Here’s the third and final installment of my interview with Richard Nikoley, Tim “Tatertot” Steele and Grace Liu on the subject of resistant starch. They’re writing a book on the topic, and I will of course let everyone know when it’s available.
Fat Head: Several of your readers have reported that after adding resistant starch to their diets, they finally broke through a weight-loss stall. Any idea why that happened? Do we understand the mechanism?
Grace: RS is one of the bionic fuels that feed and replenish our ancestral gut bugs, and we need these for not just optimal gut health but for optimal body fat, hormones and brain function. In human and animal trials, RS improves body composition (higher lean mass, lower body fat). The co-owner of the Australian Mt. Uncle green banana farm told me the story how he became inspired to sell green banana flour after having to trash 40% of his delicate ladyfinger banana crop each year because, darkening so easily, a high percent failed to meet grocery specs. Rob Watkins gave the cows and steers on his farm the reject green bananas and noticed within weeks that they appeared healthier, stronger, and more muscled. In other words, they appeared to have less body fat and better hormones!
And this is the case in the fiber clinical trials. RS alone rarely induces net weight loss, however RS combined with soluble fiber or as a whole food or supplement (green banana flour or green plantain flour) leads to significant weight loss. Additionally, we have many anecdotal stories at Free The Animal about overcoming weight-loss stalls. The mechanisms behind this may include: fixing tight junctions and intestinal permeability, improved whole-body insulin sensitivity, improved adrenal/thyroid health, lower inflammation, and improved testosterone and progesterone levels. For my case, which I discuss here on my Animal Pharm blog, I also had a tremendous weight-loss stall after many gut disruptions (mercury, titanium, antibiotics, Tetanus vaccine) but resolved it after the gut microbiota improved.
Tim: RS by itself isn’t generally a great weight loss tool, but it is known to repair broken metabolisms. In the short term, RS can lead to weight gain as your intestines get healthier and harbor more friendly microbes, but in the long run, the increase in signaling of hunger hormones and insulin sensitivity should lead to long-term health consequences and weight loss for the overweight or weight gain for the underweight. Best bet for long-term weight loss and weight maintenance is a diet with ample food that feeds gut microbes.
Richard: Debates over things always seem to get framed in terms of “it’s either this, or it’s that—or maybe it’s something else, but it’s got to be some one thing.” Then people align themselves with one theory or the other and prepare for the cage match to the death, looking for every opportunity to become even more entrenched.
Many times in the past, over various issues across the board, I’ve always said, “Well, what if it’s both?” Or what if some aspects of all these “opposing” ideas have some parts that are true, and if you put all the true parts together, then you have a kind of Hegelian dialectic where you’ve synthesized something closer to the truth.
I recently put up this post to advance just such a thing in the obesity debate. So there are all these competing theories out there like it’s the calories, no it’s the carbs, no no no it’s all genetic, or everyone is all wrong because it’s clearly food engineering and the reward value of stuff.
I happen to think there’s some truth in all of those ideas, but I think the unifying one is the genetic theory — only I’m not talking about our 25,000 genes; I’m talking about the other 3 million genes in our gut biome, evolving to the tune of six generations per day. Chewing on it in those terms, understanding the influence gut microbes have on our behaviors, feelings, mood, sleep and hormonal regulation, and all of a sudden you might begin to understand that all these theories weren’t just arrived at by stupid people — except for the one you hold, of course — but that they saw one part of the whole truth, but didn’t have that unifying piece that brings them all together.
Anyway, that’s my pet theory and I plan on defending it to the death against all the “stupid ideas” out there.
[Note: Richard assures me has was smiling in a self-deprecating sort of way when he wrote that last part -- Tom.]
Fat Head: I’ve lost weight when my ketone levels were low, so I don’t think ketosis is necessary for weight loss and I don’t aim for ketosis with my diet. For me, it’s more about keeping blood sugar in a healthy range and maintaining my ability to efficiently release and burn fat for fuel. But for people who feel better and lose weight more quickly in ketosis, does resistant starch kick them out of it?
Tim: We’ve done quite a few experiments. Potato starch will not kick anyone out of ketosis, probably no matter how much you take. It’s 66% to 87.5% RS, depending on which method you use to measure it, with the remaining fractions being mostly water and some slowly digested starch. Other isolated RS sources like banana flour or tapioca starch may have varying results, since they are not as concentrated as potato starch, ranging from 30 to 50% RS.
Richard: In the post I previously linked above dealing with the Inuit and ketosis, I have to pretty much conclude that chronic ketosis is not a good thing. Ketosis is wonderful as a survival adaptation to starvation, ensuring glucose is available for the brain. But in order to pull this off, your metabolism has to essentially say “Hey, we don’t give a flying @#$% about your cellular insulin sensitivity. What good are insulin-sensitive cells to someone who’s brain dead?” And I think ketosis ought to be exercised just like you might do with sprints to get your heart rate up — intermittently. So, yeah, put yourself in ketosis now and then via a fast, like 24 to 48 hours. There are probably beneficial hormesis and autophagy involved.
But if you’re going to do LC, then I think follow the Inuit model, which is high (very high) in protein. Yeah, it’s high fat too, but keep in mind fat has twice the energy density, so 135 fat grams can come to 50% of calories, whereas twice as many grams in protein might be 35% of calories. Guaranteed it will be a lot tougher to get down the 250 grams of protein. And unless you’re getting glycogen and prebiotic glycans from fresh raw animals, then you’ll need to get your 50 to 60 grams of carbs from something like a safe starch, some fruit maybe. Then get some prebiotics like resistant starch. Now you’ll be closer to what the Inuit actually did instead of the folklore, and you might find that LC actually works better for you.
Fat Head: If resistant starch preferentially feeds the good bacteria in our guts and improves gut integrity, then it’s almost certainly been part of the human diet for a long, long time. But I’m pretty sure Paleo Man wasn’t buying bags of Bob’s Red Mill Potato Starch at Whole Foods. So what does that tell us about the notion that the paleo diet was all meat, fish, eggs, low-sugar fruit in season and some leafy greens now and then?
Tim: Tiger nuts and yams have been man’s staples since Day One in Africa and are full of RS. When we started cooking, we developed a second kind of resistant starch, RS3, the retrograded kind from cooling cooked starch. Man didn’t cook on-demand like we do now. He built a big fire, laid roots in and around it and ate them for days after the fire went out. We evolved for millions of years alongside raw starch and cooked and cooled starch (RS2 and RS3). As man spread North and East, he found cattail roots, sago palms, rice, beans, corn, potatoes, and numerous other foods full of starch. Where there was little starch, such as in the deserts of America, Paleo-Indians ate loads of inulin containing plants … cactus pads, onions, agave and others that we would be hard-pressed to eat today.
Richard: Coprolites are also often full of small bones, hair, connective tissues of small animals. Many of these bits are resistant to our digestion, but food for gut microbes. Offhand, I’d also imagine that the carcasses and outer shells of various bugs and insects that were eaten also served a role in feeding the gut.
Grace: Coming from an Asian background, no doubt my ancestors ate plenty of underground storage organs leaving Africa and migrating across Eurasia. Cordain et al in 2000 wrote that underground storage structures (tubers, roots, and bulbs) represented 24% of the current worldwide hunter-gathers’ diet. Last December Brown et al discussed the paleo nutriscape and the role played by RS-containing carbohydrate sources including plants, particularly those with underground storage organs such as reed mace, common reed, water chestnut and yellow water lily. Most of our common ancestral foods are very low glycemic index, high fiber, and contain greater than 10g RS per 100g-cooked serving.
Fat Head: So for those who want to get some resistant starch into their diets without stirring potato starch into a yogurt smoothie, what foods are good sources of resistant starch?
Tim: RS from foods is easy to do with a bit of planning. Pre-cook potatoes, rice and beans and freeze them in serving-sized containers. Thaw as needed. Potatoes don’t freeze well, so keep them in the fridge. Preparing these foods in this manner turns them into the starches our ancestors ate, full of retrograded RS. Potatoes for instance, will go from 0 grams of RS in a small potato to 10 grams … just from cooling it down! It’s even OK to reheat it; in fact the RS fraction will grow a tiny bit more if you quickly fry it in some oil or butter. For another quick blast of RS, eat a slice of raw potato when you are cleaning them up to cook. A half-inch slice has about 5 grams of RS. Green bananas are another great source.
Richard: Tim compiled a 7-page PDF of the RS content of foods that’s diet-agnostic, so there’s even something there for your vast cadre of grain-eaters, Tom.
Fat Head: My grain-eating fan club, yes. I met him once.
Grace: I’m actually very fortunate that in Asia, RS-rich purple potatoes, white mountain yams, taro, sweet potato, yams, cellophane mungbean noodles, heirloom corn, water chestnuts, lotus roots, green bananas, and whole grains and beans (adlay, sorghum, purple rice, black rice, red rice, brown rice, millet, red beans, green beans, kidney, adzuki, etc) are all readily available. Often I cook rice or tubers then eat them later at room temperature or re-heated by steaming or with hot bone broth. After a workout, I’ll eat a few purple potatoes for a snack. There’s some protein, plant antioxidants, and it’s low net carb. Each potato has about 20 grams of RS.
Fat Head: You’ve been adding potatoes and other starches back into your diet and ending up with lower fasting glucose levels and better tolerance for starch than when you were on a very-low-carb diet, thanks at least in part to the resistant starch. I’m finding similar results so far in my own n=1 experiment. I had a small baked potato with my meatloaf and broccoli for dinner recently, and my glucose peaked at 126 mg/dl.
But in Denise Minger’s latest book, she makes the case that some people really and truly do have a genetically low tolerance for starches. They get blood-sugar spikes beyond what the glycemic index would predict and their glucose stays high for hours. For them, consuming resistant starch and then reintroducing rice or potatoes to their diets might be a bad idea. Would they benefit from supplementing with resistant starch even if they skip other starches entirely?
Tim: Our gut bugs deserve a chance to thrive. They can’t do it on steak and eggs. If someone is truly ‘carb sensitive’ then a diet filled with non-starchy plants and some supplemental RS, such as potato starch or banana flour, may do them a world of good. They could also go with inulin, glucomannan, or the other prebiotics we discussed. RS is just an easy source. If you were eating zero starch or RS, I would highly, highly suggest looking into inulin and glucomannan!
Richard: Don’t discount the possibility that poor gut health may be the root cause of this starch insensitivity. Recall some of my previous answers where for some people, myself included, there was a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy going on. On the other hand, everybody is a snowflake (nobody has precisely the same gut microbes, or in the same proportions), so the only way to tell if your starch insensitivity is real or induced is to get your gut healthy over some months with the supplemental RS and SBO probiotics while remaining LC, and try again.
However, give yourself a chance to not freak yourself out. A week of BG spikes isn’t going to kill you, so toss the meter for a week or two, introduce the starches slowly, like maybe a half cup per meal for few days, three-quarters per meal, up to a cup per meal. Two weeks later, check your sugars. See where you are. Note, I would not suggest anyone clinically diagnosed as diabetic to ever do this. You could still try, but under your normal monitoring. I’d just give yourself a little leeway.
Incidentally, many diabetics, both type 1 and type 2, have reported the need to reduce their doses of insulin once commencing potato starch supplementation in order to not go hypoglycemic. But that also presents an opportunity. They could simply remain on their same insulin dose and make up the difference with a few tasty starches, instead of reducing insulin. After all, last I heard, the pancreas actually produces insulin, so long as blood levels are in the normal range, I doubt insulin is the Satan’s spawn it’s sometimes made out to be.
Fat Head: Name any food, and somebody somewhere will have a bad experience from eating it. Are there any downsides you’re aware of from consuming resistant starch? Any concerns about feeding the wrong kind of gut bacteria in people who have intestinal issues?
Tim: There are people with guts that are truly jacked. Yeasts and microbes that are perfectly fine and harmless in the large intestine become mean and nasty in the small intestine. If they are there, they can theoretically digest RS in the small intestine and cause all sorts of problems.
Richard: In a world with this many people, you will get all kinds. The other day I was reading a forum post by a guy somewhere and the title was something like “Potato Starch Made Me Crash!” I expected to read this account about how he’s been pounding the stuff to the tune of 16 tablespoons per day with massive fartage, heartburn, autoimmune flair ups, etc.
Turns out he had “built himself up” to ONE ENTIRE TEASPOON per day over a period of weeks, and all of sudden he was too fatigued to get out of bed. Now, I don’t want to make fun of anyone’s experience (though one commenter did remark “Hell, that’s less than I spill on the counter when preparing my mixture!”), only point out that there are some folks seemingly bulletproof out there, and others who may be truly sensitive for any number of reasons. Over many months reading thousands of anecdotes, it does seem like there are some folks who, once they begin talking potato starch, will instinctively assign it as the cause of any bad thing that subsequently happens or that they perceive to have happened.
Fat Head: So let’s suppose some of the people reading this interview want to start experimenting with resistant starch in their diets. How would you recommend they get started, and what markers, if any, should they track as they go?
Tim: Start slow. Start with real foods…the cooked and cooled starches, green bananas, and also start looking at the inulin contents in food. Eventually you’ll want to be getting 20 to 40 grams per day of prebiotics. The easiest source is RS, either from real food or a raw starch supplement. Start eating just a serving or so of RS-rich food per day, which will get you probably 10 grams of RS — twice the U.S. average. Hardly anyone sees issues at this level. Double it again by eating a green banana every day. Learn to fix all your starches in a manner that maximizes the RS, and on days when you aren’t getting much RS, take a few spoonfuls of potato starch or banana flour in a glass of water or smoothie. Lots of people jumped straight into this by taking 4TBS a day of potato starch. This is a good therapeutic dose, approximately 25 to 30 grams, but few people are able to tolerate this dose in the short term. Work your way up to it, do it through real food. Cook your starches like our ancestors did. If you experience discomfort…farts, bloating, pain…stop, get on some probiotics, and resume slowly — you need it worse than anyone!
Grace: I think everyone should first start with probiotics in order to ‘seed’ the gut. Even if you are a barefoot hippie in Berkeley, everyone seems to have had at least a single course of antibiotics. The average is more like 10 to 20 courses. Studies are showing more and more how even a single course of antibiotics ravages the gut populations, leaving them extinct where the core beneficial species never resume abundance or diversity even two years later. The markers to track are any health marker someone is interested in — HgbA1c, mood, sleep, skin, hair, libido, hormones, reversal of inflammatory conditions and digestive disorders, etc. Functional medicine labs are the best ones to track I believe.
Fat Head: Okay, one final question: like many other people have reported on your blog, after adding potato starch to my diet, I started having long, complex, Technicolor dreams. I may have even dreamed the entire sixth season of The Walking Dead, which I hope to transcribe and sell to the producers. What the @#$% is up with these dreams?
Tim: It’s the neurotransmitters, Dude! (said with a California surfer accent).
One of the biggest factors in our overall health is sleep. Deprive yourself of it and your health deteriorates rapidly. One convincing demonstration of the brain-gut connection is a molecule secreted by gut bugs known as “Factor S.” One phase of our sleep cycle is known as slow-wave sleep. This cycle is known as “deep sleep” and is the time when the brain recovers from its daily activities and new thoughts are “cut and pasted” into the long-term memory drives of your brain. This is also when human growth hormone is secreted, and disruptions in this cycle can result in bedwetting, nightmares, and sleep-walking. In other words—it’s a very important part of our 40 winks.
Gut bugs have a massive hand in ensuring we get a good night’s sleep, and in turn, our entire physiology. They want us to remember where that wonderful patch of microbe-encrusted wild onions is, and they want us to have the strength to get there again. Factor S is how they do it. As animals get sleepy, Factor S accumulates in their brain and promotes sleep onset and the shift into slow-wave sleep. Additionally, other brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin are generated by gut bugs and contribute further to our dreams, rest and recuperation.
Richard: When I first reported this early in my own experimenting on the blog, I was almost reluctant to do so, because it seemed so outlandish and implausible. “Wait, so you’re telling me that if I go to the supermarket and pick up a bag of Bob’s for 4 bucks, take 2 TBS before bed, that I’m going to have the most amazing, complex dreams of my life?”
But once I did, the anecdotes began pouring in. Perhaps others were just as reluctant. Interestingly, it seems to be the females reporting having the X-Rated ones. Form your own opinions!
There’s also a weird time dilation sometimes. Just last night, I had this amazingly involved dream that went on and was long and complete, and for some reason, I woke up. I thought at once it was probably soon time to get up, so I looked at the clock. I’d been asleep for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Grace: Tom, I believe the microbes synergized your gut-brain axis! Thank you so much for exploring and opening conversations about the gut and having us!
Fat Head: Many thanks to all three of you for taking the time to answer so many questions about an important topic that I initially overlooked. My gut thanks you too.