Starches Are the Solution to Your Weight and Health Problems

For years, the best­seller lists have been dom­i­nat­ed by books urg­ing peo­ple to eat plen­ty of meat and fat but to shun car­bo­hy­drates. The Atkins Diet led the parade; but there have been many imi­ta­tors, such as the Zone, the South Beach Diet, the Paleo Diet, and the Dukan Diet. Even some of the veg­an-ori­ent­ed books encour­age peo­ple to avoid starch­es. Yet the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence shows us that human beings are specif­i­cal­ly adapt­ed to thrive on a starchy diet. So I was delight­ed to see that the title of Dr. John McDougall’s lat­est book is The Starch Solu­tion. He explains some­thing that nutri­tion­al epi­demi­ol­o­gists and experts on clin­i­cal nutri­tion have known for many years, name­ly that human beings stay nat­u­ral­ly slim and healthy on a diet based on unre­fined starch­es and veg­eta­bles.

Back in the 1970s, when Dr. McDougall start­ed prac­tic­ing med­i­cine as a fam­i­ly doc­tor on a sug­ar plan­ta­tion on the big island of Hawaii, he noticed some­thing pecu­liar. His old­er patients were slim­mer and health­i­er than his younger patients. His old­er patients were immi­grants from Asian coun­tries, such as Chi­na, Korea, Japan, and the Philip­pines. They ate a tra­di­tion­al East Asian diet of rice and veg­eta­bles. Their sons and daugh­ters tend­ed to eat a more Amer­i­can­ized diet, with more meat and dairy foods and processed foods. They were fat­ter than their par­ents, and some of them had chron­ic degen­er­a­tive dis­eases such as ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis and dia­betes. The third gen­er­a­tion was ful­ly Amer­i­can­ized and just as fat and sick as the rest of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion.

From study­ing the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture on nutri­tion, Dr. McDougall real­ized that his patients’ expe­ri­ences weren’t unusu­al. Most of the world’s pop­u­la­tions have tra­di­tion­al­ly based their diet on some sort of starchy sta­ple food, includ­ing grains such as rice, corn, and wheat and starchy roots and tubers such as pota­toes, sweet pota­toes, taro, and cas­sa­va. Peo­ple who base their diet on these starchy foods and veg­eta­bles and fruit stay nat­u­ral­ly slim and are remark­ably free of chron­ic dis­ease. When Dr. McDougall taught over­weight peo­ple with severe chron­ic dis­eases to switch to a diet of starch­es and veg­eta­bles, they rapid­ly lost weight and regained their health, even though they could eat as much food as they want­ed.

In Chap­ter 4 of The Starch Solu­tion, McDougall explains, “Three-quar­ters of the ill­ness­es suf­fered by peo­ple liv­ing in indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries are long-stand­ing, chron­ic con­di­tions, such as obe­si­ty, heart dis­ease, type 2 dia­betes, arthri­tis, and can­cers. What do peo­ple in these regions have in com­mon? A diet dom­i­nat­ed by meat, dairy, fat, and processed foods. Under­stand­ing the prob­lem points to a sim­ple solu­tion: By replac­ing these body-bur­den­ing foods with health­ful starch­es, veg­eta­bles, and fruits, we can reduce or erad­i­cate the enor­mous per­son­al, social, and eco­nom­ic bur­den of chron­ic dis­ease.

Starch­es sup­port your body’s intrin­sic abil­i­ty to heal by pro­vid­ing a per­fect bal­ance of car­bo­hy­drate, pro­tein, fiber, fat, vit­a­mins, and min­er­als, along with a bal­ance of antiox­i­dants and oth­er plant-syn­the­sized phy­to­chem­i­cals. Unlike the foods that are mak­ing you sick, starch­es con­tain no sig­nif­i­cant amounts of dan­ger­ous cho­les­terol, sat­u­rat­ed or trans fats, ani­mal pro­teins, dietary acids, chem­i­cal tox­ins, or dis­ease-caus­ing microbes.

The Starch Solu­tion fea­tures many of the case his­to­ries of “Star McDougallers,” who are peo­ple who solved their health prob­lems by eat­ing the kind of diet that Dr. McDougall rec­om­mends. You can find even more of these sto­ries on his Web site, As a sci­ence writer, I find to be invalu­able. Many of the impor­tant stud­ies on nutri­tion were per­formed in the 1950s or ear­li­er, yet the MEDLINE data­base main­tained by the Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine doesn’t pro­vide much cov­er­age of lit­er­a­ture pub­lished before the mid 1960s. For­tu­nate­ly, Dr. McDougall gives cita­tions for some of the old­er nutri­tion research. I often do a search of his Web site before I do a MEDLINE search on nutri­tion­al top­ics.

Besides pro­vid­ing reli­able sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion on diet and health, the Starch Solu­tion pro­vides the sin­gle most impor­tant thing that any­one needs in order to switch to a tru­ly healthy diet: meal plans and good recipes. Dr. McDougall had the great good for­tune to mar­ry a reg­is­tered nurse who is also an excel­lent cook. Mary McDougall’s recipes have enhanced all of his books and his Web site.

The nutri­tion­al ade­qua­cy of a diet based on unre­fined starch­es and veg­eta­bles has been known since ancient times. It was doc­u­ment­ed sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry by Rus­sell Hen­ry Chit­ten­den, a Yale Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor who was a pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Phys­i­o­log­i­cal Soci­ety. The health ben­e­fits of a low-fat, plant-based diet for the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion became obvi­ous as a result of the Dan­ish food rationing sys­tem dur­ing World War I. The val­ue of starchy diets for revers­ing type 2 dia­betes was doc­u­ment­ed in the 1940s by Dr. Wal­ter Kemp­n­er at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty.

In The Starch Solu­tion, Dr. McDougall explains that plant-based foods pro­vide all of the nutri­ents that are essen­tial for human beings except for vit­a­min D and vit­a­min B12. The body makes its own sup­ply of vit­a­min D when the skin is exposed to sun­shine, and vit­a­min B12comes from bac­te­ria. Vit­a­min B12 is the only vit­a­min sup­ple­ment that Dr. McDougall rec­om­mends for peo­ple eat­ing a pure­ly plant-based diet.

The Starch Solu­tion is intend­ed to pro­vide infor­ma­tion that applies to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. Thus, the book does not cov­er celi­ac dis­ease. How­ev­er, Dr. McDougall’s Web site does pro­vide a great deal of infor­ma­tion about celi­ac dis­ease and oth­er food aller­gies and intol­er­ances.

Dr. McDougall has been singing the prais­es of a diet based on unre­fined starch­es and veg­eta­bles in best­selling books since the ear­ly 1980s. How­ev­er, most of the peo­ple I talk to are shocked to hear that starch­es are good for you. For some rea­son, starchy diets became unfash­ion­able.

McDougall explains,

From 1983 until the ear­ly 1990s, my books pro­mot­ing sim­ple dietary solu­tions to com­plex health prob­lems were major best­sellers. In the ear­ly 1990s, my pub­lish­er sug­gest­ed it was time to change my writ­ing style. An edi­tor told me that my books sup­port­ing a starch-based diet were out of date, and that diet books now must focus on increas­ing meat and pro­tein and decreas­ing carbs. ‘Dr. McDougall,’ she advised, ‘we would like you to make this change in your future books to reflect the new trend.’ I remind­ed the edi­tor that essen­tial­ly all respect­ed sci­ence cor­rob­o­rates that eat­ing ani­mal prod­ucts results in heart dis­ease, can­cer, dia­betes, and obe­si­ty, while research over the last 70 years has shown that a diet based on starch­es, veg­eta­bles, and fruits makes peo­ple healthy. I remind­ed her that I was not in the book busi­ness sim­ply to make mon­ey, but to help peo­ple improve their health. With six nation­al best­sellers under my belt, and more than a mil­lion copies in cir­cu­la­tion from this com­pa­ny alone, I part­ed ways with the pub­lish­er. His­to­ry con­firms that my edi­tor was right. Diet books were indeed head­ed in the direc­tion she pre­dict­ed. His­to­ry also has proven me right. Those diets made peo­ple sick, while my approach made them healthy.

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