Ask Eirik: Will Adding Carbs to My Diet Make Me Gain Weight?

sweet-potatoesI routinely receive questions and feedback through e-mail. Since I’ve already written about many of the topics/problems I receive questions about, I’ll often just reply back with a short comment and links to the relevant articles. However, sometimes I feel the questions deserve a more lengthy reply. Since I know many of these questions revolve around topics a lot of people are interested in, I’ve decided to put some of them up on the blog. If you have any questions you’d like me to provide my two cents on, feel free to use the contact form on the blog.

I’ll start with giving you my thoughts on a question I received from Mitchell a couple of days back.

Hi Erik,

I’ve enjoyed your site for so long – it is always a great read, and very helpful!

I was wondering if you had any advice; for the last few months or so I’ve followed a low-carb/keto style diet, and regular crossfit. My weight has pretty much stayed the same, although the last month or so it has begun to creep up. I was considering returning to a paleo to eliminate the keto staples I’ve come to (love) and rely on such as cheese, dairy, bacon, etc.

I’m worried that reintroducing carbs after so long will cause weight gain – do you have any thoughts?

Best regards,
Mitch

Hi Mitchell!

Glad to hear you enjoy the site.

Your question really hits on a major issue within the nutritional community – and the Paleo community in particular.

A common misconception is that the Paleo Diet is very high in fat. This is not actually the case. Certain hunter-gatherer communities did consume a very high fat diet (e.g., the Inuit), and a Paleolithic diet is certainly higher in fat than a typical grain-based diet. However, it’s not as high in fat as you would be led to believe from reading various Paleo books and low-carb blogs. There are major discrepancies between many of the popular versions of the Paleo Diet you’ll find online and the actual Paleolithic diets as they are described in the scientific literature.

While there’s no reason to fear whole foods such as coconuts, grass-fed meats, and eggs, I would caution against eating large amounts of cheese, butter, GHEE, oils, and similar food items with an extremely high fat density. As you are most certainly aware, our Paleo ancestors didn’t have access to these types of concentrated sources of fat. In other words, these foods are relatively novel from an evolutionary perspective and not actually “Paleo”.

As I explain in my comprehensive article on saturated fat, as well as in my recent article for Paleo Magazine, foods with a very high fat density have a poor micronutrient profile, low satiety index score, and high calorie density compared to fruits, vegetables, seafood, and meats. They also have the capability to induce endotoxemia and low-grade chronic inflammation when eaten in large quantities. That’s not to say you have to completely shun these foods, it just means that they probably shouldn’t make up a big bulk of your diet. This is particularly true if you’re trying to lose weight.

Anyways, you seem to be well aware of the fact that there’s a distinction between the type of diet you’ve currently been eating (which is the type of diet a lot of people within the Paleo and low-carb community seem to adhere to) and a true Paleo Diet, so let’s move on to your question.

Contrary to what a lot of people have been led to believe, it’s often easier to gain weight on a Paleo-style diet where foods with a very high fat density (e.g., cheese, GHEE, butter, bacon) make up a large bulk of the diet than it is on a Paleo-style diet based around starchy vegetables (e.g., sweet potatoes). This can largely be attributed to differences in satiety index, calorie density, etc. Insulin and carbs aren’t always the enemy.

My recommendation:
Transition over from the very high-fat diet you’ve been eating to an actual Paleo Diet. Use tubers and root vegetables (e.g., yams, sweet potatoes) as your main starch sources. The actual amount of these foods you should be eating depends on your activity levels, insulin sensitivity, etc.  If done correctly, this should help you lose weight, not gain it.Fat will still be the dominant macronutrient in your diet, but I recommend getting away from the mindset that your can “binge” on high-fat foods as long as your restrict your carbohydrate intake.

As I’ve previously discussed on the blog, estimates suggest that hunter-gatherers typically derived 22-40% of their total calories from carbohydrate, 19-35% from protein, and 28-58% from fat. I’ve found this ratio to match well with what the scientific literature tells us about “optimal” macronutrient distribution, and I recommend it as a general guideline for most people.

Personally, I’ve been in the same boat as you. When I first started getting involved in the whole Paleo and low-carb scene, I was under the impression that you could almost eat as much fat as you wanted as long as you restricted carbs. My perspective on things has certainly changed a lot since then.

Over time I’ve transitioned over from a high fat “Paleo Diet” rich in butter, cheese, dark chocolate, etc.  to a diet that more resembles how a true Paleo Diet looks like. I still consume some grass-fed butter, virgin coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate, and other foods with a very high fat density, but I don’t eat as much of these foods as I did when I first started eating Paleo. I try to stick to nutrient-dense whole foods most of the time, including starchy tubers such as potatoes and sweet potatoes. I find that when I decrease my intake of butter, cheese, etc. in favor of more veggies and starchy tubers, I tend to lean out and “feel healthier”.

If you want to read more about my stance on how much carbohydrate to eat, you should check out my 4-part series on the topic.

Hope this helps.

– Eirik

Comments

  1. Jennifer says:

    Great insight and information! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Erik, an insightful commentary on a common problem, your view is finding more open ears these days.
    I think there’s a typo when taken in the context of the subsequent sentences and paragraph – you wrote “….While there’s no reason to fear whole foods such as coconuts, grass-fed meats, and eggs, I would caution against eating large amounts of the previously mentioned foods….” If I am following your line of reasoning, I do think you meant to say “grass-fed dairy” ” not grass-fed meats” – is that correct? Apologies if I am mistaken.

    • Hi Newbie!

      No, it’s meant to say grass-fed meats.

      However, I see that the sentence is formulated in such a way that it can be easily misunderstood so I’ve now edited it.

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