The Tao of Paleo: Finding Your Path to Health and Harmony


“Give us this day our Daily Bread…” ~ The Lord’s Prayer

JS: No thanks.

JG: Yeah, I will also pass on the gluten-packed loaf of intestine-perforating, insulin-spiking, milled insect chow.

JS: Tell us what you really think.

JG: No bread.

JS: Right. However, we do need to talk about a related subject, and that’s carbohydrates.

JG: Yep. Carbohydrates are considered a macronutrient, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s one of the three types of foods that humans eat the most of, along with protein and fat.

JS: Carbohydrates have gotten mixed reviews in the last few decades, especially since the advent of the Atkins diet.

JG: We’re going to take a look at carbohydrates in a paleo context. However, as usual, I’ve recruited some help.

JS: (slapping forehead) Oh no. Again?

JG: Oh yes. Again.

JS: Very well.

JG: Joe, meet Ms. Claudette Carbonara.

CC: Buena Sera, Buena Sera! I brought for you a nice plate of some delicious pasta, would you like?

JS: Why not offer me a nice plate of thumbtacks instead?

CC: What’a you say?

JG: I think that he doesn’t want the pasta, ma’am.

JS: In Eat, we discussed the dangers of eating gluten, which rules out grains like wheat, rye, barley, oats, and corn. Unfortunately, that includes that plate of (shuddering) pasta.

JG: However, remember that the paleo lifestyle isn’t the Atkins diet. There are plenty of foods relatively high in carbohydrates that are absolutely paleo, and we are going to encourage you to eat them. Starchy vegetables, for example, like sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, and squashes, are excellent sources of carbohydrates. So are lower fructose fruits like berries and cantaloupe.

JS: A carbohydrate is basically a chain made up of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. In its simplest form (meaning the shortest chains) the words carbohydrate and sugar are often interchangeable.

JG: Don’t be scared of the word sugar. The human body uses the sugar called glucose as a key source of fuel.

CC: Testadura! The body, the main source of fuel is pasta! I eat it every day, and I am full of energy!

JS: I’m sure you are. Let’s talk about what happens when you eat carbohydrates, and why we recommend that you eat them. This is a massive oversimplification of a complicated process, but it will do for our purposes.

JG: When you eat carbs, they are digested and converted to glucose and released into the bloodstream. As we’ve mentioned before…

JS: Or maybe we will mention again in the future…

JG: All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

JS: Geek. Galactica references? Really, Jason?

JG: By your command. Anyway, moving on. Your body is designed to regulate blood glucose level within a fairly narrow range. When the glucose from the digested carbs hits the bloodstream, your pancreas produces a hormone called insulin which is designed to take the glucose by the hand and lead it in several possible directions.

JS: Neither glucose molecules or insulin molecules have hands.

JG: They do. Cute little molecular hands with little Mickey Mouse style gloves.

JS: A certain amount of the glucose is converted to a starch called glycogen and stored in the muscles and the liver. The muscle glycogen is isolated and is used for muscular exertion. The liver glycogen is available to the body as necessary, triggered by the release of a hormone called glucagon, which is released when the body senses low blood sugar. Some of the glucose is fed to the cells of your body, or “up-taken.” How much depends on insulin sensitivity, which is a fancy way of saying how clearly the cells in your body hear the chemical signals sent by insulin, telling them it’s supper time, and also how well they up-take, or absorb, the glucose.

JG: It’s all good so far, up until now. The excess glucose is now carried to the liver, where it is converted to triglycerides, and stored…


JG: In the FAT cells.

CC: Are you boys saying that I’mma fat??

JS: We would never make such a value judgement.

JG: No way. So clearly the challenge is to have excess sugar from the digestion of carbs NOT get stored as fat. However, if it was a simple matter of avoiding a negative, then the simple answer would be don’t eat carbs.

JS: It’s like my doctor said when I went and told him it hurt when I moved my arm to the left. He said, “Don’t move your arm to the left.”

JG: Ba-dum tish.

JS: I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitress, and be sure to try the veal.

JG: But it’s not as simple as “don’t eat carbs.” We are better with carbohydrates. Although humans can survive without them, and in certain limited cases it makes sense to eat them in small amounts, as a general statement, carb intake is necessary for optimal health.

JS: If you exercise anaerobically, the source of energy for those workouts is going to come not primarily from fat, but from muscle glycogen and liver glycogen, which comes from the storage of the carbohydrates you eat. Also, if you want your muscles to recover and grow after a workout, your muscle cells need to be fed both amino acids and readily available glucose, the best source of which comes from carbohydrates.

JG: If your workouts are the kind we recommend - short and high intensity, or heavy weight/high effort based, you need that glycogen to fuel your training. That means you need to eat carbs in sufficient quantities 8 -12 hours before your training session.

We also want to re-stock that spent glycogen, and feed the muscles we just trained with lots of glucose and amino acids so that they can grow. When we do paleo-style training like lifting heavy weights or sprinting, we are increasing insulin sensitivity post-workout and our muscle cells are poised to uptake a lot of glucose, so we need to eat carbs shortly AFTER our workout as well.

JS: Most of our bodies aren’t metabolically slick enough to sufficiently access fat stores to fuel high-intensity workouts when glycogen is exhausted. So if you aren’t sufficiently carbed up- filled with glycogen pre-workout, you will likely run out of energy during your training session. This is known as bonking.

JG: Yes. It is roughly as fun as getting smacked in the face with a frozen halibut.

JS: I’ve never had that happen to me. I’m adept at dodging seafood.

JG: Not recommended. After the face-slapping comes the part where your body starts to break down muscle tissue for energy, which of course, we want to avoid.

If you fail to eat sufficient carbohydrates AFTER your workout, you won’t restore glycogen, setting up an energy deficit for the next time you work out, or even get up to make breakfast, play ball with the kiddies, or walk the dog. You will also fail to feed your muscle cells, which have just been stressed during training and want very badly to snack on some aminos and glucose to recover and multiply.

A post-workout dose of carbs mixed with protein, and the resulting spike of insulin is actually a good biological adaptation. The insulin delivers amino acids from the protein in the meal to the muscle cells along with the glucose, promoting muscle recovery and growth.

JS: Jason made an important point. You don’t need to be engaged in formal workouts in order to need carbs for energy. You need carbs in order to fuel relatively routine day-to-day activities that require effort or movement.

JG: The bottom line is: If reasonably active, most of us need to eat carbs, preferably timed to support physical activities properly.

JS: Paleo is not a low carb diet, it’s low crap diet. We don’t care so much about the ratio of protein, fats, and carbs, and instead value high quality ingredients. There’s a reason that the paleo lifestyle includes certain carbs and not others. Obviously, we exclude carbs such as grains because of the effect of those grains on our digestion.

CC: Again with the digestion! No one has a problem digesting my pasta!

JS: Was that noise I heard a few minutes ago a stray car horn, or a lovesick moose?

CC: Just a little bitta da gas.

JG: And that, Claudia, is how you can tell you’ve eaten something your body doesn’t like.

JS: Please note that most of the paleo-friendly carbs we mentioned are kind of like time-release pills. Our body digests them relatively slowly and they don’t generate huge blood glucose spikes like eating refined sugar, white bread, or pasta do. Therefore the glucose-insulin reaction is moderated, and because there is less ambient blood glucose, there’s less extra to be stored as fat.

JG: In the case of fruit, fructose doesn’t spike insulin, although in excessive amounts it does decrease insulin sensitivity, which is undesirable. Thus we recommend relatively low-fructose fruit like berries and cantaloupe.

JS: Because your brain does function best on some glucose, ingestion of moderate carbohydrates support good, healthy brain function, mood, and mental sharpness.

JG: We don’t want to give you the impression that we want your body to use carbohydrates converted to free glucose as your only source of energy. In fact, paleo eating is designed to break the body’s sole dependence on easy glucose as an energy source. In fact, when we say fat-adapted, what we mean is that your body is adept at splitting apart fat cells through a process called lipolysis and converting them into energy as well as burning glucose, if it is available. Fat adaptation really means metabolic flexibility.

JS: There’s another really important reason to eat a moderate amount of carbs, and it has to do with a hormone called leptin.

CC: I think dere’s a lotta dat inna da pasta.

JS: I think not.

JG: Leptin acts on receptors in the hypothalamus, telling your body that it is full and satiated, and that it doesn’t need to eat anymore. When leptin is released, it also speeds up metabolism, facilitates fat-burning and inhibits fat storage, and generates feelings of well-being. Typically, when you have a big meal containing carbohydrates, leptin is released along with insulin.

If you chronically overeat, or are significantly overweight, it’s likely that your body has overly high leptin levels, because your hormonal system is trying to stop you from constantly putting too much fuel into the metabolic system.

Unfortunately, the inevitable outcome of this is leptin resistance, or de-sensitivity, where the body stops “hearing” the leptin telling it that it should be full. When you have high leptin levels and leptin resistance, it’s too much of a good thing. Your metabolism slows down, you retain and deposit fat, you are always hungry, and you can feel depressed and low.

CC: Too much of a good thing, like’a too much cavatelli after a big plate’a da ziti?

JG: Yeah, something like nothing at all like that.

JS: If you don’t eat sufficient carbohydrates, something just as bad can happen, and that’s low systemic leptin levels. It causes many of the same symptoms as leptin resistance, but it’s obviously more prevalent in those who are restricting carbohydrates or calories. The upshot of this is that if you are relatively lean and you don’t get enough calories or carbs, your low leptin levels will prevent you from burning fat effectively as your metabolism slows down and you’ll lack energy, focus, and mental sharpness.

JG: There are some nasty symptoms correlated to low leptin levels in the science. A 2011 Harvard Medical School/ Massachusetts General Hospital study tied low leptin levels in women of all weights to severe anxiety and depression. It’s nothing nice.

JS: The best way to keep leptin at optimal levels is, of course, to avoid calorie restriction or overeating. Paleo people find that eating regular side orders of starchy carbohydrates, particularly pre and post-workout, also helps.

JG: Some of our paleo peers who have set out on their own Tao alternate low carb days with carb “refeeds” - days of higher carbohydrate consumption. They use this strategy in order to optimize their leptin levels for fat burning, amongst other things.

CC: Tell them to call me for’a da refeed! I will make’a the big plate of tortellini! Here, protein boy, you try! Itsa delicious!

JG: Claudette, for the last time, that pasta contains gluten and lectin. It will interfere with my digestion, cause leaky gut and autoimmune disorders, and spike my insulin levels, likely causing my body to retain fat. I’ll feel bloated and flatulent and I won’t be very happy. And it contains lots of phytic acid which interferes with my body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients. Thanks, but no thanks.

CC: I have’a no idea what you’a talking about. This pasta has only tomato sauce, no glue and a no tin!

JS: If what we said above seems overly complex or sciencey, make it simple. Don’t worry about the advanced tweaks for now - you can play with your carbohydrate intake once you set out to find your Tao. To start, just follow the template and eat reasonable amounts of fruits and starchy vegetables with your meat and leafy greens - a bit more the night before and just after your workout, a bit less on rest days.

JG: We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that there are people who would benefit from a lower carb regime than what we just talked about. If you are diabetic, for example, or even pre- diabetic, either you do not produce sufficient insulin naturally, or your body is chronically insulin resistant, or both. In this case, a very low carb diet might be for you. And there are many studies which support a very low carb/ketogenic diet to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

JS: If you are significantly overweight, and you have great deal of fat to lose, it may make sense for you to limit carbs as well until you get closer to your goals. Carbs can be added back as you get leaner and start to exercise more vigorously.

JG: Perhaps you’re sedentary, and you don’t exercise at all. Joe and I would encourage you to start moving, of course. But in the meantime, again, you might want to keep carb intake moderate-to-low - just high enough to support your new movement.

JS: If you don’t fit into any of those categories, however, enjoy a nice sweet potato with some coconut oil, some spaghetti squash, some mashed parsnip or turnip with heavy cream or grass-fed butter, or something along those lines as a side dish for your big helping of animal protein and leafy greens.

CC: Enough is’a enough!

JG: Uh-oh Joe. She looks upset. She looks really mad.

JS: I know. Hey, Claudette, easy! Put that rolling pin away!

CC: Come’a here, you no pasta eating pazzo!

JG: Hang on Joe! Give me a few strands of that linguine!

JS: Hurry up Jay!!! She’s swinging that thing around like Yojimbo!

JG: Relax Kurosawa. It is done.

CC: Arghh! Thats’a not fair! Let’a me go!!

JS: Nice Jason! You actually managed to tie her up…with her own pasta!

JG: Live by the cavatelli, die by the cavatelli.

CC: Let’a me go right’a NOW!

JS: I’m thinking that wouldn’t be a very good idea.

JG: About as smart as Robb Stark marrying Talisa Maegyr, breaking his promise to marry Walder Frey’s daughter.

JS: Dude, I haven’t started watching that show yet.

JG: Don’t bother, I just spoiled it for you.

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