Home Carbohydrates The paleo diet is NOT a no starch / carbohydrate diet

The paleo diet is NOT a no starch / carbohydrate diet



” Here we go again” I sigh.

Paleo seems to be hitting headlines in major publications on a daily basis in New Zealand. Just this month – the article “Carbohydrate addiction is real and it’s killing us” in the North & South magazine justified why we all need to go back to eating an ancestral or paleo diet devoid of refined grains and sugars. Go read it – it’s an excellent essay. Just two months ago N&S did a series of articles on Paleo “Why cavegirls don’t get fat”

And today James Griffin (writer, comedy) mentioned paleo in his New Zealand Herald column. Hunt, kill and be merry, for tomorrow we diet.

This goes nicely with the article also in today’s paper on sugar: “Is sugar toxic?”

Where did the notion that the paleo diet is devoid of starch come from?

However the article that got me riled about the whole carb issue (yet again!) is an article by Lani Lopez for Elements Magazine “Me eat now…” where she states the paleo diet instructions are to: “AVOID: 
Dairy, grain and starch, legumes, convenience and processed food, sugars (including artificial sweeteners), alcohol.”

Where does this come from? I’ve never been under the impression we should cut out all starch. Cordain talks about the problems of a high glycemic load diet, and some root vegetables, especially potato as being a problem. He therefore recommends limiting the amount of high GI load carbohydrates for those with type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, coronary heart disease, gout, and acne –  but not eliminate. By his recommendations those who need to limit starch would still get 10 – 20 grams per meal. (page 155, The Paleo Answer)

Starch in my opinion should be eaten is as needed and as tolerated.

Starch in my opinion should be is as needed and as tolerated. If you are a CrossFitting athlete, you need starch for workouts, as the primary fuel burnt is glucose. Too many are cutting carbs right down to nothing, and consequently feeling drained and not sleeping well. High intensity exercise plus a very low carb diet will increase cortisol and decrease testosterone according to biochemist Dr Mat Lalonde.

If you are primarily sedentary and diabetic or prediabetic, you would be best eating less starch and eating low GI meals – and importantly – don’t eat carbs alone. Eat with a meal containing protein, non starch vegetables, salad with vinegar or lemon juice and fat. All these foods slow down the digestion of the starch and help stabilise blood sugar.

Much of the research done on paleo diets was done on the Kitavan people – who eat a very high starch diet, and are lean, healthy and appear to be free of the diseases affecting Western nations.

The paleo diet is carbohydrate appropriate, whereas the standard Western diet is carbohydrate excessive

So please – I’d like to see an end to the notion that paleo is a no carb/ no starch diet. It is starch or carb agnostic. Carbs as required, and tolerated. By standard American (or Western) diet standards is will be by default lower in carbohydrates. This does not mean is is low carbohydrate, as today’s diet is excessive in carbohydrates, it merely brings our diet back to carbohydrates at an appropriate level.

When you cut out grains and sugars, and replace with fruit and starchy carbohydrates you will likely cut your carbs down at least by half. Most people do not need to cut them down consciously any further.

Here is a slide I show in my paleo seminar

paleo carbs

I also recommend you read : Tim Noakes on carbohydrates

Tim Noakes explains how and why many benefit from a low carb, and therefore higher fat diet. However he also states:

“Not for everyone

However those who can metabolise carbohydrates efficiently and who have always been lean despite eating a high carbohydrate diet may not benefit in any way from this eating plan.  I would not advise any athlete who is lean and quite happy with his or her weight and performances to change to this eating plan since it might not make a difference and might even be detrimental.”




  1. Whenever I read a post from you about carbs, I get a mental picture of you slapping your forehead.. ‘not THIS agaaaaaain’. Thanks for another great post. You are on fire lately!

  2. Robb Wolf is a big name in the paleo community, so I imagine journalists go to his website, where they’ll find starches listed on the “foods to avoid” list. http://robbwolf.com/what-is-the-paleo-diet/ Of course, if they went to Paul Jaminet’s page, another big name in paleo, they’d find the opposite advice, recommending a pound of safe starches daily: http://perfecthealthdiet.com/the-diet/ . It’s the confusion of no one being “in charge” of the paleo community. Overall, I think that’s good, because paleo works best when personalized, but it also means the media is going to get confused (as are newbies to paleo). I agree with you, by the way, and have always eaten starches and carbs as part of my paleo template.

  3. Hi Julianne,

    Regarding that meme, it is highly misleading. Using nutritiondata.com

    8 medium (114g) sweet potatoes (baked in skinl): Total carb is 196g … 30g fiber … 64.5g starch … sugars: 27g sucrose, 7g glucose, 6g fructose and 61g maltose.

    That’s 11 packets of table sugar for those inclined towards hyperbole.

    Meanwhile 250g pasta (used dry spaghetti): 187g carb, 8g fiber, 7g sugars and 156g starch.

    The correct meme would be that you get the same amount of sugar in one medium sweet potato as you do in 250g pasta.

    • In the context of the seminar and how I present the information, I have already covered that any carbohydrate when digested ends up as predominantly either glucose or fructose, and starches are primarily glucose – a simple sugar. And a cup of dry pasta ends up as around as you say 190g carbs which is 190 g simple sugars. I have people look at the total carbohydates in food, and think of the digested carbohydrate as the total amount of glucose / sugar released from that food. The amount of carbohydrate in 250g of pasta as you note is 187 grams (essentially in simple sugars once digested) and net carbs in the sweet potato is similar. So in the context of the conversation, 8 sweet potatoes have a similar amount of carbs (when into
      digested sugars) as 250 grams of dry pasta.

        • Starches digest to glucose as you know, so I’m comparing the total carbs as a stand in for sugar which they eventually end up as. I guess I didn’t make that clear in my post – will update it accordingly.

          • I get that, I just don’t get how that ties in with the title of this post. Paleo starch, evil grain starch, fruit, honey or jelly beans — they are all carbs. See? That’s what I’m confused about. The title of this post is implying that starch is appropriate on a paleo diet and you use a paleo example that is mostly sugar carbs compared to the pasta.

          • I can see what you are saying, and will amend my post to make it clearer
            1. Paleo is often touted as a very low carbohydrate diet when in fact it is carb appropriate.
            2. Paleo takes out sugar and grains as you know, sugar are empty carbs devoid of nutrients, grains have problem anti-nutrients and proteins like gluten and other prolamines.
            3. Grains, especially highly processed ones like cakes and biscuits, pasta, and also sugars like jellybeans are also denser sources of starches and sugar, particularly in their highly processed forms, and being dense they are easily overeaten, so most people end up eating too many carbohydrates, leading to excessively high blood sugar.
            4. There are problems with excess carbs and sugars, so decreasing them is a good idea for most people – this is not the same as zero or close to zero carbs. This is in the camp of high carbs are bad therefore NO carbs are good. Not the case in my view – but this is how most people interpret paleo.
            5. My point is with this pic is that just replacing pasta, cake or jelly beans with fruit and vegetable carbs leads to most people getting a lot less carbohydrates without thinking about it, as paleo carbs like sweet potatoes are less dense forms of carbs. They dont need to cut all starches and in fact most of us don’t recommend that.

          • I agree, pasta and legumes (especially legumes) have excellent satiety, but as paleo avoids them – they aren’t on the menu. (If they cause no health issues – people can feel free to eat them)

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