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.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Starch­es Are the Solu­tion to Your Weight and Health Prob­lems”

Wild Animals Don’t Count Calories or Sign Up for Step Aerobics

Have you ever seen an obese wild ani­mal? Look at these wilde­beests in Krüger Nation­al Park in South Africa. There’s no cel­lulite on their thighs! Wilde­beest weigh only 40 pounds at birth, but then they gain weight rapid­ly. By the time they’re a year old, they weigh about 200 pounds. The females reach a peak weight of about 350 pounds at 4 years of age. The males peak at 500 pounds at 5 years of age. Yet after that, their weight stays remark­ably sta­ble. Why do they stop gain­ing weight? Since they don’t start count­ing calo­ries or tak­ing step aer­o­bics class­es in adult­hood, they must have some built-in mech­a­nisms that reg­u­late their weight nat­u­ral­ly. Do humans also have in-born weight-con­trol mech­a­nisms? If so, why have so many peo­ple been get­ting so fat late­ly?

To keep our body weight at a nor­mal lev­el, we are told to engage in unnat­ur­al behav­iors. We’re told to eat less and move more. Yet wild ani­mals nev­er lim­it their food por­tions, and they do only the amount of activ­i­ty they feel like doing. I think that their secret for stay­ing slim is that they eat the kind of food that is appro­pri­ate for their species. If you trapped some wilde­beest in a pen and fed them a diet that was much rich­er in calo­ries than what they ate in the wild, they’d prob­a­bly get fat. That’s what has hap­pened to human beings in indus­tri­al­ized soci­eties. To cure our weight prob­lems, we need to escape from our cubi­cles and start eat­ing a more nat­ur­al diet. Go play out­side, and eat low-fat unre­fined plant foods instead of eat­ing ani­mals and processed foods.


When you look at pop­u­la­tions all over the world, you’ll notice that the peo­ple who eat a diet based on unre­fined plant foods stay nat­u­ral­ly slim and remark­ably free of heart dis­ease and dia­betes and oth­er chron­ic dis­eases. For many gen­er­a­tions, most of the world’s pop­u­la­tion ate like that. Only the rich could afford to eat large serv­ings of rich foods, such as meats and but­ter and hon­ey, on a reg­u­lar basis. As a result, only rich peo­ple suf­fered from obe­si­ty, gout, and ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis. Because of agri­cul­tur­al poli­cies, those foods have now become cheap while fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles are still rel­a­tive­ly expen­sive. As a result, the “dis­eases of afflu­ence” are now a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem for poor peo­ple in the Unit­ed States.

Pho­to by h.koppdelaney

Behind Barbed Wire_PrintNote: In my book Thin Dia­betes, Fat Dia­betes: Pre­vent Type 1, Cure Type 2, you can learn more about how a low-fat, high-fiber, high-car­bo­hy­drate diet helps peo­ple lose weight and revers­es their type 2 dia­betes.

Type 2 Diabetes Keeps Fat People From Getting Even Fatter

Most peo­ple with type 2 dia­betes are at least pleas­ant­ly plump, so why do so many severe­ly obese peo­ple have no trou­ble with their blood sug­ar? I’ve known for decades that unex­plained weight loss is a com­mon sign of dia­betes. A few years ago, I began to sus­pect that type 2 dia­betes is what hap­pens when one of the body’s nat­ur­al defens­es against fur­ther weight gain gets out of con­trol. These sus­pi­cions were deep­ened when I real­ized that the drugs that are used to treat type 2 dia­betes often cause weight gain as a side effect. The drugs are dis­abling the body’s nat­ur­al resis­tance to fur­ther weight gain!

This inter­est­ing arti­cle from Endocrine Reviews argues that in type 2 dia­betes, the prob­lems with fat metab­o­lism start long before the per­son starts hav­ing abnor­mal blood sug­ar lev­els. It explains how too much fat in the body and too much fat from the diet could end up caus­ing type 2 dia­betes. It explains how eat­ing less and exer­cis­ing more could solve the under­ly­ing prob­lem.

The idea that type 2 dia­betes starts off as a prob­lem with fat metab­o­lism makes a lot of sense. It helps to explain some­thing that sci­en­tists have known since the 1930s: that you can cause insulin resis­tance in healthy vol­un­teers by feed­ing them a high-fat diet for a week. You can restore their insulin sen­si­tiv­i­ty by feed­ing them a starchy diet for a week. A switch to a low-fat, high-fiber, high-car­bo­hy­drate, pure­ly plant-based diet pro­duces a dra­mat­ic improve­ment in peo­ple with type 2 dia­betes, even before they have had a chance to lose much weight.

The tra­di­tion­al cure for type 2 dia­betes was to eat less and exer­cise more. A more sen­si­ble approach is to start off by eat­ing as much high-fiber, low-fat, plant-based food as you feel like eat­ing. This kind of diet will rapid­ly cor­rect your insulin resis­tance. As your insulin resis­tance improves, you’ll feel more like exer­cis­ing.

Of course, if you have any major health prob­lem or are tak­ing pre­scrip­tion med­ica­tions, you need to talk to a reg­is­tered dietit­ian and your pre­scriber before mak­ing any major change in diet. You may need to have your dosages adjust­ed, and you may be able to stop tak­ing some of your pre­scrip­tion med­ica­tion.

Note: I explain this top­ic in more detail in my book Thin Dia­betes, Fat Dia­betes: Pre­vent Type 1, Cure Type 2

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Pho­to by 95Berlin

The “Three Sides” Diet

Back when I worked at a com­pa­ny that had a cafe­te­ria, I didn’t have to pack my lunch. I could put togeth­er a tasty, low-fat sal­ad from the sal­ad bar. If I felt like eat­ing a hot meal, I could get a big plate of food from the “hot” por­tion of the cafe­te­ria line. The “main dish­es” usu­al­ly includ­ed some sort of meat or dairy prod­uct, so I’d get the “side dish­es” instead.

My usu­al lunch con­sist­ed of “three sides”: usu­al­ly a starchy side dish such as rice plus two veg­eta­bles. I got a big plate­ful of tasty, zero-cho­les­terol, low-fat food, and I spent less than the peo­ple who ordered the main dish. I can find a sat­is­fy­ing meal at near­ly any restau­rant, just by ignor­ing the main dish­es and order­ing the side dish­es instead.

Pho­to by mack reed (fac­toid)

The Glycemic Index Won’t Help You Lose Weight

Late­ly, many nutri­tion gurus have been try­ing to tell me that eat­ing a diet with a low glycemic index is the secret to los­ing weight. But if that were true, then car­rots would be more fat­ten­ing than fudge is.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the glycemic index is being used to steer peo­ple away from the sort of food that can real­ly help them lose weight and con­trol their blood sug­ar: unre­fined starch­es and veg­eta­bles. If you sur­vey the world’s pop­u­la­tions, you’ll find that the peo­ple who are eat­ing diets based on unre­fined starch­es and veg­eta­bles have low risks of obe­si­ty, heart dis­ease, dia­betes, and breast cancer—even though the glycemic index of their diet is high. In con­trast, the peo­ple who are eat­ing the most fat and protein—both of which tend to decrease the glycemic index of a meal—are the ones who are get­ting fat and sick.

The glycemic index was orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped to fine-tune the sys­tem of car­bo­hy­drate exchanges that peo­ple with type 1 dia­betes use to cal­cu­late how much insulin they will need to inject after a meal [1]. The glycemic index mea­sures the effect that 50 grams of carbs from any giv­en food has on your blood sug­ar. For exam­ple, if you ate 50 grams of car­bo­hy­drate from beans, your blood sug­ar wouldn’t go as high as if you ate 50 grams of car­bo­hy­drate from pota­toes instead. In oth­er words, beans have a low­er glycemic index than pota­toes do.

Like pota­toes, car­rots have a high glycemic index. How­ev­er, you’d have to eat about 4 cups of shred­ded car­rot to get 50 grams of car­bo­hy­drate. Thus, if you ate just one car­rot, it would have only a small effect on your blood sug­ar. To cor­rect for this prob­lem, some peo­ple use the glycemic load, which is the glycemic index mul­ti­plied by the total amount of car­bo­hy­drate in the food.

The glycemic index and glycemic load are of sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle val­ue to dieters. One rea­son is that the glycemic index of any giv­en food is so hard to pre­dict. For exam­ple, you could increase the glycemic index of a pota­to by mash­ing it. Then, you could decrease the glycemic index of the mashed pota­to by adding milk and but­ter. Fats and pro­teins tend to decrease the glycemic index of a food. Although adding but­ter to a food decreas­es the food’s glycemic index, the but­ter does not make the food less fat­ten­ing!

Even if you eat a meal that has a high glycemic load, that doesn’t mean that your blood sug­ar is going to go dan­ger­ous­ly high. It all depends on your insulin sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Peo­ple who habit­u­al­ly eat a low-fat, starchy diet tend to have much small­er blood sug­ar swings than peo­ple who eat a high-fat, low-carb diet. Sci­en­tists have known that fact since the 1930s! In fact, a diet based on high-glycemic-load veg­eta­bles and unre­fined starch­es can restore the body’s insulin sen­si­tiv­i­ty, thus cur­ing type 2 dia­betes, with­in a mat­ter of weeks.

Ref­er­ence List

  1. Jenk­ins DJ, Wolever TM, Tay­lor RH et al. Glycemic index of foods: a phys­i­o­log­i­cal basis for car­bo­hy­drate exchange. Am J Clin Nutr 1981;34:362–366.

Note: For more infor­ma­tion about the con­trol of weight and blood sug­ar, see my book Thin Dia­betes, Fat Dia­betes: Pre­vent Type 1, Cure Type 2.

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Big Lunches, Skinny Body

Back when I worked in an office, I’d some­times bring my lunch to work. My lunch­es were phys­i­cal­ly much larg­er than the lunch­es my cowork­ers brought, and it took my entire lunch break to eat most of mine. I still had food left over for a snack around 3 pm. So why was I skin­nier than most of my cowork­ers? It’s because my lunch was made of up of low-fat, high-fiber plant foods.

My typ­i­cal lunch includ­ed of a con­tain­er of rice pilaf or maybe a sand­wich with a spicy low-fat bean spread. I’d also have a cou­ple of con­tain­ers of cut up raw veg­eta­bles, such as car­rots, cau­li­flower, cel­ery, or broc­coli. Some­times I’d bring a big con­tain­er of sal­ad or coleslaw with non­fat dress­ing. I’d also have a few pieces of fruit, such as some cut-up can­taloupe or some apples or peach­es, depend­ing on what was in sea­son. Once in a while, I’d bring a few nuts, in the shell, along with a nut­crack­er.

My cowork­ers, on the oth­er hand, usu­al­ly based their lunch on some sort of meat or fish. Often, there was some sort of greasy dress­ing. They usu­al­ly had some sort of dairy food as well. Many of them had been through some sort of com­mer­cial weight loss reg­i­men that encour­ages peo­ple to con­tin­ue eat­ing ani­mal-based food but sup­pos­ed­ly teach­es them “por­tion con­trol.”

The fact that peo­ple are try­ing to learn “por­tion con­trol” tells you that they’re eat­ing an unnat­ur­al diet. Wild ani­mals nev­er try to lim­it their food intake. They nev­er count calo­ries. They nev­er sign up for step aer­o­bics. They eat as much as they like of their nat­ur­al food, and they do what­ev­er activ­i­ty they feel like doing. Their weight gets con­trolled nat­u­ral­ly by their appetite. The same thing also works for human beings if they eat a low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based diet.

The Imaginary Historical Decrease in Fat Consumption

Late­ly, I’ve seen many “experts” on nutri­tion claim that low-fat foods make peo­ple fat. As part of the “evi­dence” to back up this non­sense, they claim that the recent increase in pop­u­lar­i­ty of low-fat foods is an under­ly­ing cause of our obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic. They must think that I’m too lazy or stu­pid to look up the real data for myself.

I entered the term “fat con­sump­tion trends” into Google, and with­in a sec­ond or two I found this arti­cle: Trends in Intake of Ener­gy and Macronu­tri­ents — Unit­ed States, 1971–2000. This arti­cle reports the trends that the CDC found when they ana­lyzed data from four Nation­al Health and Nutri­tion Exam­i­na­tion Sur­veys (NHANES), the first of which was con­duct­ed in 1971–1974 and the last of which was con­duct­ed in 1999–2000. These sur­veys revealed that men and women were eat­ing more calo­ries and more fat in 1999–2000 than they had been eat­ing in the ear­ly 1970s. How­ev­er, they were also eat­ing so much more sug­ar that the per­cent­age of their calo­ries that came from fat went down slight­ly.

In oth­er words, peo­ple are get­ting fat­ter because they are eat­ing more calo­ries, includ­ing more fat. In con­trast, Japan­ese chil­dren have been get­ting fat­ter and run­ning a risk of type 2 dia­betes even though they have been eat­ing few­er calo­ries. It’s because of a shift from their tra­di­tion­al starchy diet to a more West­ern­ized, high­er-fat diet.

As I’ve explained in detail here, it’s easy to fat­ten on fat but much hard­er to fat­ten on starch­es.

Don’t Snatch the Food out of Your Child’s Mouth!

I just read a real­ly dis­turb­ing arti­cle on Peg­gy Orenstein’s Web site. In Fear of Fat­ness, Oren­stein talks about the bias that even young chil­dren have against fat peo­ple, and the trou­bles that fat girls and their par­ents face. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly hor­ri­fied by the plight of one moth­er, who was so frus­trat­ed by her 5-year-old daughter’s fat­ness that she admits that she “fights the urge just to snatch the food out of the child’s mouth.” This is an unnat­ur­al prob­lem.

No moth­er in nature tries to pro­tect her off­spring by snatch­ing food out of its mouth. This unnat­ur­al prob­lem results from the unnat­ur­al diet that is stan­dard in the Unit­ed States. Moth­ers are sup­posed to feed and nur­ture their chil­dren. Why are Amer­i­can moth­ers strug­gling to lim­it their children’s por­tions?

If the child were being fed the kinds of food that nat­u­ral­ly slim pop­u­la­tions eat, then the weight prob­lem and the strug­gle for por­tion con­trol would sim­ply van­ish. The child would also avoid ear­ly puber­ty and have a low risk of breast can­cer in adult­hood.

Oren­stein men­tions that the par­ents turned to the child’s pedi­a­tri­cian for dietary advice. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, med­ical doc­tors typ­i­cal­ly know lit­tle about nutri­tion. Back in 1963, the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion report­ed that doc­tors weren’t learn­ing enough about nutri­tion and dietet­ics in med­ical school. A few years lat­er, their fol­low-up report showed that noth­ing had changed. Peri­od­i­cal­ly, some oth­er expert pan­el stud­ies the prob­lem and comes up with exact­ly the same con­clu­sions: our doc­tors are not being ade­quate­ly trained in nutri­tion and dietet­ics. Thus, it’s not sur­pris­ing that the child’s pedi­a­tri­cian has giv­en the fam­i­ly hor­ri­ble advice that is cor­rod­ing the moth­er-child rela­tion­ship.

The pedi­a­tri­cian has been work­ing with the fam­i­ly to con­trol the child’s por­tions. No ani­mal in nature con­trols its weight by eat­ing less than it wants to eat. Nor does any ani­mal force itself to go to step aer­o­bics class. Wild ani­mals rely on their appetite to reg­u­late their weight. Appetite works well for reg­u­lat­ing weight as long as the crea­ture is eat­ing the kind of food that is appro­pri­ate for its species. We have an epi­dem­ic of obe­si­ty in peo­ple in the Unit­ed States because the stan­dard Amer­i­can diet is far too dense in calo­ries. It has too much fat and not enough fiber. It over­feeds us before it sat­is­fies our appetite. When peo­ple try to “cor­rect” this prob­lem by lim­it­ing their por­tions, they end up even more unsat­is­fied. They end up strug­gling against a pri­mal urge, and the pri­mal urge usu­al­ly wins in the end. When par­ents end up need­less­ly strug­gling against their children’s pri­mal urges, their rela­tion­ship with the child will suf­fer.

How can we tell what kind of diet is appro­pri­ate for human beings? We can rely on sev­er­al kinds of evi­dence. First, we can use the same approach that sci­en­tists use to fig­ure out what kind of diet a dinosaur ate. They fig­ure that out by com­par­ing their teeth to those of mod­ern-day ani­mals. If you look at human teeth, you’ll see that they look almost exact­ly like the teeth of chim­panzees. Chimps are clas­si­fied as fruit-eaters, but they also eat a lot of leaves. So our teeth sug­gest that we should be eat­ing a diet with a heavy empha­sis on fruit and veg­eta­bles. Although chim­panzees do some­times hunt and eat meat, they actu­al­ly eat less meat than prac­ti­cal­ly any human pop­u­la­tion.

Chim­panzees and human beings are almost com­plete­ly alike genet­i­cal­ly. Some of the key dif­fer­ences involve genes that con­trol brain size and body hair. One inter­est­ing dif­fer­ence is in the gene for the enzyme that digests starch. Chimps have one copy, where­as humans have sev­er­al copies. In oth­er words, our genes tell us that human beings are spe­cial­ly adapt­ed to a starchy diet. It’s one of the rea­sons why human beings are among the world’s elite long-dis­tance run­ners.

Sev­er­al dif­fer­ent kinds of sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies have shown that human beings thrive on a diet of unre­fined starch­es and veg­eta­bles and fruit. Peo­ple who switch to that kind of diet can solve their weight prob­lems auto­mat­i­cal­ly. They can also pre­vent or cure many of the chron­ic degen­er­a­tive dis­eases that are com­mon in the Unit­ed States but rare else­where.

As I explain in detail here, a high-fiber, low-fat diet works on both sides of the weight equa­tion. Peo­ple end up eat­ing few­er calo­ries and burn­ing more calo­ries. In oth­er words, a starchy diet is slim­ming, while a fat­ty diet is fat­ten­ing. A low-fat, plant-based diet also helps to delay puber­ty.

Of course, if a fam­i­ly were to feed a child the low-fat, plant-based diet that would solve her weight prob­lem, they would be bom­bard­ed with crit­i­cism from peo­ple who ask, “But where will she get her pro­tein? Where will she get her cal­ci­um?” In response, the par­ents could ask, “Well, where do you think a goril­la gets its pro­tein and its cal­ci­um?”

Goril­las don’t hunt. They don’t fish. They don’t milk cows or gath­er eggs. They get 99.9% of their food from veg­eta­bles, fruit, and a few nuts. Yet those foods pro­vide enough pro­tein and cal­ci­um to enable a sil­ver­back male goril­la to grow to be 500 pounds and become 10 times as strong as a man.

It makes sense for par­ents to rely on a pedi­a­tri­cian for med­ical care for their chil­dren. But for nutri­tion­al advice, par­ents should turn to some­one who has been trained in nutri­tion and dietet­ics. A lot of peo­ple claim to be “nutri­tion­ists,” but not all of them have real train­ing in the sci­ence and prac­tice of nutri­tion and dietet­ics. When I had a health prob­lem that was poten­tial­ly food relat­ed, I got advice from a reg­is­tered dietit­ian. An RD has at least a bachelor’s degree in nutri­tion, has com­plet­ed a hands-on train­ing pro­gram in dietet­ics, and has passed a nation­al exam­i­na­tion. To keep their reg­is­tra­tion, they have to pur­sue con­tin­u­ing pro­fes­sion­al edu­ca­tion.

The Amer­i­can Dietet­ic Asso­ci­a­tion and the Dieti­tians of Cana­da have issued a posi­tion paper that argues that a well-planned veg­e­tar­i­an or veg­an diet is appro­pri­ate for all stages of the life cycle and pro­vides cer­tain advan­tages. If your child has a weight prob­lem, or any prob­lem that might be diet-relat­ed, it makes sense to talk to a reg­is­tered dietit­ian about a plant-based diet.

The appetite for food is not the only pri­mal urge that is cre­at­ing con­flicts between Amer­i­can chil­dren and their par­ents. Peg­gy Oren­stein has point­ed out in arti­cles and books that girls are being urged to be inap­pro­pri­ate­ly “sexy” at ear­li­er and ear­li­er ages. This trend is bad enough. What’s worse is that girls’ bod­ies are becom­ing sex­u­al­ly mature at inap­pro­pri­ate­ly ear­ly ages. Thus, girls are being plagued by pow­er­ful pri­mal urges long before they are emo­tion­al­ly mature. If you think that the din­ner table wars are ugly, just wait for pre­ma­ture puber­ty. The good news is that the same kind of diet that ends the strug­gle over food por­tion size can also post­pone the child’s puber­ty to its nat­ur­al age.