When I clicked the Publish button after writing my last post, I told Chareva, “I bet this one will draw a few extra comments.” Yup. Nothing like mentioning that word starch to get people excited one way or the other. I suspect a few readers were concerned I was about to announce I’m abandoning my low-carb diet.
(I’m told one blogger has even speculated that I’m not going on the low-carb cruise this year because I want to “distance” myself from Jimmy Moore. Heh-heh-heh … I’ll be sure to post plenty of pictures when Jimmy and Christine come to stay with us for a week in July. The only way I hope to “distance” myself from Jimmy is by out-driving him during our disc golf matches. I’m skipping the cruise because I knew I was going to be swamped with a software project – which I still am, but the end is finally in sight.)
Anyway, no, I’m not abandoning my low-carb diet. I’m tweaking it. The Perfect Health Diet is a low-carb diet. It’s just not a very-low-carb, Atkins-induction-style diet. It’s also probably closer to the low-carb diet your paleo ancestors actually consumed than a starch-free diet would be, no matter what the Inuits did or didn’t eat.
According to some posts Richard Nikoley put up recently, the Inuits apparently sought out animals that contain a fair amount of glycogen in their organs. Their diets may have been up to 20% carbohydrate as a result. There’s been some debate on that, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument the Inuits really and truly lived on a carb-free diet. So what? They were still the exception in the wide, wide world of paleo people, so we can’t exactly point to them and conclude that their diet is the ideal diet for everyone. Most hunter-gatherers gathered some tubers or other starchy plants to go along with their meat and fish. Many low-carbers might be better off doing likewise. (Eating tubers, I mean, not necessarily gathering them.)
Gary Taubes once wrote a post explaining that when people cut calories to lose weight, they almost always cut carbohydrates as well. Even if all they do is eat less of the same foods, a 30% reduction in calories would mean a 30% reduction in carbohydrates. But when people go on a diet, they preferentially dump the junk food: desserts, sodas, candies, French fries, etc. So that 30% reduction in calories could end up translating to a 50% reduction in carbohydrates. The dieters attribute any weight loss to cutting calories, when in fact cutting their carb intake in half might have triggered hormonal changes that made the weight loss possible.
Fair point. But we have to apply the same logic to a low-carb diet. When we decide to drastically reduce carbohydrates, most of us immediately give up wheat and sugar – both of which (if Robert Lustig and Paul Jaminet are correct) can induce insulin or leptin resistance. Jaminet wrote this in the Perfect Health Diet book:
Wheat germ agglutinin binds to insulin receptors, triggering an insulin-like effect. It is as effective as insulin at pushing glucose into cells and stopping the release of fat from fat cells. This means eating wheat may block weight loss and promote weight gain, regardless of how many calories are eaten overall.
Almost every modern book on low-carb dieting also presents evidence to convince the reader that processed vegetable oils are garbage and should be replaced with natural saturated fats, which are beneficial. So when people go on a low-carb diet, they give up what I consider the three worst offenders in the Standard American Diet: gluten-containing grains, sugar and processed vegetable oils. Meanwhile, formerly forbidden but nutrient-dense foods like eggs go back on the low-carb dieter’s menu.
So people make the big dietary shift, they lose weight, feel great, and their health improves. We attribute that to giving up carbs. But applying Gary Taubes’ logic, what if most of the health benefits come from giving up sugar, wheat and vegetable oils and replacing them with more meats, eggs and butter — and not so much from giving up potatoes and other “safe starches” that happen to be real foods containing real nutrients?
If so, then the real question here is: are people who switch from a high-carb frankenfood diet to a low-carb paleo diet better off with or without a potato to go along with their steak and broccoli? Will they be healthier consuming no starches at all, or including small servings of “safe starches” in their diets?
That question always seems to spark a bit of dietary tribalism. When Richard Nikoley announced a few years ago that he considers potatoes a paleo food and was eating them again, some of his readers replied that they were unsubscribing from his blog and would no longer read it.
Really? Because the guy eats home fries with his eggs?
In comments on my last post, I noticed some people resist the idea that anyone might actually become healthier by re-introducing small servings of safe starches or that perhaps they’re better off eating a bit of glucose instead of manufacturing it from protein or fat. If you can’t live without potatoes, then by gosh, it means you’re sick, or carb-addicted, or giving into social pressure, or whatever.
Ugh. That’s the attitude I see (and don’t much like) among so many vegans: this works for me, so damnit, it should work for you too, and if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with you – morally if not physically.
As I said in one of my replies, we shouldn’t label ourselves and then cling to a diet or a belief in order to continue wearing the label. This is about finding what works best for you, period. There is no diet that’s ideal for everyone – and I’d say that about the Perfect Health Diet as well. Let’s review what Chris Kresser said about safe starches:
I see a fair number of patients in my practice struggling with symptoms like hair loss, cold hands and feet, plateaued weight loss, low energy and mood imbalances after following a VLC diet for several months… In cases where there is no significant metabolic damage, when I have these folks increase their carbohydrate intake (with starch like tubers and white rice, and fruit) to closer to 150g a day, they almost always feel better. Their hair loss stops, their body temperature increases and their mood and energy improves.
Put some starch back in the diet, their health gets better. Do we really want to tell those people they’re sick or carb-addicted and should stick to a diet that’s causing them to feel lousy and lose their hair? I’m reminded of the old Vaudeville bit:
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this!”
“Then don’t do that.”
Those people need to stop doing that. They need to switch from VLC to something like a Perfect Health Diet. On the other hand, Kresser also said this:
In other cases, any increase in carbohydrate intake – in any form – will cause weight gain and other unpleasant symptoms.
Those are the people who shouldn’t adopt a Perfect Health Diet. “Safe” starches aren’t safe for them. I’ve heard from a few people (including Jimmy Moore) that consuming 100 grams or so of “safe starches” per day triggered a wild increase in their appetites and a craving for way more than those 100 grams. Those are the true carb addicts, not the people who feel better after eating a potato with dinner. And as addicts, yes, they should stay away from the foods that trigger the desire to binge.
When I decided to move my own diet towards more of a Perfect Health Diet, my reasoning boiled down to this: I don’t see a downside, and I might be better off. The “better off” part is mostly about gut health, for all the reasons I explained in my previous post. My new and improved diet is doing a better job of feeding my gut bacteria, and the rewards so far have been better digestion, deeper sleep and more energy – especially in the morning, when I’m not usually known for my peppy personality.
Back in the day, the downside would have been a glucose spike after eating a potato. But after starting a protocol of resistant starch and probiotics (and cooking and cooling potatoes before reheating them), that isn’t happening. If I eat a potato with dinner, my glucose peaks around 125 and then drops into the 90s. My fasting glucose has fallen a bit too. My appetite and weight both increased a bit when I started eating more starches, then returned to normal.
So with a possible upside and no apparent downside, why the heck wouldn’t I eat a potato?
It hasn’t been a drastic change. My diet is still high-fat and low-carb, just not as low-carb as before. On most days, I’ll have a potato or sweet potato with lunch and another with dinner. So instead of sausage and eggs, I’ll have eggs and a potato. Or sausage and a potato. I’ve had rice a few times, but frankly I don’t enjoy rice all that much. I find it rather bland and unsatisfying.
The one real treat I’ve added – mostly on weekends – is Udi’s gluten-free bread, which makes nice, crunchy toast. It’s made from tapioca and rice flour, the kind of flours Dr. Davis warns his Wheat Belly readers can seriously spike blood-sugar levels, so I checked my post-meal reaction a few times. Nope, no big deal. Up to around 120 or so, then back down to the 90s an hour later.
Meanwhile, the girls are quite happy that we’re including potatoes in more of our meals. Last weekend, I made hash browns with onions fried in macadamia oil, melted some cheddar cheese on top, then served over-easy eggs on top of the hash browns. Sara declared it the best breakfast ever and requested that I make it every Saturday.
Since there are potatoes in the house again, I also taught her to mimic the one line from an old Michael Nesmith comedy skit about learning Irish as a second language: “My, that’s a foin sack ‘o’ potaaatoes.” (You have to say it with a thick brogue.)
I don’t bother weighing or counting, but I’m probably not quite up to a Perfect Health Diet intake of starch. I still like my meats, eggs and vegetables and they’re still the biggest components of my diet. Toss in two medium potatoes, and it’s only about 60 or 70 grams of starch. I don’t feel any need or desire to go higher.
So far the results have all been positive, but I’ll let you know if that changes. Like I said, this is about finding what works, not wearing any particular dietary label.
Meanwhile, Paul Jaminet is receiving your questions and will probably have his answers ready next week.