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Does Paleo Need a Fork in the Road?

by 39204 · November 18, 2013 at 10:31 PM

It seems that most everyone who starts out here is doing LCHF right out of the gates no matter what their background is, but I wonder if there needs to be a fork in the road that we encounter on Day 1 that, in Choose Your Own Adventure style, points people in the right direction based on their realistic activity level.

I read the books/blogs/sites and found the information compelling and did LCHF a few times and each time I got flabbier, felt really cold and got sick. It's a very poor match for me and doesn't work at all for my high activity level. If I had encountered a fork in the road that said, "Seriously, how active are you? Do you lift weights or are you honestly willing to lift weights for real? Do you walk around a lot? When nobody is around and you're in a moment of self-examination, do you really consider to be an active person? If so, then you should do high tuber, low-fat (except EFAs)." I would have said "Yes!" and saved a damn year of spinning my wheels.

The converse would point people who are honestly never going to exercise toward LCHF. Relatively speaking, they can improve a lot of health markers doing this vs. doing nothing. I just wish this distinction were more clearly articulated and I'm convinced that it would massively reduce the amount of frustration that many encounter. What insane world do we live in where people are doing CrossFit while VLC? This could be avoided easily.

Edit: I realize I've done a piss-poor job of painting a picture of the individuals about whom I speak (who would take the road less traveled when reaching that fork). These are people for whom "not obese" is not a feather in their cap. They set a goal, without compromise, and decide that they haven't achieved anything until they get there. They don't do 80/20, 90/10 or 99/1, they do 100/0 until they get there because "cheats" are only going to cheat them out of reaching their goal. You can call these people "obsessed" or "narcissistic" or whatever makes you feel better, but they probably have the same ultimate goals as you do, only none of the compromises. They like paleo because it makes sense and is clearly the healthiest route in general, but they don't see why they shouldn't look and perform like wild humans as well. In order to do that most are going to need to eat less fat than those wild humans eat to maintain, while possibly doing more activity. Once they arrive, they'd let their fat intake swing up, perhaps their activity level swing down and then just coast. I say high carb, but only in this swirling low carb vortex would it be considered high carb. Probably around 200-something grams per day.

These are people whose attitude toward food is perhaps radically different from your own. They don't fetishize food and require X number of squares of chocolate or Y number of pieces of bacon to reward themselves every day. Rewarding experiences for them don't come in food form. They don't need to balance out a huge restriction of one type with hedonism of another. Food for them is a source of energy and raw materials, not enjoyment and affirmation. Bacon and eggs that blocks them from their goal turns into ashes in their mouths.

These people just need better information, and the tidal wave of high fat recommendations is only going to set them adrift and push them from their goals. The point of this post isn't to get those who aren't this type of person to become them, because I, quite frankly, don't give a damn about that and it doesn't affect me in any way. The point is to articulate another path for this type of person (who may only be 10 or even 5% of the people here) so that they don't get trapped in the Paleo Twilight Zone as I did.

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21 Replies

18373 · December 16, 2011 at 04:50 AM

It sounds like you feel that the Paleo community misled you. You didn't feel well on a VLC diet, and it took a long time for you to realize what the problem was, because many Paleo dieters are also LC dieters.

Since the revelation that you felt better with higher carb intake, you have tried to figure out what makes you different from the people who do well low carb, those who thrive on it, those who fare poorly on higher carb levels.

One path in the search came from thinking about how highly active people sometimes (but not always!) do better with a higher carb intake. And it turns out that these people seem to burn it all off before it adversely affects them. Also, it happens that insulin sensitivity is increased to some degree through exercise. All this leads quite naturally to the hypothesis that LC is a remedy for a lack of exercise, a measure that is only necessary if one refuses the healthy practice of activity. It's a fine hypothesis as far as it goes, and your experience fits neatly into it.

The next step is to see if there are people who are very active who still have glucose metabolism issues. The answer is a resounding yes! Unfortunately, therefore, that hypothesis must be rejected. Or you could reject the observations, but that doesn't seem particularly wise.

In any case, it has often been lamented that the Paleo diet is conflated with a LC diet. It is only natural, however, since they hold some common values (for example the heretical notion that fat, even saturated fat, is healthy), and they also attract many of the same people -- people not satisfied with their health who realize that even a so-called healthy diet, such as that promoted by the AHA, is not serving them.

I don't think what is needed is so much a fork. The one you have suggested will be wrong in both directions for different people. It is simply misguided. But as long it is made clear that Paleo is macro-nutrient-agnostic, fewer people will have the problem you did; the problem of continuing to try something that isn't working because that was the prevailing wisdom.

The bottom line is that everyone is faced with their own set of problems, from genetic predispositions, to acquired imbalances, to specific disease states. Only the very lucky will get it right the first time, and even then they will have to feel around to discover what their limits are. I don't think we can make it simpler than that without also making it false.

9551 · December 16, 2011 at 03:16 AM

Just one more example to add to the discussion: I have always been very athletic, both with weights and with cardio/sports. Nevertheless I started putting on fat in my midsection as I went into my late twenties. I tried to get it off by eating less of the same things I was eating, while jogging more. I failed. Over and over. I then switched to low-carb pseudo-paleo (20-50g total carbohydrate) and the midsection fat melted off, effortlessly, in two months.

My exercise level did not change and I lost weight.

And I ate that low level of carbohydrate for a year and a half. I now eat anywhere from 50g to 125g of glucose (almost never fructose) on most days. Obviously this feels somewhat better to me or I wouldn't do it. But it would most certainly be an exaggeration to say that in my LC/VLC days I was "insane." I was doing just fine, lifting weights while fasted, eating once or twice a day, happily and gratefully liberated from my glucose roller coaster.

I'm totally open of course to people who want to eat a higher-glucose form of paleo, and even if they're not crossfitters. I hope that's obvious. Just trying to give an accurate representation of one person's experience.

11049 · December 16, 2011 at 02:57 AM

I have been LC-VLC for almost 5 years - I work 10-12 hours a day outside in a physically demanding job and I do just fine with very little carb or no carb. I have more energy and out work most guys 1/2 my age.

55320 · December 16, 2011 at 01:20 AM

Honestly, when I'm athletic I do pretty badly on either LCHF and HCLF. It amazes me that you could do well on that diet as an athlete, but it just goes to show we are both sort of limited by our personal biases. I did a lean meat + starch last time I was surfing in Florida because I didn't have access to good fatty meat and to be honest my performance was poor because I felt bloated all the time. To contrast that, when I did Movnat, the diet was pretty high in both carbs and fat and I felt very very good and my performance was great (MCMF). I think for athletes, what's important is getting enough calories + eating what you digest well, which differs for every person. You all know I am not a fan of the equation of low carb with paleo, but I think low-carb paleo is going to work best for certain people, even athletes like Jonas Colting. And it's not going to be easy on an individual level to find out what works for you. It's not going to come down to a flow chart, but to self experimentation. I think for the vast majority of people, medium amounts of carbs and fats works well.

This is so relevant: does-paleo-need-a-fork-in-the-road?

3914 · December 16, 2011 at 01:39 PM

I haven't been here as long as you have, but I don't get the impression this is a LCHF-dedicated forum at all. Yes, many people here are LC or VLC, but many others extol the virtues of starch. There are a few dozen posts on sweet potatoes alone. Go to any dedicated low-carb forum, and you won't find people talking about the value of the potato or white rice versus brown. The LC posters are in the majority here, and there appears to be a sizable group of people in the 100-200 g/day range -- too many to be on any low-carb plan, but much less than the USDA recommendations -- and then there's a smaller group that eats lots of starch without worrying about it. All these groups have people capable of presenting a good argument for the way they eat, so if you spend a half-hour browsing through a few threads on the subject, you'll see the range of opinions, even if LC gets the most play. If you come away from this site thinking paleo == LC, then you didn't look very hard, especially if you were looking specifically for opinions on a diet to go with heavy exercise.

Not only are there multiple approaches on the LC-HC continuum, but there are differing opinions on the amount of protein people should eat, so it's not as simple as LCHF versus HCLF, either. Some go LC by adding protein and/or letting their calories drop; others do it by eating a pound of bacon every day. So even within LC you have to do your homework to see what makes sense for you.

For what it's worth, my own N=1 experience has been that I only have the energy to be really active after I've been LC for a while. The first time it happened, I didn't even know what a carb was; I was eating burgers without the bun because my chiropractor told me I was allergic to "white" foods like flour and sugar. After eating burgers and green beans for a while, I suddenly decided to start riding my bike a few miles every day. That's how it's always worked for me. Perhaps if I'd gone more hard-core with heavy weight lifting, I would have needed more carbs. Or perhaps not. I don't know, but it's certainly not clear that carbs are necessary or even beneficial to physical activity for everyone, or even most people.

37013 · December 15, 2011 at 11:47 PM

With respect, Travis, you would classify me as one step above a cadaver yet I require moderate carbs to thrive and gradually lose weight. Low carb makes me crazy with cravings and almost ensures a binge. Unless you're saying that 60-100g per day qualifies as LCHF.

Honestly, I don't think activity level alone is going to create clean columns. You'll need at least one more question that works to straighten the lines.

UPDATE: We are now about a day into this conversation and I need to change my answer as follows: "We don't need a fork in the road because we don't HAVE a road! What we have is a plowed field with many, many separate furrows. Anyone have a harrow?"

78 · December 16, 2011 at 06:01 AM

I ate a carb once and I almost died.

11664 · December 16, 2011 at 12:36 AM

I'm not sure I agree with this. First of all, it kind of assumes everyone needs or wants to lose weight or is turning to Paleo as a weight-management tool. I started off LC, but within a week I was feeling maybe a couple pounds skinnier which was not the goal, so I started incorporating starches with every meal. My weight has stayed the same ever since. I'm very slim and not super active - desk job. We all have different metabolisms.

5351 · December 15, 2011 at 11:48 PM

The converse would point people who are honestly never going to exercise toward LCHF. Relatively speaking, they can improve a lot of health markers doing this vs. doing nothing.

While I agree with this, I'd rather hold out for introducing it as a lifestyle in which this would be irrelevant as the presumption would be a good level of activity. But yes, the message that gets out regarding removing grains is that of reducing carbs, though compared to SAD carbs are a significantly lower even for athletes. And the baseline diet does seem to be geared more towards weight loss, which is what many are looking for when they investigate diets online after all. Most sources I've seen are fairly responsible in talking about how paleo should be applied and the meal plans are pretty well balanced, but that does require a more detailed viewing to grasp the details, and many don't get that far.

If there was a single place to define the diet, then I'd be for establishing the typical diet as that required for desired activity level, and have the lower activity approach as one of the modifications. It might require people to take more responsibility themselves and actually understand the choices, but none of this is easy when you're trying to mass-educate.

Also, low-carb is an appropriate starting point for fixing metabolic damage and fast-tracking the fat-metabolism.

7741 · December 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

LCHF surely does not give everyone the results they want, and I'm sick of the knee-jerk CARBS ARE EVIL posts. But I don't know that LFHC is the answer. I didn't even know you ate that way Travis, and most people 'round here who eat 200+g carbs daily don't seem to eat low in total fat. Though many do keep an eye on their calories.

I can't participate in this discussion based on my personal experience, because I'm a freak and I have to do it wrong according to all camps in order to feel great.

2285 · December 16, 2011 at 08:34 AM

Apparently there's a carb war going on.

Regardless, we should realize that there's probably not a certain macro ratio that's going to work for everyone. Travis, and many others, obviously does well with higher carb, and lower fat, whereas others do better with lower carbs (myself included).

Essentially, people should enter "Paleo" knowing that there's not a predefined way for them to eat, and that they should know it's going to take some time to figure out what/how to eat. It's going to take time, paleo shouldn't be advertised as something were one can reach the end goal (whatever that is) within a month or two. It's just not that easy.

8777 · December 16, 2011 at 11:08 PM

Travis, I agree with you that a lot of IR is related to activity level, but just slight chronic positive energy balance plays a role as well, IMO, regardless of activity.

Rather than a fork in the road ... perhaps just a definition at this point of what PALEO means any more!

Paleo used to be synonymous with VLC/VHF. This appears to have changed so fast that nobody knows anymore. Then you have the 80% Sisson Primals. Which is not to say that concessions to dairy and such are the worst thing, but when does it stop? I like the idea of a template, but even then, is there one? Or at least one that the majority of those advocating this lifestyle ascribe to?

There just seems to be so much confusion out there.

356 · December 16, 2011 at 04:52 PM

How Dare you Travis! Despite being hidden in very well written responses its pretty clear the Low carb high fat paleo bias is alive and well! Low carb screwed me up and i'm still recovering. Am i bias against low carb? yup. Do i think Low carb has a place in "Paleo" eating? Yes but for a small fraction of people. The default starting point is LCHF I don't care what anyone says. Forget fork in the road maybe we should just have a mod/high carb version of Paleohacks. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me for over 2 years. After listening to all of R. Wolf's podcasts, listening to lots of Jimmy's pods i was convinced Low carb should be the default starting place. Why not start out Paleo mod/high carb and then after a while adjust down if necessary? I realize my response will get voted down and probably ripped apart. I don't care. Great question Travis.

78 · December 16, 2011 at 12:39 AM

I don't think we need a fork in the road. I think what we do need to do is personally examine the main branches of Paleo which are neatly written up and contrasted in Robb's blog. Since I do not want to buy access to Art Devany I cannot speak to that branch, but as for the other four (Orginal Cordain, Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson and Paul Jaminet) I can take what I need from each one and make it work for me. And that changes from week to week. I cannot always get high fat grass fed beef, so I guess when I have to buy CAFO I eat the leanest I can find and eat higher fat in nuts, avocados and olive oil. Some people cannot tolerate FODMAPS, but I eat pears and apples in season, but never white rice. And I think from a fork in the road standpoint, for me, I would get fat on Jaminet because that amount of carb, albeit fructose free, makes me hungry. Some weeks I cut way back, almost to an induction like pattern.

Personally, I think that a good starting place for anyone who wants to lose weight is to take a look at the diet spelled out in the back of Why We Get Fat. It's essentially the new Atkins as published by Westman, Phinney and Volek and it works. It can be as paleo as you want. Just pick the non-neo foods and stick with it.

From a registered nursing point of view, as one who worked 20 yrs with cardiac and diabetic patients, in clinical settings, in research settings and post operative rehab, I am well aware of a good start off for weight-loss. As a starting point, this is perfect, and a lot of our patients got off insulin injections once they lost weight, cut back on a lot of their drugs, avoided second heart attacks, etc. We cannot throw out the baby with the bath water just because it makes some people feel less than top of their game. What we can do is tweak it till they are comfortable with their changes.

We always started out with the first principle set forth in PaNu / Archevore, long before it was written and that is before we will try to fix your metabolic issues you need to deal with your addictions. Sometimes, those are the hardest first steps for anyone.

1968 · December 16, 2011 at 06:13 PM

Everyone should exercise and be active (to the extent they can, obviously). That doesn't mean everyone who exercises and is active should eat tons of tubers. At the moment, HFLC seems to work great for me. I'm active, no question, and was pretty lean when I started HFLC and am becoming leaner. That might change dramatically, and I'm totally prepared to change when it does.

Like everyone else said, everyone's different, etc etc. I think an important thing that we can do is to really try and discourage the "transitionally feeling crappy" issue. I've never had low carb flu. When I don't eat carbs, I crave carbs, which can be bad, but that's it. That leads me to think that I do better LC than other people for whom the "low carb flu" appears to last months.

I think that if eating a certain way makes you less active and less able to exercise, that's a de facto bad thing. I get all the science around how it's an addiction, and you get withdrawal, and I'm sure that's true. But pushing people to do things that makes them feel bad results in Travis-type experiences, where people ignore their own bodies because they're convinced that one way of eating is best. If people cut out toxic foods and eat all the carbs they want, they'll be better off, period.

So, instead of saying "if you're an exercise buff like me, eat lots of tubers," we can just say "everyone should walk around a bunch and do at least some resistance training, and then measure what works for them by whether they become more/less able to walk around a bunch and do at least some resistance training."

I'm probably oversimplifying a ton here and ignoring a lot of important things, but that's my gut reaction. Generally I try to stay out of the macronutrient fights because I'm not nearly as sciency as many on PH, so there's a giant caveat for you.

5351 · December 16, 2011 at 05:00 PM

In response to the edit, I think it's really a matter of persepctive. There is no central authority, no definitive path, no vault of knowledge which we can point to. People gather bits of knowledge from a multitude of sources. You evidently felt you didn't get the best information for your particular situation. Many others would feel the same, but mroe still I would think have found helpful information. What's more, I think many would be confused at your suggestion that 200g of carbs for a highly active human is somehow counter-paleo. But on another thread you were dismissing me when I questioned people advocating 700g+ of carbs a day. There's a lot of imperfection in how we pass on information, how we learn, how we implement concepts and ideas. That's part of being human too and the discussions should help. But it's still very easy to miss the point entirely and get stuck talking at crossed purposes.

I get frustrated too by people quoting 80/20 as if that 'rule' itself were actually paleo, rather than a compromise. Revelling in the healthier indulgence of bacon and dark chocolate rather than standard candy and doughnuts is still compromising their overall long-term health for some short-term pleasure, and they could do with greater self-awareness sometimes sure, but it's not for us to judge them for that decision. Personally, I think eating more than 200g carbs to fuel continuous high-level activity and atheleticism is also a compromise. It was compromises that brought us the whole of civilisation, not just its diseases.

77340 · December 16, 2011 at 04:57 PM

"Fetishizing chocholate squares" Most excellent! Maybe it's got something to do with the moon. You have a moon on the West Coast as well? I've been way too feisty for the Paleo hacks 80/20 crowd lately as well. Maybe a new PH spinoff. 100/0 paleohacks. I yelled at poor Dave S. for whinning about not being able to eat junk food, I pissed off Sara S for claiming to cure my "mental illness" with saturated fat. Maybe it's a Xmas thing. Nonetheless, I applaud your enthusiasm. As mentioned yesterday ,I don't have a dog in this HF/LF/HC?LC "hunt". I am comfortable with all paleo" groups". What always gets me is that the high/low group identification is merely a well rehearsed philosophical patina for wanting to eat some NAD fetish-food from childhood. Let the boos begin! :) Eat meat and prosper!

683 · December 17, 2011 at 03:39 AM

I love to see this post on here. Thank you Travis!

I was always lean. I tried LCHF and lost some muscle tone and never quite looked as lean while I was eating HF. Not that I felt unhealthy, but I just was not as lean. Once I decided to add back safe starches. I have seen great results. I am now eating a Paleo version of the bodybuilders diet, as Travis refers to it, with a little more fat though. (I am trying to maintain now rather than get any leaner).

I think LCHF is great for starting the weight loss process and getting obese people down to overweight and then only slightly overweight. You can lose a whole lot of weight on LCHF and its great for helping people overcome addiction to carbs.

However,once your down to a normal BMI if you want to get leaner and you have the discipline, a Medium Carb (Travis says 200 grams) and Lower to Medium fat intake is necessary.

Honestly, not to be mean, but I have yet to see anyone on this site who is eating very HF that has great muscle tone and bf%. Maybe commenters will prove me wrong...

Realizing I needed carbs and needed to reduce fat was huge for me. Coming from WAPF and then to Paleo I believed fat was the answer. These movements have taught me that fat is not unhealthy but I have also learned that eating too much of it will prevent you from being your healthiest BF% and weight.

3127 · December 16, 2011 at 07:55 PM

i think we are all adults here and we read the logic behind the paleo diet and we eat the very same foods we used to eat and eliminate the ones that were killing us. then some of us will add paleo foods we would normally never tried and discover a taste we cant live without. if you are eating paleo for a different reason thats fine too i guess.

1090 · December 16, 2011 at 06:10 PM

i eat about 40% carbs but im young, maybe my glucose sensitivity is still in tact. I believe the best diet for the relatively sedentary is still Paul Jaminet's Perfect Health Diet of 65% fat, 15% protein and 20% starches excluding vegs. More starch if you're more active. Best fitness method is HIIT + Lean Gains method of strength training + IF. Overall, following Paul's recommendations, the elephant in the room for me is Guyenet's food reward theory. Keep reward low and carbs won't make you fat in particular. it's just that most starches are prepared in a hyperpalatable way.

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10067 · December 16, 2011 at 12:43 AM

A lot of people look at paleo as The Caveman Diet, no different than any other fad diet. The low carb aspect works well for fast weight loss without a lot of hunger, especially starting out obese. It's hard to sustain that initial rate of loss though, which brings in activity as a means to increase metabolism for continued loss. Then the hunger returns, with a vengeance. For immediate satisfaction and energy nothing beats carbs, but it's not easy to readapt from LC without weight regain. What was easy and effective at the start of a weight loss program becomes tricky and discouraging for a lot of people expecting an endless crash diet effect.

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