For years, the bestseller lists have been dominated by books urging people to eat plenty of meat and fat but to shun carbohydrates. The Atkins Diet led the parade; but there have been many imitators, such as the Zone, the South Beach Diet, the Paleo Diet, and the Dukan Diet. Even some of the vegan-oriented books encourage people to avoid starches. Yet the scientific evidence shows us that human beings are specifically adapted to thrive on a starchy diet. So I was delighted to see that the title of Dr. John McDougall’s latest book is The Starch Solution. He explains something that nutritional epidemiologists and experts on clinical nutrition have known for many years, namely that human beings stay naturally slim and healthy on a diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables.
Back in the 1970s, when Dr. McDougall started practicing medicine as a family doctor on a sugar plantation on the big island of Hawaii, he noticed something peculiar. His older patients were slimmer and healthier than his younger patients. His older patients were immigrants from Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. They ate a traditional East Asian diet of rice and vegetables. Their sons and daughters tended to eat a more Americanized diet, with more meat and dairy foods and processed foods. They were fatter than their parents, and some of them had chronic degenerative diseases such as atherosclerosis and diabetes. The third generation was fully Americanized and just as fat and sick as the rest of the U.S. population.
From studying the scientific literature on nutrition, Dr. McDougall realized that his patients’ experiences weren’t unusual. Most of the world’s populations have traditionally based their diet on some sort of starchy staple food, including grains such as rice, corn, and wheat and starchy roots and tubers such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, and cassava. People who base their diet on these starchy foods and vegetables and fruit stay naturally slim and are remarkably free of chronic disease. When Dr. McDougall taught overweight people with severe chronic diseases to switch to a diet of starches and vegetables, they rapidly lost weight and regained their health, even though they could eat as much food as they wanted.
In Chapter 4 of The Starch Solution, McDougall explains, “Three-quarters of the illnesses suffered by people living in industrialized countries are long-standing, chronic conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and cancers. What do people in these regions have in common? A diet dominated by meat, dairy, fat, and processed foods. Understanding the problem points to a simple solution: By replacing these body-burdening foods with healthful starches, vegetables, and fruits, we can reduce or eradicate the enormous personal, social, and economic burden of chronic disease.
“Starches support your body’s intrinsic ability to heal by providing a perfect balance of carbohydrate, protein, fiber, fat, vitamins, and minerals, along with a balance of antioxidants and other plant-synthesized phytochemicals. Unlike the foods that are making you sick, starches contain no significant amounts of dangerous cholesterol, saturated or trans fats, animal proteins, dietary acids, chemical toxins, or disease-causing microbes.”
The Starch Solution features many of the case histories of “Star McDougallers,” who are people who solved their health problems by eating the kind of diet that Dr. McDougall recommends. You can find even more of these stories on his Web site, www.drmcdougall.com. As a science writer, I find www.drmcdougall.com to be invaluable. Many of the important studies on nutrition were performed in the 1950s or earlier, yet the MEDLINE database maintained by the National Library of Medicine doesn’t provide much coverage of literature published before the mid 1960s. Fortunately, Dr. McDougall gives citations for some of the older nutrition research. I often do a search of his Web site before I do a MEDLINE search on nutritional topics.
Besides providing reliable scientific information on diet and health, the Starch Solution provides the single most important thing that anyone needs in order to switch to a truly healthy diet: meal plans and good recipes. Dr. McDougall had the great good fortune to marry a registered nurse who is also an excellent cook. Mary McDougall’s recipes have enhanced all of his books and his Web site.
The nutritional adequacy of a diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables has been known since ancient times. It was documented scientifically in the early 20th century by Russell Henry Chittenden, a Yale University professor who was a president of the American Physiological Society. The health benefits of a low-fat, plant-based diet for the general population became obvious as a result of the Danish food rationing system during World War I. The value of starchy diets for reversing type 2 diabetes was documented in the 1940s by Dr. Walter Kempner at Duke University.
In The Starch Solution, Dr. McDougall explains that plant-based foods provide all of the nutrients that are essential for human beings except for vitamin D and vitamin B12. The body makes its own supply of vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunshine, and vitamin B12 comes from bacteria. Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin supplement that Dr. McDougall recommends for people eating a purely plant-based diet.
The Starch Solution is intended to provide information that applies to the general population. Thus, the book does not cover uncommon food-related problems, such as celiac disease (gluten intolerance). However, Dr. McDougall's Web site does provide a great deal of information about celiac disease and other food allergies and intolerances.
Dr. McDougall has been singing the praises of a diet based on unrefined starches and vegetables in bestselling books since the early 1980s. However, most of the people I talk to are shocked to hear that starches are good for you. For some reason, starchy diets became unfashionable.
“From 1983 until the early 1990s, my books promoting simple dietary solutions to complex health problems were major bestsellers. In the early 1990s, my publisher suggested it was time to change my writing style. An editor told me that my books supporting a starch-based diet were out of date, and that diet books now must focus on increasing meat and protein and decreasing carbs. ‘Dr. McDougall,’ she advised, ‘we would like you to make this change in your future books to reflect the new trend.’ I reminded the editor that essentially all respected science corroborates that eating animal products results in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity, while research over the last 70 years has shown that a diet based on starches, vegetables, and fruits makes people healthy. I reminded her that I was not in the book business simply to make money, but to help people improve their health. With six national bestsellers under my belt, and more than a million copies in circulation from this company alone, I parted ways with the publisher. History confirms that my editor was right. Diet books were indeed headed in the direction she predicted. History also has proven me right. Those diets made people sick, while my approach made them healthy.”