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“We provide evidence that cooked starch, a source of preformed glucose, greatly increased energy availability to human tissues with high glucose demands, such as the brain, red blood cells, and the developing fetus.” The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution by Karen Hardy et al, The Quarterly Review of Biology (September 2015)

Starchy Carbs: The Missing Link in the Paleo Diet—Big Brains Need Grains

See Below for Reader's Challenge, Clarence's Reply, & Professor's Perspective

It appears that starchy carbohydrates have had an important place in human evolution. An international team of scientists has made a powerful case that dietary carbohydrates were essential to development of the big brain that makes us human.

I was onboard long before I learned about the evolutionary connection.

 Here I’m measuring out the six whole grains used in my “Old Reliable” breakfast mixture.
 Our grains are stored in a cabinet made for that purpose.
Photo by Laszlo Bencze

Except for a brief period in my early days as a competitive bodybuilder, carbohydrates have always been a key component of my diet. In my first book RIPPED, I recounted that I couldn’t think or train properly without carbohydrates. That’s why I abandoned the low carb diet and never went back.

In my commentary on Professor Art De Vany’s book The New Evolution Diet, I wrote, “Art and I avoid refined carbohydrates—but part company on intact grains.” De Vany wrote that we are not genetically equipped to process grains, in any form. I respectfully demurred.

I challenged the premise of the book Grain Brain by Neurologist David Perlmutter that carbs, even healthy carbs such as whole grains and fruit, are silently killing our brain. http://www.cbass.com/carbs_brain.htm

AND NOW we have evidence that Paleo diet devotees are on shaky ground in claiming that our Stone Age ancestors didn’t consume starchy carbs. Karen Hardy and her team, writing in The Quarterly Review of Biology (September 2015), concluded that starchy carbs were essential to the development of the human brain. Among other observations, they pointed out that the human brain (then and now) uses up to 25% of the body’s energy requirement and up to 60% of the body’s blood glucose. While synthesis of glucose from other sources is possible, it is not the most efficient way, and these glucose demands are unlikely to be met on a low carb diet.

Paleo Diet Dos and Don’ts

In practice, the contemporary Paleo diet calls for eating grass-fed meats, fish and seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts, and seeds—and avoiding cereal grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined vegetable oils, processed foods, sugar and salt. While avoiding processed foods, sugar and salt, and eating fruits and vegetables are good ideas, avoiding cereal grains and legumes presents a problem. While it is possible to consume an adequate diet without those foods, it’s inconvenient and difficult.

Another problem is that the Paleo diet can lead to overconsumption of meat; for some, it becomes a license to eat your fill of meat—which also means eating fewer carbs. The main problem, however, is that it eliminates whole grains, which are the main source of starchy carbs for most people. Moreover, avoiding legumes (peas and beans) removes most complex carbohydrates. The end result is likely to be a low carb diet.

The Paleo diet is an attempt to eat like humans did in the Paleolithic period, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The new study by researchers from Spain, Australia, and the UK provides evidence that cooked starch played an important role in human evolution. Karen Hardy et al argued that “digestible carbohydrates were…necessary to accommodate the increased metabolic demands of a growing brain.”

Big brains needed lots of starchy carbs then and need them now.

Let’s drill down into the study.

Rethinking the Paleo Diet

The global increase in obesity and diet-related diseases has ramped up interest in our ancestral diet. Surprisingly, there is little clear agreement on the make-up of the Paleolithic diet. “It is clear,” the researchers wrote in introducing their study, “that…our physiology should be optimized to the diet that we have experienced during our evolutionary past.” The increase in brain size, which began around 2 million years ago and accelerated until about 12,000 years ago, is thought to be directly linked to alteration in diet.

(Paleo diet proponents are correct on that point. They are also correct that the rise of agriculture brought with it health problems, according to Zack S. Conrad, a doctoral candidate at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy, who studies such matters. “But that isn’t because grains are bad for you; it was because the change was so abrupt,” he explained in the Tufts University’s Health & Nutrition Letter (July 2015). “People switched to eating almost only cereal grains, which resulted in severe micronutrient deficiencies, many of which are evident in skeletal remains,” he continued. Over time diets became more diversified and the problem was resolved.)

The transition to a predominantly meat based diet has been considered to be the major driver of the increase in brain size and other evolutionary changes. The Hardy team argues that carbohydrates were also essential. A fortunate combination of events made that possible. The widespread availability of cooking coincided with the emergence of digestive enzymes which released the energy-yielding potential of starches. Cooking softened starch-rich plant foods and the digestive enzymes made them available to fuel the development of the human prototype. The combination also reduced chewing time allowing Paleo man more time to use and develop his growing brain. There are more details, but that series of events led the researchers to conclude that starchy carbohydrates were an important part of the Paleo diet.

The researchers summarized their breakthrough findings as follows:

We propose that plant foods containing high quantities of starch were essential for the evolution of the human phenotype during the Pleistocene. Although previous studies have highlighted a stone tool-mediated shift from primarily plant-based to primarily meat-based diets as critical in the development of the brain and other human traits, we argue that digestible carbohydrates were also necessary to accommodate the increased metabolic demands of a growing brain. Furthermore, we acknowledge the adaptive role cooking played in improving the digestibility and palatability of key carbohydrates. We provide evidence that cooked starch, a source of preformed glucose, greatly increased energy availability to human tissues with high glucose demands, such as the brain, red blood cells, and the developing fetus. We also highlight the auxiliary role copy number variation in the salivary amylase genes may have played in increasing the importance of starch in human evolution following the origins of cooking. Salivary amylases are largely ineffective on raw crystalline starch, but cooking substantially increases both their energy-yielding potential and glycemia. Although uncertainties remain regarding the antiquity of cooking and the origins of salivary amylase gene copy number variation, the hypothesis we present makes a testable prediction that these events are correlated. 

Although it is difficulty to decipher what happened eons ago, Hardy et al have provided convincing evidence and support for the inclusion of starchy carbohydrates in our ancestral diet. Paleo diet enthusiasts may want to consider making room on their menu for whole grains, legumes, and perhaps intact potatoes. 

The Ancestral Diet

You may be wondering, as I was, what our ancient ancestors ate. Where did they get their starchy carbs? Big brains came before farming, so we can eliminate Cheerios and Wheaties.

Paleo man is believed to have eaten starch-rich roots and tubers. “Starch constitutes up to 80% of the dry weight of edible roots and tubers,” Hardy et al explained; “if left undisturbed in the ground, they remain stable and can be harvested as needed over a period of months…[They] can also be dried to increase durability and portability, and have been proposed as important foods for early hominins.”

Interestingly, these starch-rich foods may have been eaten more often than meat. It was hard work finding and killing animals and success was far from assured. “Although meat may have been a preferred food, the energy expenditure required to obtain it may have been far greater than that used for collecting tubers from a reliable source,” the researchers wrote.

It has also been suggested that postmenopausal females may have done most of the foraging to “enable younger female relatives to reproduce more frequently.” Food sourcing may have been a matter of status as well as practicality.

Cooking, of course, made both meat and starch-rich plant foods more palatable and digestible. As we have seen, both were apparently key components in the rise of humankind.

*  * *

Carol and I will happily continue to include whole grains, legumes, and occasionally potatoes in our diet. We eat the potatoes whole, skin and all, combined with foods containing protein and fat to slow digestion.

What’s new is that the Hardy study reinforces our eating style—and gives Paleo diet proponents something else to think about.

 We have it much easier than our ancient ancestors. This photo taken by Laszlo Bencze in our kitchen
 shows a batch of mixed grains and water in an automatic cooker. A
wide variety of whole grains are now
 available in health food stores and many supermarkets.

January 1, 2016

Comment on this article: FEEDBACK

Reader's Challenge & Clarence's Reply


I have enjoyed your writing over the years, I have learned a lot from you, and I'm very glad that you continue to post every month.

Regarding the starchy carbs article, I have a different perspective for reasons I'll describe below. I say this as someone who used to be an extremely high carb, high whole grains eater, however, I completely reexamined my diet after I ran into some health issues after thinking that I was doing everything "right." I discovered Paleo and moderate carb, higher fat eating and immersed myself in the detailed reasoning and results being achieved by the leading Paleo thinkers, and I have the following comments on your article:

- First, I don't think it is helpful to speak of "high-carb or "low-carb" since food intake is a spectrum. The best argument I have heard for the appropriate amount of carbs comes from Paul Jaminet, PhD, of Perfecthealthdiet.com who recommends between 100-200 grams per day of what he calls "safe starches." This includes things like white rice, potatoes without the skin, sweet potatoes, and various other things, but absolutely NO whole grains. He bases this recommendation on what the body typically requires assuming one's fat burning "processes" are upregulated. I remember your experience with ultra-low carb as you described it in Ripped, and ultra-low carb has been generally rejected by many on the Paleo community including myself for a variety of reasons similar to yours, but that does not mean that the automatic alternative is high-carb.

- At the 100-200 gram level of carbs, I have no problem getting my carb requirements without any whole grains, and could easily go higher as well, although I don't think that is healthy.

- The bottom line with whole grains is that they seem very high risk and low reward. There is no nutrient that we require whole grains to get and many highly suspect chemicals as Dr. Davis of Wheatbellyblog.com/blog and many others including Paul Jaminet have gone into great detail about. The constant stream of testimonials that Dr. Davis and many other Paleo practitioners chronicle among people who were not celiac but who give up grains and saw many health problems immediately improve or resolve seems far too compelling to just dismiss as placebo or lies or elimination of processed food or something else. I've become more aware of joint inflammation issues grains were likely causing me which I had always though was just the inevitable result of playing basketball and lifting weights, but which have since improved to give me the best joint condition of my adult life (I'm 54).

- I'm not in the extreme camp that says absolutely no whole grains should be eaten by anyone anywhere, but rather my point is that giving up grains for a while to see if it helps is something that everyone can do with almost no risk of any kind if the rest of their diet is at least moderately healthy, and many people seem to experience amazing improvement in their health from doing so.

- Also, the idea that grains are seeds, and plants have evolved chemical defenses in their seeds because they don't want their seeds to be digested but rather want them to pass through us as they do most other animals just makes sense as a reason to avoid eating seeds, at least it makes sense to me.

- To be fair, a lot of the issue with grains seem to come specifically from a particular strain of recently developed wheat and some societies have been able to be fairly healthy eating a lot of fermented or sprouted grains, however this does not apply to most people in the western world.

- Whenever I see someone attempt to defend grains, it is clear that they haven't closely studied the logic and, most importantly, the results that the actively practicing anti-grain doctors make. A good summary of the anti-whole-grain argument is here:


- Additionally, an elimination diet which removes foods that many people have negative reactions to (for example grains, eggs, nightshades, dairy) is one of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective things someone can do to identify what is causing issues with their health (provided they eat a nutrient-dense diet from other sources.)

I hope you'll reconsider your stance on this at least to the point of acknowledging that eliminating whole grains (and all forms of wheat) for a while is of no harm (assuming the rest of someone's diet is healthy), and has in many cases yielded amazing improvements in health from that one change alone. You have a lot of influence and could help make more people aware that eliminating grains is at least worth a try. If on the other hand you are not convinced by the writings in the sources I mentioned above, then I hope you will specifically address why you believe the results being reported by people who give up whole grains are not credible and also describe what you believe is wrong with the science that Drs. Davis, Jaminet, and others cite, since the study you referenced addresses starches in general but does not address the problematic issues specific to whole grains.

On a slightly different topic, something I was completely unaware of until I found Paleo thinking was the importance of the way that food signals the body to either burn fat or glycogen, and the damage done on multiple levels by a high-carb/high protein/low-fat diet that basically tells the body to store fat, but not burn it for fuel, as well as potentially promoting chronically high insulin. I now like to think of my diet as fat-centric using healthy fats like avocados, eggs, olive and coconut oil, and nuts as my main sources of fat, and it has had many amazing benefits including much higher energy levels, body fat loss, and almost total elimination of hunger to name a few. This is a fundamental problem that never seems to be addressed by the people promoting low-fat diets, and which I never was aware of until I started to run into numerous health problems that I now recognize could have been prevented with a more directionally Paleo diet.

And and a completely different topic, one of the studies you posted that I found most interesting was one that said that strength training triggered a slow-down in aging at the genetic level. It would be interesting to know if other interventions like intermittent fasting that appear to also genetically slow aging do it by the same mechanism such that there is no additional genetic benefit of doing both, or whether there is a cumulative effect. I'm certainly going to keep doing both since there are other advantages to each, but it would still be interesting to know.

Thanks again for all you do,


Clarence Replies


Hi Vince:

Thanks for taking the time to comment in such detail. You offer a lot to think about.

Favoring fast absorbing foods such as white rice and potatoes without skin over whole grains is a new one on me. I've thrived by doing the opposite for many decades.

Most doctors and nutritionists will tell you that the problem is refined grains and not whole grains. That's because whole grains are nutrient packed with fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, vitamin E and protein. Refined grains on the other hand are milled and missing parts of their kernel thereby reducing their nutritional quality. Whole grains are also more filling, digest more slowly, and keep you satisfied longer.

I have no problem with eliminating grains as a diagnostic test IF you have an allergy or may have an intolerance of some kind. Otherwise, I say, "If it ain't broke don't fix it."

The Cooper Clinic has been examining me from head to toe for over 25 years and have yet to find any problems of the kind you suggest. My guess is that I am the norm and that only a tiny minority have a problem with whole grains. That minority should see the internist of their choice. I am not qualified to advise them.

I'm with you on the importance of dietary fat. Adding more good fat is one of the best things I've ever done for myself. For details see http://www.cbass.com/dietaryfatlimit.htm

You are also correct that overall eating pattern is more important than individual nutrients. A well rounded diet of whole or minimally processed foods produces a good balance of macronutrients. I don't count grams of carbohydrate or anything else, so I don't know exactly how many grams of carbohydrate I eat. With a diet like mine there's no need to count grams of macronutrients. 

Most people do best on a balanced diet. Extreme diets--high or low anything--are untenable for most people.

I believe that most authorities would consider 100 to 200 grams of carbohydrate relatively low, especially for an active person. 

For an interesting--and surprising--discussion of the ideal starch intake see http://chriskresser.com/is-starch-a-beneficial-nutrient-or-a-toxin/  

Mainstream experts consider whole grains an important part of a healthy eating pattern. The just released government guidelines recommend eating grains, "at least half of which are whole grains." http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/executive-summary/

Finally, many experts put the Paleo approach at the bottom of the list of popular diets in almost all categories. Elimination of whole grains is considered a major drawback; see http://www.cbass.com/USNewsDiet.htm 

As always, I urge you (and everyone else) to do what you believe makes sense and works for you. See "The Ownership Principle" http://www.cbass.com/SELECTIO.HTM

Thanks for taking the time to state your disagreement in such detail. There are times when thoughtful minds disagree--and this is one of them.

Happy New Year!


Professor Adds Perspective


The Paleo thing is fascinating. I have read a lot of the supposed research and it is a bit full of magical thinking as you politely alluded. The anthropologic data is far more controversial than Dr. Cordain and his protégé Robb Wolf would have you believe.

Bottom line is that the basic assumption that we should eat the way our ancestors did is a false premise. A lot of documented cultures had average life expectancies of 40 or 50 due to disease. Nomadic herders in Tajikistan who pretty much eat a traditional diet of milk and meat--all grass fed obviously, no pollution, low stress etc--die in their 40s and 50s of heart disease.

Their genetic cousins in Siberia who eat mostly potatoes and coarse whole grains live much longer....the point is: tradition and ancestry are not necessarily the gold standards.

The Paleo conceit is appealing in a complex world of too many choices.

Human evolution favors behaviors that increase healthy breeding, fertility, survival of children. There is little utility in members of the tribe living to be be 100. Most diet and diet related behavioral traits developed via evolution have little application to longevity. Eating to stay healthy for a long time is a recent interest of humans and still has little evolutionary desirability. Consequently, we are probably better off examining groups of humans who luckily seem to live long, and/or examining scientific studies to figure out how best to beat the evolutionary curve.

Best wishes and tx for a stimulating article.

Professor Wade Smith, MD, Orthopedic Surgery, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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