We’ve all heard the astonishing statistics: more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight, with more than one-third considered to be clinically obese. But how did we get here? Well, ironically, the fast increase in obesity rates is linked to efforts by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to supposedly make Americans healthier. Since their 1980 report Dietary Guidelines for Americans we’ve been told to:

  • Eat less fat.
  • Eat more grains and carbohydrates.

So, for the last 35 years, that is what most of us did, ate less fat and ate more carbohydrates, with a great deal of help from the many large food companies who offered tons of new low-fat and fat-free products. Since food tastes terrible without fat, they had to replace the removed fat with something to make it palatable. Their answer? Sugar. Gobs and gobs of sugar.

I remember when “non-fat” was all the rage. I fell for it; my whole family fell for it. In fact, up until 15 years ago, everything I ate was non-fat. And all that fat-replacing sugar that came with it.  Non-fat yogurt typically has as much sugar as a candy bar! A slice of whole grain bread has a higher glycemic index (meaning it turns to glucose more rapidly) than a candy bar! Read the label of any processed food product today, even items you would not consider sweet, and you will find sugar in one of its many forms. (go here for my Sweeteners To Avoid list)  All the sweeteners add up quickly: the average American now consumes 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugars each year, up from just 120 pounds in 1970, and just 10 pounds in 1821.

So where does starch fall into all this? Isn’t starch better than sugar? Let’s explore this more as you get ready for Thanksgiving, the mashed potato holiday, so you can make a more educated choice. After reading this you may pass the potatoes and opt for Mashed Parsnips or Roasted Cauliflower Mash. You may even choose to eat your mashed potatoes cold.

For a long time, I was guilty of consuming large amounts of healthy carbs in the form of starch. Lots of grains, beans, potatoes, breads, flours, etc. Why was this bad for me? Well, it kept feeding my sugar addiction and kept me in a state of imbalanced blood sugar that affected my ability to fall asleep, lowered my energy levels, messed with my moods, was increasing my level of systemic inflammation, and really messed up my digestion. I actually became insulin resistant and didn’t know it for years.

You may have been told that complex carbohydrates are good for you and, perhaps, that they are necessary. The real truth is that the obesity epidemic is not just the result of over-consuming added sugar. The base of the USDA Food Pyramid (and a quarter of the new and not-so-improved “MyPlate”) is actually made-up of sugar. This is sugar packed within starch molecules waiting to be quickly digested back into glucose… the simplest form of sugar. 

The base of the USDA’s food pyramid is made of up of 9- 11 servings of grains a day. This is really just sugar in waiting.

Dietary carbohydrates come in many different forms: non-starchy vegetables, fruits, starchy vegetables, grains, dairy, and simple sugars. When our body breaks down many of these carbohydrates for storage, they are stored as glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles, and then in our adipose tissue as fat when our glycogen stores are full.

Each of us has a unique amount of carbohydrates that we can use or tolerate without increasing inflammation, fat levels, disrupting blood sugar balance, and generally degrading our health. This unique level of carbohydrates can be dependent on your activity level, your body composition goals, and how efficient you are at burning both carbs and fat for fuel.

We call this metabolic flexibility, the ability to burn both carbohydrates and fat for fuel. Depending on your own current level of metabolic flexibility, you may need more or fewer carbohydrates. What’s cool is that you can increase your metabolic flexibility with a few simple changes.

7 Effective Ways to Start Increasing Metabolic Flexibility

  1. Avoid refined, processed carbohydrates, crackers, baked goods, breads, pasta, cereal,
  2. Avoid overripe fruit and limit fruit to 1-2 pieces a day
  3. Start to decrease the amount of carbohydrates you eat each day
  4. Increase your servings of healthy fats
  5. Decrease your eating window, making sure you allow a minimum of 12 hours and up to 16 hours without eating each day.
  6. Exercise in the morning before you eat.
  7. Start your day without carbohydrates for breakfast.

So Back to Starch. Is STARCH JUST SUGAR in a Different Form?

Basically yes, most foods high in starch, such as crackers, cereal, pasta, breads, potatoes, beans, and even whole grains, are converted rapidly into glucose by the body. (Remember that a single slice of whole grain bread has a higher glycemic index (GI) than a typical candy bar?)  For most of us, it would be wise to lower our intake of foods high in starch. However, there is a type of starch that is better for us, called resistant starch, that we can slowly introduce into our diets.

Some of Us Can Tolerate Starches, Including Resistant Starch, and Some of Us Cannot. Let’s Look at Why

All forms of starch require more steps in digestion than simple sugars, like raw honey, fruits, and other monosaccharides, like glucose and lactose. These simple sugars don’t require much digestion and are absorbed through the gut lining quite quickly. This is what leads to the sharp increases in blood sugar levels, and what can really affect our energy, moods, and ability to concentrate.

Starches, like grains, beans, and root vegetables (potato, yams, sweet potato, and cassava), are more difficult for our digestive systems to break down. Starches, known as disaccharides, need to be broken down by cells land enzymes lining the small intestine (enterocytes and brush border enzymes) before they can be absorbed. For most people, this is where the problem lies. With any level of digestive inflammation or permeable/leaky gut, the inability to digest complex carbohydrates is common. As are the accompanying symptoms, such as bloating, gas, pain, belching, diarrhea, and constipation.

With compromised digestion, starches can remain in the gut undigested and become food for pathogenic bacteria, candida, and other toxins leading to more damage to the gut wall and to the whole body. Undigested starches are the perfect food for both our good and bad bacteria.

Thus it may be wise to eliminate starches completely from your diet temporarily to let the healing in the gut wall take place and to make sure that the pathogens are not being fed. In most cases, once the gut wall has healed and new cells have been built, you can start introducing starches again without the digestive discomfort.

How Is Resistant Starch Different?

Resistant starches differ from normal complex carbohydrates because they behave differently than most starches and sugars in your digestion system.  This class of starches can pass through your small intestine without being digested, hence the name resistant. They are resistant to the enzymes that promote digestion and instead of being converted rapidly to glucose and affecting your blood sugar, resistant starch foods actually feed the good gut microbes in your large intestine.

Our beneficial gut bacteria thrive on resistant starches. Gut microbes gobble up resistant starch, ferment it to produce certain vitamins, convert it to short-chain fatty acids like butyrate (found in grass-fed butter and ghee), and acetate, and propionate. These short-chain fatty acids are essential food for the cells in our colons, fuel for our neurons, and they increase our “good” beneficial bacteria, which helps us maintain the health of our gut so we can digest and absorb our nutrients better.

Our guts have hundreds of different bacterial species, some good and some not. As one of our goals is to increase the number of good bacteria and we know now that resistant starch may selectively feed the good bacteria in our large intestine, it can be healthy to slowly introduce these foods that can help maintain intestinal health.

Butyrate is really important for healthy gut balance and is the preferred source of energy for the cells lining the colon.  More butyrate means decreased inflammation in the gut and other tissues, increased intestinal resistance, and decreased leaky gut – hence fewer toxins leaking into our blood. Butyrate also plays several roles in increasing metabolism and can help metabolic flexibility.

Another remarkable thing about resistant starch is that you don’t absorb the calories from these foods as glucose (sugar). This means they do not raise your blood sugar or insulin levels like other quickly digested carbohydrates. So, all of us low-carb folks can allow some forms of resistant starch into our diet, without exceeding our carbohydrate tolerance. Eating resistant starch can help boost fat burning, help you feel full longer, and decrease fat storage.

So Where Do We Get Some of This Good Resistant Starch?

Many foods contain resistant starch in their raw form, and when they are cooked and cooled before being eaten. The cooling process creates a type of resistant starch that resists digestion.

Foods that contain resistant starch:

  • Raw potatoes, cooked and cooled potatoes, potato starch
  • Green bananas, green banana flour
  • Plantains, plantain flour
  • Cassava, cassava flour
  • Cooked and cooled rice
  • Cooked and cooled legumes

Remember, not everyone can eat resistant starch without experiencing digestive upset, so the rule of thumb is – start slowly.

As with any other starch, if you have imbalanced microbes, gut dysbiosis, or an overgrowth of pathogens in your gut you may have to let the gut wall heal first before introducing starch.

Pretty much every article or book that talks about resistant starch will have a list suggesting a variety of foods. I generally omit the grains and legumes because, as we know, these foods, unless properly prepared (soaked, fermented, sprouted), can be quite inflammatory for our guts.

I Want to Really Hammer In This Digestive Stuff …

If you currently experience digestive issue symptoms, such as gas, bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhea, burping, etc. or if you are coming off a diet that was high in refined and processed foods, you may have difficulty eating starch, even resistant starch, right away. Resistant starch supplementation can be a good way to assess the health of your gut. If you have good gut function you may respond positively, and if your gut is compromised you may respond poorly. The gas, bloating, cramps and everything else are signs that your gut needs work.

In some cases, and with many of my clients, it is important to eliminate all forms of starches temporarily until some gut healing can take place. I place my clients on the GAPS diet or a Leaky Gut repair diet. Often in digestive process problems, large particles of undigested food can enter the intestines, which stimulates the growth of pathogenic bacteria. These “not so beneficial” bacteria, whose growth is encouraged by poorly digested foods, low stomach acid, a diet high in refined foods, can lead to the growth of more pathogenic bacteria and can quickly create an imbalanced microbiome. Not only will this result in a host of digestive symptoms, but it leads to inflammatory problems throughout the whole body, including the gut, and increased rates of chronic disease.

7 Key Takeaways

  1. Lowering your intake of carbohydrates may prove to be beneficial to your overall health and increase your metabolic flexibility.
  2. Everyone has a unique carbohydrate tolerance. Some of us can eat more than others while others thrive on a lower amount.
  3. You may need to eliminate all forms of starch, temporarily, to let your gut walls heal and to balance your microbiota.
  4. When eating starchy foods pay attention to symptoms of digestive distress such as bloating, gas, pain, belching, diarrhea, and constipation.
  5. Start slowly when introducing starch, even resistant starch can cause digestive upset. If you experience more digestive distress with very small amounts, this may be an indication of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or microbial dysbiosis.
  6. If you are on a low carb or Ketogenic diet you can try adding potato starch, green banana flour or plantain flour, which are very low in digestible carbohydrates.
  7. Try starting with ¼- ½ teaspoon of potato starch daily and very gradually increase the amount if tolerated. Some gas and bloating is not uncommon as your gut flora changes and adapts, however, these may also be a sign you need to allow more time for additional gut healing. There is some indication that the benefits of resistant starch may occur when consuming potato starch daily (around 15 grams/2 Tablespoons).