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Safe Starches Panel

Jeremy Hendon | August 10

Today (Friday) has had many interesting lectures, including an extremely good talk from Chris Masterjohn (I generally understand about 10-15% of the things Chris talks about, which is a problem I’m working on).

Despite the other good talks, the one I think most deserves recounting is the panel on “safe starches.”

The concept of safe starches is still a big one in the low carb and Paleo communities. This panel was moderated by no less than Jimmy Moore, and the panel itself consisted of Paul Jaminet, Chris Kresser (filling in for Jack Kruse), Catherine Shanahan, and Ron Rosedale.

Most of you probably understand the basics of the safe starch debate that was at least partially started by Paul Jaminet. In Paul’s opinion, certain starch sources are “safe” since they contain few or no toxins. For instance, many grains contain toxins like gluten, and many legumes contain other toxins. On the other hand, cooked white rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes contain relatively few toxins.

Paul also believes, on the basis of both scientific and anthropological evidence, that humans are pretty well-adapted to eating starches (this was also part of Chris Masterjohn’s point in his talk), to the degree that humans should be eating at least a couple hundred grams of safe starches each day. The panel started off with Paul making this point and generally defining safe starches.

Chris Kresser then followed up and generally concurred, noting that there are numerous incredibly healthy populations of people throughout the world and throughout history that have survived on anywhere between 60 and 90% carbs. His argument is that we’d need some very good explanations for why whole groups of people could live healthily if carbs were so problematic to humans in general.

In terms of clinical practice, Chris also sees many of his patients recover from certain conditions (low T3, dry mouth, low energy, etc.) by adding some safe starches back into their diet. (Remember, almost all of Chris’s patients are already Paleo.)

Catherine and Ron both took the opposite viewpoint of Paul and Chris. More than a few minutes were actually spent discussing whether or not the Okinawans actually ate a very high carbohydrate diet. (For what it’s worth, the studies I’ve seen, which are dietary recall surveys from 1949 of just over 2,000 people, support Chris’s contention that the Okinawans ate about 85% carbohydrates).

Regardless of the Okinawans, Catherine (from a more clinical perspective) and Ron (from a more animated and theoretical perspective) both believe that glucose – which all starches get converted into – eventually lead to many problems in humans, most specifically elevated insulin levels.

The panel was worth recounting because it was by far the most animated panel of the conference, and also the panel with the most disagreement.

From my perspective, it seems that this is one of the trickiest parts of the low carb movement being somewhat integrated with the Paleo movement. Many Paleo dieters do in fact restrict their carbohydrates, either accidentally or intentionally, but carbohydrate restriction per se is not a well-accepted part of the Paleo community.

From my perspective, I tend to agree most with Chris Kresser, who made the point that we really need to differentiate between humans with properly functioning metabolic systems and humans who are essentially broken.

In the latter case – particularly with respect to people who are obese, diabetic, or who generally just have very high insulin resistance – it seems that carbohydrate restriction may be a necessary step to regaining metabolic flexibility, and an easy way to limit excess energy intake.

On the other hand, for individuals who are not metabolically broken, restricting carbs may not be necessary and may even be somewhat harmful if done too strictly for too long.