Starch, Carbs, and Paleo

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Paleo does not imply low carb, at least not super low carb. The fact that a lot of Paleo folk eat low carb (me included in the past), doesn’t mean that Paleo is low carb by definition.

Is Starch Toxic?

According to Dr. Ron Rosedale, starch breaks down into glucose and glucose is toxic, hence starch is toxic. If the premise is true, i.e. glucose is toxic, there really isn’t much to argue with. But what if the premise isn’t true and glucose isn’t toxic? Then the case is not so cut and dry.

As Dr. Kresser explained last year at AHS, the evidence against starch doesn’t add up. There are and have been peoples across the globe thriving on high starch diets. Additionally, we posses the amylase enzyme necessary to utilize starch, and starchy food options have been a part of a human diet for a long long time. The development of our large brains may even be due, in part, to our consumption of starch.

Paul Jaminet, who popularized the term “safe starches,” advocates moderate starch intake on a Paleo diet as opposed to the low carb approach that so many others favor. I am with him on this. I have seen myself and others experience spikes in cortisol on a low carb diet and an eventual disruption of thyroid hormones.

Common Safe Starches for the Paleo Diet

Some starches contain phytates, which bind to nutrients like zinc, iron, calcium, and magnesium, hindering absorption. These nutrients in the food are then not available to our bodies and so the food is not nourishing and eating lots of it can lead to mineral deficiencies  So we should take care only to eat starches that are low in these anti-nutrients or are prepared in such a way as to deactivate them.

Starches should be eaten with fats and protein. This way the glucose will be released slowly into the blood stream and will not spike the blood sugar.

  • Sweet potatoes (not yams) are virtually free of anti-nutrients. They are relatively high in fructose and so are not safe for those with FM.
  • Plantain looks like a large banana and is starchy when unripe.
  • Yuca, a tropical starch, is native to South America and known as Cassava in other tropical regions.
  • Tapioca is the extracted starch of yucca/cassava.
  • Potatoes may not be considered safe (depending on who you ask) because they are nightshades and contain glycoalkaloids. Note however, that this chemical is in much higher concentrations when the root is green.
  • White rice, though it is a grain, is safe in that it is mostly free of anti-nutrients.

But Is White Rice Paleo?

Rice is a cultivated grain so obviously it’s not Paleo. But it is considered non-toxic like the starches of the hunter-gatherer.

White rice is the refined starch of the whole rice grain. (If it weren’t for gluten, the white product produced from refined wheat might be fine too.) Modern hunter-gatherers, and our ancient ancestors, eat refined starch all the time. In New Guinea and the East Indies sago starch is extracted from certain palm trees. It is a sticky starch which they extract using traditional methods from the tree fibers.

While rice does not grow all over the rain forest like sago does, it may be similarly nourishing in its basic composition.

How Much Carbs Should We Eat?

Humans are adaptable and omnivorous. For this reason, a set ratio of carbs, fat, and protein for the entire population cannot be established. Different cultures around the world traditionally eat very different ratios of fat/carbs/protein. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to food ratios. And from my own experience, even within a single healthy person, ratio variations are ok.

Even for those with impaired glucose tolerance, reducing starch may not be necessary. To learn how much is right for you, start by first eliminating sugar and industrialized food products, following a moderate exercise routine, and eating a diet high in fat with moderate protein. Then play with the amount and types of starch/fat to see what works best for you.!

Author: Peggy the Primal Parent

The blog owner!

44 Comments

  1. I think there is something wrong with people that have FM – i mean their gut flora and if somehow their gut flora is healed they will be able to eat fruits. Peggy do you have problems with all kind of fruits – what about grapefruits? Or fruits that have more glucose that fructose?

  2. Thank you so much for this post. As I read it, there were just a light of lightbulbs that went off for me. Growing up (in the Caribbean) we ate white rice almost daily but my favorites were the yucca, the yams (VERY different that the root by the same name here) and a potato that is similar to the purple japanese sweet potato here. All smothered in fresh, local, grassfed butter of course. Just as a calorie is not a calorie, a sugar is not a sugar.

  3. Almost any of those, when mixed with coconut milk (and maybe some eggs) and cooked long and low, make delicious pudding. Mmm, pudding… forgive me, I’m nursing

  4. Thx for sharing your evolution! I think we also have to re-train (re-populate) the gut flora to consume, outsource and work for dietary starches. Do you do fermented vegetables (organic, grown in heavy-metal-free soil)? I found these to extremely helpful esp with malabsorptive issues and gut dysbiosis (associated with titanium- mercury-toxicity). Certain soil-based species of gut flora digest gluten and casein. Some help oxalates and fructose malabsorption. Hope to hear more of your improvements and tweaks!

  5. I’ve just gone off the GAPS diet because I wasn’t able to keep up with my carb needs (it’s not a low-carb diet, either, I was just getting bored with food and unmotivated to make balanced meals). I’m kind of at a loss what to do now. I think I should try more easily digested starches like sweet potatoes. I just feel so confused after having avoided starches for so long, I don’t even know what kinds my body will be okay with.

  6. Nice sane approach.

    Beans aren’t so bad either, if you soak them properly and cook them properly. I seem to thrive on beans very well.

    Beans and rice make an awesome combination.

    Neither are strictly paleo, but I’m using a computer, which also isn’t paleo…

  7. Starches are so confusing for me. I can’t seem to lose weight eating them, but I seem to lose my fertility without them. So the question is how much and how often? I’ve been asking around about carb cycling too…does that seem feasible Peggy or is it necessary to eat them every day? I just find myself sluggish and craving sweets if I eat Dr. Jaminet’s recommended amount for The Perfect Health Diet. I don’t know how you do it…you look fantastic yet eat starches, and you don’t seem to cave into sweets either, which I know you can’t have that many of due to FM but still!

    • Ashley,

      Do you eat wheat, sugar, fruit, or dairy? All of these can cause cravings. While I am personally always trying to add butter back in (when will I learn) I have found that it makes me hungrier all day long when I eat butter or any dairy. I also generally lose about 4 or 5 pounds within days of quitting dairy. (I’ve noticed this for years but – maybe because it is addicting?- I always end up experimenting with it again!)

      I just wanted to make the point that while you think the problem is starches, it may be something else leading to carb cravings. I have written about cravings before. There are many possible culprits.

      http://theprimalparent.com/2011/05/05/the-comprehensive-guide-to-curbing-food-cravings/

      • Thank you! At one point I had cut out everything but 85% dark chocolate (a square or two a day), raw cheddar, and ghee. Is ghee still allowed at least since the milk is removed? I love cultured ghee. :) I guess I need to kick the dark chocolate and raw cheddar for awhile and give it another whirl. Thanks again!

        • Oh and what about nuts? I read on Weston Price that nuts should be soaked due to phytic acid like that in grains and beans….are nuts that harmful?

          • Hi Ashley: I don’t see why nuts would be harmful as long as they are soaked first (apparently some kinds don’t need to be soaked, by the way), but it all depends on what’s going with your body. They never gave me any problems at all; if anything they curbed my cravings.

            Since you mentioned chocolate…breaking my chocolate addiction made a huge difference for me. I was shocked how much better I felt without it. Might be worth a try to kick it for a while?

        • No dairy in 85% dark chocolate. But chocolate can be an allergen for some. Try eliminating the chocolate and cheese while keeping the ghee in. You may be able to tolerate it once you eliminate the other two.

      • I am the same with dairy. Though I do notice that I do not get congested (sinus infections) from small amounts of goat dairy now that there are no grains in my diet. It’s that setting myself up for cravings bit that keeps me away from it now. But I do miss it.

  8. Pingback: The Comprehensive Guide to Curbing Food Cravings | The Primal Parent

  9. I know it’s all individual, but how much starch do you find is helpful (ballpark)? And do you have any thoughts on whether I might benefit from adding starches in if I have had some success with GAPS, which supposedly is beneficial in part because it eliminates starches? I’ve been experimenting with GAPS because of digestion problems (possibly SIBO, I also have FODMAPS issues I think) but I have a strong feeling I’d feel more energetic if I had more carbohydrates in my diet.

    • Hi Sara, I eliminated starches too for years. I thought it was beneficial at the time but now I wonder if it might not have been other changes that made the difference… I started out just eating a couple of servings of starch per day and then boosted it quite a bit from there. I am breastfeeding, though, so our needs will surely be different.

      • I’d been doing low-carb for years. I ended up having some thyroid and adrenal issues because of excessive stress (which I cannot escape, only learn how to cope with better) and poor sleeping habits in addition to PSMF’ing nonstop for months on end.

        After reading Matt Stone’s stuff, Eat for Heat was eye openeing, I took to eating whatever I wanted. A lot of crap. I gained 100 pounds in 4 months (weight that I had previously lost on low-carb and PSMFing). Then I consulted with Matt and he suggested I try an “athlete’s” diet. High starch. He said 3/4 of my plate should be veggies, rice, root veggies, fruit, etc., and 1/4 should be lean protein.

        So I’m eating tons of potatoes, rice (I love basmati!), home-prepared beans, eggs, ground beef, steak, etc. I feel so much better and have zero cravings for crap (cravings were constant before).

        In fact, eating beans at a meal leaves me so full for so long that I often don’t even want food when the next mealtime arrives.

        I had a lot of achiness (very obviously I had some inflammation issues).

        However, in along with that weight gain came some good signs. Dry skin started improving, cold hands and feet went away, I wasn’t waking up to pee in the night every single dang night, etc. etc. Signs that my thyroid was improving.

        Eating this way is something that is sustainable for the long haul. I’ve down 6 pounds in 12 days, and I’m ok now with the idea of long, slow weight loss. I was always in a hurry before.

        Not to mention, it is a ton cheaper than strict low-carb paleo and I enjoy preparing the rice, beans, and potatoes the slow, home-made way.

        Quick tip, boiling potatoes helps to eliminate most toxins.

  10. Hi Peggy! I was just wondering…. Are sweet potatoes really that bad for all FM sufferers? I’ve seen them on many “in moderation or careful” FODMAP lists! And I also have come across some FM individuals who can tolerate them! Guess I’m being stubborn because it was the only semi- sweet whole food I was left with, and it was one of my Paleo staples! But I’m wondering, even if I’ve cut out every other high in FODMAP food (all fruit for now, onions, garlic, wheat, dairy, many veggies, etc.), if it could be the one food holding me back? I am a chronic fatigue, brain fog, and mood disorder sufferer more than a digestive one! What are your thoughts?

    • Maya, you should eliminate them and find out! They don’t work for me at all. Of course, if I had just a few bites, it would probably be fine, but with fructose and fructans, I always end up wanting more (there is this crazy addiction to fructose/tan foods), and then I’ll go down hill. I am better off avoiding “careful” foods all together. So, that’s just me. Now, for me, eating starch has been instrumental in eliminating cravings. I recommend finding a comfortable starch if you are driven by cravings.

    • I’ve got fructose malabsorption myself and I’m absolutely fine with them! Try it out and see how you go.. that’s what the FODMAP diet is all about. It’s only a guide.

  11. Not sure if hikama has fructose in it because it is sweet. Yet it’s crunchy with water that it’s nice to eat it raw.

  12. This post is very interesting to me because I have been doing low carb (high fat) for three months now. My motivation was/is nutrient balance and losing the ‘last few pounds’.

    I have seen success in both of these areas with low carb, but have been wondering from time to time if I should be eating a little bit of carbs, especially when I get pregnant again. I don’t want to gain any weight back, but this post clarified which carbs would be best for the nutrition side because I discovered I had a magnesium deficiency and don’t want any carbs messing with that again. (Magnesium oil seems to be helping.)

    I thought I was going to be low carb for life, but now I am considering a minor adjustment.
    Funny how white, refined rice is the healthy option now? I don’t even remember where to find white rice!? :-P

    I don’t take the time to check my food ratios, but also focus on the nutrition and history behind what I eat. This is more fun for me.

  13. I really like this post. It offers a really balanced perspective regarding carbohydrates. I’ve also got fructose intolerance and although I get no IBS symptoms when eating wheat it does effect my energy levels and my immune system.. so have slowly bringing it back into my diet (due to lack of symptoms) I’m cutting it right out again!

    I’ve recently taken my FODMAP diet a step further and moved towards the paleo approach. More protein in my diet certainly satiates my hunger. I was suffering from symptoms of hypoglycaemia prior to going paleo.

    So I’ve tried my best to cut out grains for the past month.. and I was doing really well. Not getting nearly as hungry all the time.. but lately I’ve been experiencing a ravaging hunger only 3 hours after I’ve eaten lunch.. and I just have to eat! It’s really bizarre.

    I never fully cut rice or potatoes out of my diet because despite the paleo foke telling me it was a no no, I couldn’t see a lot of evidence for doing this. I don’t have any weight to lose, I just want to be healthy!

    So I love that you’ve written this article because it now makes me think that I’m on the right track. I’m going to continue to cut out wheat, oat and corn

    and happily eat my quinoa, nuts, lentils, chickpeas, rice and potatoes!

    Yes even the fructose intolerance can handle small amounts of legumes (around half a cup, and they must be soaked overnight!)

    Thank you!

  14. I don’t seem to do well with very starchy foods. My teeth get furry, blood sugar goes above levels I like (over 140) and hangs there for 2 hours despite being active, I feel bloated and sluggish after consuming them (good for falling asleep in a jiffy), I put on weight, etc. The worst offenders appear to be plantains and white potatoes. The only good thing for me is that they are cheap. Small/moderate amounts of sweet potato, fruit and even beans don’t produce these effects or to a lesser degree so I go with those for my carbs.

  15. Great post! When I first learned about paleo last year, I obviously started out with low carb as well, and even though I was eating plenty of fat/protein, my energy dropped. Over the past few months, I’ve realized that my body loves a higher carb and starch diet – with plenty of sweet potatoes, winter squashes, fruits, and some white rice, especially since my activity level is on the higher side. I don’t track “ratios” or carb amounts, but I just know that I naturally eat a little carbs more on more active days and less on rest days. It works for me!

  16. I’ve played with my starches, but find that I actually react to rice. Also, white potatoes don’t seem to sit well with me, but I can do sweet potatoes great (although I can only take small amounts of fruit at a time). I’m very sensitive to a lot of food and I have Celiacs. Do you have thoughts on what I could be reacting to in the white rice? It’s a shame, because I also do well with starches in my diet but I’m pretty limited on what I seem to be able to tolerate. Maybe one of these days I’ll get it all figured out!

  17. Do you find it necessary for health and fertility to eat starches every day or can you go a day or two without and cycle them back in?

  18. Hi Peggy,

    I hope you don’t mind me commenting here even though it is off topic. I found your site through Mark’s Daily Apple … I am currently reading his book. My husband wants to give primal a try after one of the doctor’s he works with tried it and has found great success in losing weight, getting more fit, and feeling good.

    I would be very interested in reading your book, but I only every purchase books for my Kindle.

    Do you know if your book will be available for the Kindle when it releases?

    Thank you!

  19. I am not a parent, but I really appreciate your posts. I’ve been paleo for some years, and in the past year went more towards the Perfect Health Diet. Then suddenly in February I had a bout of severe digestive trouble and have now been diagnosed with FM. Weird as I never had reactions to fruit or most vegetables, though I did have trouble pre-Paleo when I ate a ton of wheat. Anyway, it is VERY helpful to be able to read advice on FM from a Paleo perspective … so much of the advice out there is so grain-heavy and meat/fat phobic!

  20. Hi Peggy! What about plantains in their ripe form? Can you give me a little insight into the nutritional value and change? I know they are ok in the Paleo sense but what about for FructMal sufferers?

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