Book Review: The Starch Solution

sweetpotatoes

Adding to the call for people to switch over to a whole food, plant-based diet are the voices of Mary and Dr. John McDougall in their 2012 book, The Starch Solution.

The eyebrow-raising core message:

“The more rice, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans we eat, the trimmer, more energetic, and healthier we become.”

John McDougall is credible. 

John McDougall is an American physician with over 30 years of experience treating chronic illness. After a stroke at age 18, he started on a plant-based diet. Today he uses a plant-based diet to help patients control weight, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. His work has been advocated by highly-regarded experts like Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. In 2011 he authored Senate Bill 380 for the state of California. The bill requires medical doctors to learn about human nutrition, and was passed unanimously. The man cares.

He tackles the controversial “carb myth.”

According to McDougall, “the fat we eat is the fat we wear.” He cites vast research supporting a link between weight gain and eating fat. The book explains today’s pro-meat paleo craze as a combination of bad science, industry-funded obfuscation, and wrong-headed government policy. He acknowledges that sugar does have effect, but “[s]ubjects overfed large amounts of simple sugars under experimental laboratory conditions…will convert a small amount of carbohydrate to fat.” Those who lose weight by cutting carbs to achieve ketosis are like cancer patients who lose weight after chemotherapy, says McDougall. Not all weight loss is healthy.

To McDougall, the fat and sugar link is overblown. The real culprit remains fat in the diet.

One problem: light on the science.

Anyone interested in nutrition is also interested in the science, and that’s where The Starch Solution disappoints. Instead of sharing data, charts and graphs, the authors prefer anecdotal stories of “Star McDougallers” who share before and after pictures. Meanwhile Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat is compelling precisely because Taubes dives deep into the science and history without over simplifying for his audience. Other prolific writers like Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, share primary research and are more compelling as a result.

It will make you think.

The McDougalls point to decades of research connecting meat and dairy to cancer, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, obesity and heart disease. But recent popular titles like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain say the new genetically-modified wheat and sugar  are to blame for many of those same diseases. Readers won’t find compelling answers to this in The Starch Solution, but will develop a healthy skepticism for broad condemnations of all carbs.

It’s possible that both pro- and anti-carb arguments are largely right but need nuance. That’s where The Starch Solution does deliver. Just as we rightfully distinguish between good and bad calories, the McDougalls distinguish between good and bad carbs. They advocate sweet potatoes but not soda. They tell us to eat whole foods and avoid processed junk. And sure enough, we see many examples on Youtube of compelling before and after testimonials supporting the starch-based diet.

It’s worth reading.

The Starch Solution adds needed nuance to anyone’s knowledge of nutrition. It reveals the surprising and longstanding benefits of certain carbohydrates – specifically starches like potatoes and sweet potatoes – and gives hope to anyone trying to follow a whole food, plant based diet. After all, potatoes are satisfying, filling, cheap, and available everywhere. Learning that eating these won’t lead to diabetes or obesity is a great relief to the aspiring vegetarian.

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