John A. McDougall, MD makes some big claims in his book The Starch Solution. His high starch diet is an all or nothing approach to dieting where you must eat a vegan high starch diet to lose weight a live a healthy life. The idea is you can eat as much food as you want and you will never feel hungry or deprived, so long as you eat only fruits, vegetables, and starches. Not only is this supposed to be a good weight loss diet, but McDougall claims you will look better, feel better, function better, and live better. Your blood pressure and cholesterol will drop within days of starting it, and your digestive health will finally work the way that it should. On this diet, you will supposedly get all of the protein, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that you need for a healthy, balanced diet, and really no downsides are portrayed. McDougall believes he discovered the perfect genetically specified human diet, but why is this supposed to work?
The average American diet gets 20% of their calories from starch, 70% from meat, 5% from fruit, and 5% from vegetables. McDougall claims this is far from ideal, and we should be eating 70% of our calories from starches, 0% from meat, 10% from fruit, and 20% from vegetables. “The more rice, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans we eat, the trimmer, more energetic, and healthier we become.” But aren’t carbohydrates bad, and starches are carbs, right? There are 3 basic types of carbohydrates: sugar, cellulose, and starch. Starchy foods have a lot of long-chain digestible carbs that are commonly referred to as complex carbs, i.e. the good carbs. It is also commonly known that fruits and vegetables are good for you, but a diet based solely on fruits and vegetables is likely not going to meet your daily caloric needs. That is where these starches come in. You should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and get the rest of your energy from starches.
Starches and other plants are what were predominately eaten by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which is one of the main arguments of McDougall’s research. The real paleolithic diet and the diet throughout modern agricultural civilizations were based not on meats, but on starches such as barley, corn, millet, potatoes, rice, and wheat. For the last 13,000 years, every large civilization was able to thrive due to their agricultural capacity to grow starches. This caused humans to develop a genetic makeup that thrives on consuming starches. When comparing our digestive capabilities to those of chimpanzees, who have a nearly identical genetic makeup, humans are more adjusted to digest starch, a crucial change that allowed our ancestors to survive on starches alone.
According to McDougall, starches provide energy without being stored visibly as fat. Your body will regulate the absorption of carbs from the starches, and won’t absorb more than it needs. This can be viewed in modern civilizations such as many areas of Asia who live on rice. By observing modern populations that still live on starches such as a diet high in white rice, we can correlate health with starch consumption. “This shows us that starches, vegetables, and fruits support a trim, fit body and a lifetime of excellent health.”
So why not just eat meat in moderation? McDougall claims “moderation is impossible for passionate people”. We need to make healthy eating easy to explain and act upon, so his recommendation is to cut out meat completely from your diet. By eating a little bit of meat we will be tempted to eat more of it, a temptation that is described in the book as “slow torture for most”. Also, getting energy from starches as opposed to animal foods protect us against illness. A typical balanced diet is actually toxic to humans and can cause heart disease, cancer, and inflammation later in life.
But what about vitamin B12? By eating the McDougall diet, you will get all of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you need except for B12. However, illness from a B12 deficiency is virtually unknown. Disease due to calcium deficiency is also essentially unknown to humans on natural diets.
According to McDougall, it’s important to remember that “all animal foods cause illness when consumed in amounts typically found in the western diet. Why? Primarily because they are the wrong foods for humans.” Your body can only handle so much protein, fat, cholesterol, sulfur-containing amino acids, and dietary acids. Any excess of any of these that you consume will act as poisons. You will likely lose a quarter of your overall kidney function by age 70 and increase your risk of osteoporosis and kidney stones by eating a high protein diet. Excess fat will be stored in your heart, liver, and muscles which contribute to heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. The excess cholesterol leads to vascular disease leading to heart attacks and strokes. By replacing meats with starches, we can reduce the enormous personal, social, and economic burden of chronic disease. Also, dairy foods make people fat and sick in a similar way that meats and a high protein diet do, so it’s best to eliminate dairy from your diet as well. Dairy is also directly linked to leukemia and lymphoma.
Adopting this diet isn’t just good for your own health. The McDougall diet can help bring global stability by helping areas with extreme poverty and starvation. By eating a diet that contains a lot of meat, you are doing a disservice to the rest of the world. “Crops like potatoes can produce 17 times the calories as animals on the same piece of land.”
To start the McDougall diet for yourself, eliminate all meat, dairy, eggs, animal fats, vegetable oils, and processed and packaged foods from your diet. What you are left with is fruits, vegetables, and starches. Fruits should account for 10% of your daily calorie intake, while starches should be between 45% to 70%, with vegetables filling in the rest. If you need to lose weight, then starches should be on the low side near the 45%.
So if there is one takeaway from The Starch Solution, it’s to live a healthier life, eat more starches and less meat.