Smart starch for your diet

It’s time to re-acquaint with this food group after years of neglect. Excellent news: sweet potatoes are a health food! Starch is not the enemy. In fact, people living on Okinawa, Japan, have a diet comprising of 90% starch, which is a contributing factor to their longevity. Dietitian LAURA MAY is here to sing the praises of starch, with scientific support.

A starch-based vegan diet is essentially an interchangeable term for a wholefoods plant-based vegan diet.

This is defined by Dr Michael Greger in his book How Not to Die, as an eating pattern that encourages the consumption of unrefined plant foods and discourages meats, dairy products, eggs, and processed foods. The diet includes wholegrains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.

potato vs steak starch TRAIL 24Defining diet

We live in an age where popular science has reduced our food’s nutrient spectrum into macronutrient groups.

The problem with this is that we then don’t value food for the vast array of nutrients it provides. Instead, we see it merely as a way to meet our carbohydrate, protein, and fat requirements. Example: Perhaps the most popular question a vegan is asked is “Where do you get your protein?”

Plants in fact provide all the protein a person needs, but we have lost the ability to see protein beyond meat.

So what is this starch-based vegan diet? Dr John McDougall is the pioneer of this term. He encourages us to step away from looking at food as groups, and rather look at the nutrients and health benefits they provide.

Starches encompass wholegrains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits.

Wholegrains include all the carbohydrates that have not been subject to processing, such as barley, rye, brown rice, wild rice quinoa, couscous, oats, and popcorn.

Starchy vegetables include those that you may have been told to avoid, such as potatoes.

Food as fuel

The human body is designed to burn sugar as its primary fuel source. If we make starch the basis of all our meals (which is a South African Food Based Dietary Guideline), then we wouldn’t see the high amount of diseases such as diabetes, cholesterol, and obesity that we currently are.

starch burning carbs TRAIL 24Consume extra starch, however, (the right type of starch) and the body will simply burn it off (see inset above). So for those that love potatoes, remember you can eat them as long as they are not fried in oils or smothered in butter or margarine. Keep everything in as natural a state as possible and steam, boil, bake, or grill your food, and you will see a major difference in your body composition.

Eating starch in the Blue Zone

Starches provide fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals, and numerous phytochemicals, all of which have been linked to health benefits and protection against heart disease, obesity, cholesterol, and diabetes.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed a comparison of 33 overweight and obese subjects on either a wholegrain or refined grain diet. Both groups showed improvement but the wholegrain group (eating rice, wheat, and oats) had greater improvements in weight reduction, blood pressure and total cholesterol. The benefits noted from wholegrain consumption are likely due to the higher fibre consumption and the fibre’s anti-inflammatory properties.

starch bread TRAIL 24
Look at the label of commercial breads. The first ingredient in breads you choose to eat should start with ‘whole’: either wholegrain or wholewheat, to ensure you get the benefit of the full grain. This will ensure you get the benefit of the bran (containing most of the fibre), endosperm (high in starches), and germ (high in various beneficial plant compounds). Just remember them with the acronym BEG, and ensure you get the benefit of the whole grain.

In populations such as the Seventh Day Adventists and those living in Blue Zones (localised regions with the world’s longest-lived people) where fibre intake from fruits, vegetables, and wholegrains is high, there is corresponding lower disease and mortality risk.

Okinawa, one of the Japanese islands, falls into a Blue Zone, with one of the highest life expectancies in the world. The traditional Okinawan diet is made up of 90% whole plant foods and less than 3% from animal products.

They eat vegetables and beans, with most of the calories coming from starch in the form of purple and orange sweet potato. This is both an anti-inflammatory and a high antioxidant diet.

In other Blue Zones, diets are made up of starchy grains such as barley, brown rice, corn, and oats, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes.

All these people consuming a high starch diet and yet living happy and healthy lives? Yes, they are!

Better choices

This is not a restrictive way of eating. It is in fact how all early food cultures began and how the future of nutrition is looking. Some incredible athletes that follow this diet include ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek and strongman Patrik Baboumian.

In my experience, the transition to this diet in athletes and the general public has had nothing but positive results.

Laura May Starch diet TRAIL 24From weight loss, to better recovery between training sessions, to improved mental health and even to a greater appreciation for food, the benefits are endless. Yes, the adjustment may take some getting used to, as we live in a meat-eating culture, but the advantages of following a starch-based diet make the transition completely worth it.

This article was originally printed in TRAIL magazine issue 24, available as a back issue.

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