Is There Any Such Thing As ‘Safe Starches’ On A Low-Carb Diet?

I’ve literally heard it all over the past eight years of dedicating my life to promoting healthy low-carb living that rarely am I ever surprised anymore by any dietary concept that I am introduced to that supposedly improves upon the high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb nutritional approach that is right for me. It’s important to discover what works for you and your individualized situation because it’s far too easy to get sidetracked by information that floats around out there in the blogosphere. I’m all for staying on top of the latest cutting-edge information about healthy eating, but it’s gotta make sense for me or I have a difficult time embracing the change. Such is a concept that has gained traction this year to the worrisome concern of many of my readers.

Following my March 2011 podcast interview with a man named Paul Jaminet, author ofThe Perfect Health Diet, there has been a steadily increasing amount of concern from low-carbers writing to me about whether he is on to something with what he describes in his book and blog as “safe starches”–namely white rice, white potatoes, yams and more. Say what?! Wait wait wait, NOW starches are GOOD for you and can even be deemed as “safe” for people who are obese, diabetic or otherwise metabolically compromised in some way? The reasoning behind this I gotta hear.

For those of you unfamiliar with who Paul Jaminet is, he is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and was able to beat a chronic health issue in his life by using the strategies implored in The Perfect Health Diet. His wife Shou-Ching Shih Jaminet, who co-authored the book with Paul, is a molecular biologist and cancer researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. They have combined their efforts to educate the masses about what they have learned about human nutrition through their web (in fact, you’ll see I have Jaminet’s blog listed on the right-hand side of my blog in “The Best Blogs” section). I am not one to just throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to those who offer up an alternative hypothesis to what I believe is true, especially when it comes to nutrition. But it’s gonna take a whole lot of convincing, scientific evidence and massive amounts of n=1 stories of people finding success eating white rice, white potatoes, and the like to get me to buy into this notion of “safe starches.”

To describe this concept of “safe starches” as controversial is a massive understatement. So many of my fellow low-carbers view the idea of purposely consuming starchy foods on a regular basis as blasphemy. You know, it kinda defeats the purpose of consuming a carbohydrate-restricted diet for the benefits of controlling blood sugar/insulin levels, right? Dr. Atkins has got to be turning over in his grave at the very thought of reintroducing a food into a low-carb diet as “safe” when all indicators show it is anything but. However, this “safe starches” concept has caught on among many of the most prominent members of the Paleo community this year, namely people like Dr. Kurt HarrisRobb WolfChris Kresser, and Diane Sanfilippo, for example. And Jaminet is right there in the thick of it actively promoting the consumption of foods like white rice, white potatoes, taro, plantains, etc. through his own graphical representation of what he promotes as The Perfect Health Diet:


My primary concern with what Jaminet has come up with here is this promotion of starches as something that is “safe.” In a perfect world where the modern-day food system hasn’t been compromised, consumption of unnatural additives and chemicals in foods isn’t the norm, and obesity, diabetes and chronic disease is virtually nil, then perhaps there would be merit to the idea of “safe starches.” But for anyone who has been morbidly obese like I was once weighing in at over 400 pounds, diabetic with heart disease like my brother Kevin was, or dealing with a whole myriad of other cardiometabolic health issues, I think it is potentially dangerous to give people like this a virtual green light to consume these foods they hear are “safe” for them to eat. How can someone who is metabolically-deranged consume a food that will spike their blood sugar and insulin levels and consider that anything close to being “safe” for the their health? If you give people permission to eat these starches by calling them “safe,” then it can give the false impression that there will be no consequences on their weight and health. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case for everyone.

It all goes back to livin’ la vida low-carb 101. One of the basic principles of the healthy low-carb lifestyle is cutting down on starch and sugar as a means for controlling blood sugar spikes and the associated increase in insulin. When you consume starchy foods like rice or potatoes, your body breaks them down into simple sugar (glucose) which then raises blood glucose leading to an insulin response to deal with it. An overabundance of sugar in the blood (whether consumed directly or if the body converts starch into sugar) that goes beyond the needs for energy will then become stored body fat. This is why low-carb diets have worked for so many of us because we’ve come off the blood sugar roller coaster once and for all.

This is why controlling starch consumption is essential to lowering body fat, increasing insulin sensitivity, improving cardiovascular health through improved lipids (namely higher HDL, lower triglycerides and less small LDL particles) along with positively impacting various other metabolic health markers. Plus, consuming more carbohydrates in your diet pulls you away from using fat for fuel to a greater reliance on using carbohydrate for fuel in your body. If you’ve been low-carbing for any length of time, then you know how difficult those few weeks of transitioning from a carb/sugar burner to a fat burner can be. Why would you want to go through all of that yet again just because somebody labels an off limits food as “safe” to eat? Incidentally, I plan on testing this “safe starches” concept on myself in and upcoming n=1 blood sugar testing experiment.

It really all boils down to this for me: Why does Jaminet advocate for the consumption of what he describes as “safe starches” when everything about what we seem to know about these foods indicates they are anything but “safe” for most of the population that is metabolically damaged in some form or fashion? I felt this question was far too important for me to ignore any longer because it goes to the very heart of why I support low-carb nutrition for most people to begin with. In my search for answers, I personally contacted many of my fellow low-carb/Paleo expert friends to have them chime in with their thoughts about this idea of “safe starches.” An e-mail from one of my readers was the inspiration for me sending the following out to a wide variety of medical professionals, researchers and nutrition experts for a response:

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