Of all the hot topics within the Paleo community, starches are one of the most controversial.
On one hand you have authorities telling you that avoiding starches is the only path to happiness and true health. These people (who often fall into the very low-carb Paleo camp) paint a disturbing picture about the consequences of eating those starchy foods…
They assert that starches will lead to consequences like out of control blood sugar, insulin resistance, and a host of other serious health problems you’d rather never have to deal with!
But “team no-starch” isn’t the only voice in this debate. On the other side of the digital aisle, you have experts telling you starches are fine—even healthy. Some even urge you to eat more of them.
And there’s something else to think about, too: resistant starches. They’re incredibly trendy, and if you read enough Paleo blogs and articles raving about them, you might end up thinking they have magical powers when it comes to your health. But what’s the deal? How can resistant starches help you, and do they live up to the hype?
It’s tough to know whom to listen to. And you don’t have time to pore over hundreds of scientific studies or get wrapped up in a philosophical debate.
All you want to know is whether you should eat potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other starchy foods.
Let’s wade into this debate and get to the bottom of it. You’ll find out what you need to know about starches… and how to live a healthier life.
The Anti-Starch Argument
Let’s start off with the people who have you worried about your starch consumption.
The biggest hot buttons with the anti-starch crowd: they’re worried about starches’ impact on your insulin levels, and ultimately, your insulin resistance.
Their line of thinking goes like this. Your body digests starches—carbohydrate-heavy foods—quickly. Starches get broken down as sugar (glucose) in your body, so eating them causes your blood sugar levels to shoot up (1).
When your blood sugar skyrockets, your body releases the hormone insulin to get your blood sugar back in check. Repeat this over and over again (by eating a lot of starchy foods), and your body adapts by becoming resistant to insulin (2).
Insulin resistance has been linked to a host of serious health issues like diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome (3). More and more evidence is coming out that it’s a key driver in our current health crisis.
Another point about starches where people take issue: a lack of micronutrients.
One of the fundamental aspects of the Paleo diet is its focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods. While most starchy foods have some micronutrients, they usually don’t have as many as other Paleo options like organic produce or animal products.
The thinking here: you’re basically getting less nutritional “bang” for your buck. Including a good portion of starchy foods in your caloric intake would probably result in a lower micronutrient intake than eating the same amount of calories in produce and animal products.
Of course, there are other nuances of the anti-starch perspective. But this summarizes a broad view of their major concerns: 1) insulin resistance, and 2) fewer available micronutrients than other food sources.
The Pro-Starch Argument
What about the people in the Paleo community who support eating starches?
To understand their side of the debate, let’s take a look at some of the most common starches they recommend:
- Sweet potatoes
- White rice
Notice anything in common between all these foods?
They’re all extremely carb heavy. That’s enough to get people in the no- to low-carb camps worried about them. But pro-starch supporters have a different interpretation:
Their argument is that carbohydrates aren’t bad just because they’re carbohydrates. The things that make carbohydrates dangerous are toxins and anti-nutrients (like gluten in wheat products or lectin in legumes).
People on the pro-starch side aren’t recommending you pick up bread again. They’re recommending a specific subset of starches that don’t have any of the offending toxins you’d find in the grains, processed foods, and sugars that dominate the typical modern diet.
But just because some starches won’t harm you doesn’t justify eating them. For that, we turn to another angle of the pro-starch crowd’s argument. They argue that increasing your carbohydrate intake by incorporating more Paleo-friendly starches can boost your mood, energy, physical performance, and even your immune function.
And it’s important to point out that pro-starch voices aren’t recommending you go crazy with starches either. Most recommend a moderate intake of carbohydrates (including starches): somewhere between 75 and 200 grams a day.
Finally, pro-starch proponents don’t deny that starches are digested quickly in the body and temporarily boost your insulin levels. But they do argue that, as long as you’re lean and your metabolism is healthy, that process (in moderation) isn’t nearly as harmful as anti-starch people make it seem. Some even go as far as to say it’s beneficial.
Resistant Starches: Paleo’s Latest Craze
The concept of “resistant starches” is one of the hottest trends in the Paleo community.
Read enough articles and blog posts, and you might come away thinking they’re the next superfood. That’s being overenthusiastic, but more and more evidence is coming out suggesting resistant starches are beneficial.
Let’s start at the beginning. What are resistant starches? Resistant starches are a special type of starch that doesn’t get broken down in your stomach or small intestines. That’s where the name “resistant” comes in—they’re resistant to your body digesting them.
That’s not the end of the story, however. After they make it to your colon, resistant starches make great food sources (called prebiotics) for the good bacteria in your gut (4).
Keeping these “good bacteria” well-fed is a crucial part in balancing your gut health and avoiding all the nasty health conditions that come with an unhealthy gut: everything from depression and allergies to acne and even obesity (5).
If you’re currently eating starches, you’re probably already consuming some resistant starches. Here are the best Paleo-friendly sources of resistant starches:
- Green (unripe) bananas
- White rice
Making these resistant starches a regular part of your diet can help keep your gut healthy. And, because your body doesn’t digest them, you can eat them without spiking your insulin levels and developing insulin resistance.
Where Do You Go from Here?
Ok, so you’ve heard both sides of the argument and learned a bit about resistant starches.
Where do you go from here?
The takeaway—like so many things with such conflicting viewpoints—is somewhere in the middle. Eating a moderate amount of Paleo-friendly starches isn’t likely to do you any harm… unless you fall under a specific group of people I’ll touch on in just a second.
Bottom line: there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution.
The ideal amount of starches for you depends on your existing health condition, physical activity levels, and physique goals.
Generally, if you’re diabetic, insulin resistant, or more than 10 or 15 pounds overweight, you’re better off limiting starchy foods as much as possible. Focusing on less starchy produce and animal products will stabilize your insulin levels, restore insulin sensitivity, and give your metabolism time to heal from the damage of the typical modern diet.
On the other hand, if you’re already at your target weight (or very close to it) and physically active, starches could benefit your mood, energy levels, and performance at the gym. As long as your metabolism is healthy (which will eventually happen if you follow the Paleo diet long enough), you don’t have anything to worry about.
Personally, I used to eat much fewer starches than I eat now. But as I lost the last few stubborn pounds and ramped up my physical activity, I found it harder to stick to a low-carb Paleo diet. Bumping up my starch intake felt like a 180 for me: I found myself with a lot more energy and motivation.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with starches until you find an amount that makes you feel great. Don’t make starches the centerpiece of your diet (that belongs to produce and animal products), but don’t be afraid to shake things up. Your need for carbohydrates will likely change over time, and so will your starch intake. It’s just all part of the process.
Keep It Simple, and Don’t Stress
Some people in the Paleo community tend to get a bit rigid and dogmatic about whether they’re “allowed” to eat starches and how many they should eat…
But those people are putting a lot of unnecessary stress on their shoulders.
Sticking to general principles—instead of strict rules—makes you much more likely to stick with Paleo, boost your energy and health, and transform your life.
If you’re lean and don’t have any metabolism or health issues, don’t be afraid to incorporate Paleo-friendly starches into your diet. Eat a bit more to correspond with high physical activity levels or if you’re trying to build a lot of muscle, and sprinkle in some resistant starch as well.
If you’re overweight and/or have a metabolic or health issue, limit your starch intake as much as you can to give your metabolism time to heal. You can reassess your diet once you’ve gotten close to your ideal weight.
Doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.
(Check out: 5 Common Myths About Cholesterol)
Do you eat starches on the Paleo diet? If so, are you strict about limiting yourself to a certain amount a day? Leave a comment below and share your experience!