Is there such a thing as a ‘safe starch’?

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Every so often the nutrition blogosphere explodes with interest and much-fevered writing about a topic for debate. Not so long ago, I wrote about one such example which broadly concerned whether ‘low-carb’ or a diet of low ‘food reward’ was more valid for the purposes of weight loss and enhanced health. As with practically everything, both these approaches appear to have merit, I think. However, as I explain in this blog post, the academic debate is not as important as what works (and doesn’t work so well) on the ground with real people living real lives.

The latest explosion of contention seems to be the concept of ‘safe starches’. I believe the idea was coined by Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet in their book The Perfect Health Diet.

I have not read this book, though reading about it leads me to conclude that (in my opinion) the dietary principles in it are essentially sound. One recommendation that the Jaminets make in their book is that the diet should contain a certain amount of ‘safe starches’ such as potato and white rice. The idea is eating a very low carbohydrate diet can make it difficult for the body to thrive. Even though we can make glucose from protein, we have limited capacity to do this and as a result can end up deficient in glucose which can impair health and wellbeing. For example, according to the Jaminets, a lack of carbohydrate can lead to deficiency in the mucus in the gut, leading to digestive and other problems. A bit of starch (which supplies glucose to the body) can make up any shortfall and optimises health, according to the Jaminets.

The Jaminets rate white rice and potato as safe starches, but do not recommend, say, wheat. This makes sense to me as many grains (especially wheat) are common causes of ‘food sensitivity’ which can manifest in many ways including irritable bowel syndrome symptoms and fatigue. Many grains (especially wholegrains) are also rich in substances that block impair the absorption of nutrients.

Jimmy Moore (a prominent low-carb advocate) recently asked a range of bloggers, authors and researchers to give their take on the ‘safe starches’ concept, and you can read their replies here.

Jimmy kindly asked me to contribute too, but at the time I was short of time as I was in the final phase of finishing of the editing of my forthcoming book Escape the Diet Trap. However, not long ago I had an email from someone asking me about this issue, and with just a little more time on my hands, I decided I’d respond to this email in the form of a blog.

I’d like to say up front that I am a broad advocate of what might be termed ‘low-carb’ eating. I think way too much emphasis has been placed on carbohydrate in the diet by our governments, health agencies and health professionals, and this is particularly the case for starchy carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals. There is little doubt in my mind that the general glut of such foods in the diet contributes significantly to weight and health issues including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, I have come to recognise that people vary in their ability to tolerate carbohydrate. Some healthy, physically active individuals can, for instance, seem to tolerate quite a lot of starchy carbohydrate without any obvious ill effect in terms of their health or disease markers. Others, on the other hand, seem not to tolerate carbohydrate at all well. This is generally true for those with a weight issue, as well as those who have evidence of diabetes or metabolic syndrome. As a result, the dietary advice I’d give a slim, fit, very active 30-year-old is likely to be different to the advice I’d give a sedentary 55-year-old type 2 diabetic who weighs 240 lbs. In my view, the latter needs to be much more careful with his carbohydrate intake than the former. I’d even go so far as to say the latter should probably limit his starchy carbohydrate intake to as little as possible.

As I’ve alluded to above, I do regard some forms of starch as better than others. So, even when I am recommending a more liberal approach here I favour rice over other grains, as well as potato (white and sweet), generally speaking. For people who can tolerate carbs, a modest portion of potato or rice alongside their meat or fish and veggies seems like a reasonable addition. But I believe it’s still important to ensure that the overall emphasis is on those other, nutrient-dense and blood sugar-stabilising foods.

In short, my answer to the question about the appropriateness of ‘safe starches’ in the diet is “it depends”.

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