enough of an adjustment to cut out grains, figure out what to eat, and get comfortable with food prep! If you pile on top of this the pressure to track macros and micromanage your ratios, you are much more likely to jump ship.
If you want my basic recommendations on where to start, I recommend my Quick Start Guide.
When I first started Paleo, I included a LOT of Paleo treats (Paleo brownies, Paleo pancakes, etc.). These helped me and my family transition without feeling so deprived. In time, they just fell away, it wasn't even a conscious decision. Now, I rarely make Paleo substitutes but I'm so glad these are available when we do want something!
What should YOU consider for your carb intake?
- Your health concerns: Do you have diabetes, insulin resistance, fatty liver, PCOS, or gut dysbiosis? If yes, you may want to consider lowering your intake of dense carb sources. Do you have adrenal fatigue/HPA Axis Dysregulation or are you more anxious? In these scenarios, it may be detrimental to drop carbs below +/- 100 grams.
- Your lifestyle: Are you active or largely sedentary? If you are very active, have a stressful job/life, or weight train consistently, a higher carb intake is likely to work better for you. If you have a sedentary desk job and aren't working out consistently, you may fare better with a lower carb approach.
- Your age: Women who are post-menopausal tend to get better results on a lower carb or strategically timed carb approach.
- Your goals: Do you have a significant fat loss goal or are you within +/- 20 lbs of your goal weight? The more weight you have to lose, the more helpful a lower carb approach can be. That's not to say ultra low carb, just lower.
- Your preferences: Do you find it easier to stick to Paleo when you're lower carb or do you find very low carb (VLC) too restrictive and crazy making? Keep in mind that the best Paleo diet for you is the one you can and will stick to!
How many carbs are in each food?
Apps such as Cronometer or My Fitness Pal can be very useful in the beginning. I don't recommend using them over the long term as they can make you obsessive but it's useful to have basic information about macros, nutrients, fiber, and calories.
If you want to track calories and macros, I recommend you track your current intake for a few days to assess the calories you're eating now and use that as a baseline.
From there, you can set up your macros. In general, I recommend starting with a 30% protein/30% carbs/40% fat ratio and adjust from there. This is based on the work I do with clients and my own experience but is a very general starting point.
If you find this article confusing and you're just starting out, I highly recommend you get consistent eating whole foods/Paleo before tinkering with macros or worrying about whether you can have a potato or a banana.
Let's be clear: Our health issues were not brought on by bananas or whole potatoes! Eating these aren't going to prevent you from making progress. As with anything, we can overdo even whole foods but it's not easy. I dare you to eat two potatoes at once. You'll see what I mean. ;)