The Starch Solution
by John A. McDougall, MD and Mary McDougall
Rodale Books 2012
Starch is the key to optimum health according to Dr. McDougall. Eat a starch-based diet and eschew animal products and you, too, can be healthy. He admits that his MD degree gave him no help in the field of nutrition (and he does need help). I don’t know if McDougall came up with this starch idea himself, but he also doesn’t claim to be the first to buy into this theory. He points to a lot of purported evidence to support such an assertion.
Literally from page one of The Starch Solution McDougall points to the Chinese as proof of the supremacy of a starch-based diet, and already I’m scratching my head. The Chinese are not generally vegan and not exceptionally healthy. From there we tour the globe from the perspective of ancient times to those more recent. McDougall recognizes the belief that the European Paleolithic diet consisted mainly of animal foods but points to traces of grains found on grinding tools from that time period to argue with that point of view. How that proves anything about animal foods in their diet leaves me still scratching my head.
Later on, he cherry-picks some data from Africa about the Bantu to support starchy vegan diets. According to Weston Price, who actually went to Africa, the Bantu were not as rugged as the neighboring Masai, who are decidedly not vegetarian. Tribes who ate animal foods clearly dominated tribes who didn’t and took their lunch money to boot. Many African tribes including those who didn’t eat a lot of animal foods did eat bugs and were not quite as vegan as some would have us believe.
Right after we finish our world tour, we are told that our DNA proves that we are starch eaters. This claim is based on the similarity between human and chimpanzee DNA. I’m still scratching my head (maybe I should scratch my armpit) and here’s why. We have “mapped the human genome” which seems to lead people to believe we have it all figured out. This is not even remotely true, which makes any sweeping claims based on DNA analysis shaky at best. The gene-coding DNA usually referred to in these comparisons is only a very small percentage of total DNA. For many years that other DNA was referred to as junk DNA until science changed its mind (again) and decided it is not junk but plays a very important role. When you take all of that DNA into consideration, it turns out we are not just hairless chimps.
Slippery phrases like “experts agree” and “there is no disagreement about this whatsoever among scientists” appear and I still can’t resist reacting to that. Never in history have all the experts really agreed on anything. Even if McDougall meant that the majority of experts agree, more often than not that just means collusion or some powerful corporation has flooded the literature with pseudo-science in order to sell something.
Chapter Three tells us about the five major poisons found in animal foods. This is where it really gets good. The five villains are methionine, protein, fats, cholesterol, and dietary acid found in pretty much all animal foods. The essential amino acid methionine, found in meat, fish, eggs, cheese, etc., is a toxin? Among other things, this essential amino acid stands accused of causing foul-smelling gas and stools. Okay, if you sound like you’re playing a tuba underwater in the bathroom and smell even worse, you may well have a problem but I don’t think methionine is likely to be your biggest culprit.
Dr. McDougall’s claims get more questionable from there but he does provide at least some references so before I go on I want to review the basic principle I use to sort this out. This book amply demonstrates that you can find studies on Medline, the Internet, and whatever else to back up veganism, or the Atkins diet, or anything in between. How do I decide what to believe? If there is a conflict of interest on the part of those who did the study or funded the study, that study is probably worthless information. Short-term studies that ignore the long term are highly suspect at best. Ivory tower studies that come to conclusions based on their little data sets and ignore any relevant history or, worse yet, contradict relevant history, don’t impress me either.
So when I got to the chapter that would have me believe we are eating too much meat, which means we have too many cows, which generate too much gas, which means the planet is going to melt, my cowpie-o-meter just sucked a valve. This is a classic example of ignoring obvious history. There were more tuba-tooting bovines several centuries ago than there are today and somehow, the world survived. This is an example of a claim that ignores history. We have really hit bottom when we not only don’t take responsibility for messing up our world but sink so low to blame it all on cows. The tired old argument that we can produce more food by getting rid of cows comes next. McDougall’s suggestions imply removing all cows and substituting mono-cropping on a huge scale. He ignores certain inconvenient problems with that. What about land where crops can’t be grown but is perfectly good for grazing? How do you maintain soil fertility without animals? Mono-cropping may look good in the short run but is a great way to turn your land into a desert in the long run. Then what do we do?
One of the biggest problems he ignores is that producing more food is not going to solve the hunger problem. He even hints that he has some vague awareness that food production is not the root issue, it is food distribution. Producing more food will not solve that problem. Later he feels so passionate about harm to health and environment that he encourages us to put Elsie the cow out to pasture and leave her there. Whose pasture? Who is going to waste their resources on an economically worthless cow? Who is going to have pasture when they are busy mono-cropping themselves to death? What he’s really implying is throwing Elsie to the wolves. I guess that’s the humane thing to do.
Referring to elephants, hippos, cows, etc., he asks the question, “If plants can satisfy the demands of these enormous animals, wouldn’t you think they could easily meet our own protein needs?” On westonaprice.org you can find information explaining why fat and cholesterol are important for good cognitive function. If the concept that different animals (as well as humans) have different digestive systems is tooo- o complicated for you then you need a nice, juicy, fat steak.
After committing intellectual suicide, McDougall goes on to include other knee-slappers in the book like citing a study that observed two people for six months, or claiming that vitamin D2 is just as good as vitamin D3.
There are almost one hundred pages of recipes at the end of the book. Even though McDougall explicitly doesn’t like vegetarian fake animal foods, I see nostalgic echoes of animal foods scattered around the recipes, including no-parmesan cheese, cashew milk, and veggie burgers. Some recipes have Spanish names like No-Huevos Rancheros. I know that if I want a truly good breakfast, I’m going to have to break a few huevos. No matter what language this book is written in, el-thumbo is DOWN.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2012.🖨️ Print post
“That claim is based on the similarity between human and chimpanzee DNA.”
He must have confused chimps with gorillas — chimps eat meat!!
Silly Weston Price Foundation..
This review is so full of lies, ignorance, and illogical arguments that don’t refute the FACTS put out in McDougall’s book, The Starch Solution. Everyone should read this book.
Look at the science, read the book, and check out the facts for yourself. It doesn’t take much of an educated mind to see the fallacies and dilemmas in this “review” (the author probably did not even read the book).
Tim Boyd, you should be ashamed of yourself.
Reply to Ary
Mom? Is that you?
You’re one of the holier-than-thou McDougallers who pounces on anyone who questions McDgouall, right?
Laura Wiggins says
I don’t think anyone has all the answers but it appears, from one who practices the diet promoted by Dr. McDougall, that some weight should be given to the results. On McDougall’s diet, I have lost weight long term while eating as much as I want and more importantly, I have reversed type 2 diabetes. There, perhaps, is no scientific study which explains why this should be so, it contradicts most advice on the subject, and yet it works. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, who can testify to their own results concerning heart disease (I also reversed chronic heart failure), weight loss, and diabetes.
I love to see people do so well on a diet, but I did try this vegan lifestyle, many years ago and I became very sick. He says unless you have celiac disease, eat lots of wheat, but if I do, I get gut problems and my joints hurt. Off of wheat, I felt so much better…well, off of all gluten. I did get tested for celiac but came up negative. Does this mean that despite how gluten makes me feel I should keep eating it to support his diet of perfect veganism? I tried a high starch diet but gained weight, so reintroduced small amounts of lean animal protein and it made a world of difference. I do eat potatoes, corn and other non gluten grains but I eat much more veggies and fruit which also made a huge difference. I am sorry, but not everyone can flourish on a vegan diet and much of the recipes are really terrible. It makes food a sad event when most of the cultures who celebrate food eat pretty much everything. I am half Indonesian and am very close to Asian food cultures which is never purely plant based. Omnivores. They just don’t eat as much as the Wast..that is pretty much it. Good balance and avoid foods that make you sick. What is it with all the extreme dieting? I can’t have grains, but my diet is very varied and without some mussels or an egg, I would be much worse off. Also, I believe in supporting the good farmers which means the small amount of animal protein is bought with much thought. Oh..and maybe we should all have a look at the new documenatary “Food Chains” about the devastating affects of modern agriculture on migrant workers. So even if you eat a ton of veggies and say you are saving the planet, have a second look and discover how you choose your veggies and fruit can impact the food culutre in an important way. It’s all so daunting. So I say, no extreme diets, but one that works for you and one that is varied and supports good farming practices. And why are so many vegans so angry?
Don’t even bother getting tested for Celiac Disease. Old timers and organizations that have information on Celiac Disease have missed the boat. Celiac Disease is only one from of the larger problem of Wheat Gluten Sensitivity. That is what you need to be tested for. There are a few places that will do it now. EnteroLab and Cyrex do this. EnteroLab tests your stool rather than do a blood test. It takes years of damage to your body for a gluten problem to show up in your blood. It takes years for your body to be damaged enough to have Celiac Disease. Relying on typical conventional medicine methods to get a diagnosis of Celiac Disease is like waiting to have a heart attack before a doctor will tell you that you have heart disease. EnteroLab tests your stool, where the reaction is happening. You don’t have to be eating gluten either for them to pick any problems. A conventional medical doctor will tell you you have to be eating gluten for a problem to show up in the blood, which is devastating for someone who has been trying to avoid it because they thought they have a problem with gluten. Old school people in the Celiac Disease arena I have met, and in all the organizations I have gone to seem to think that Celiac Disease is the be all and end all of gluten problems, which is soooo not true. They have a list of symptoms for Celiac Disease, and I’ve been told by people from different organizations, if you don’t have these symptoms you don’t have a gluten problem. What they SHOULD be saying is that you may not have Celiac Disease, but you may still have a Wheat Gluten Sensitivity problem as there are a myriad of symptoms for that.
A neighbor turned me onto a couple of McDougall DVDs years ago. I could tell his diet was a train wreck then. But the more I’ve learned, the worse it seems to be. The McDougall diet is almost the polar opposite of what neurosurgeons and other brain specialists consider a good diet for brain health. This may explain the bizarre behavior of many of his followers. If rapid brain shrinkage and dementia are your goals is, then McDougall’s diet is the diet for you.
And I think Boyd’s review was spot on. McDougall is very bad about half-truths, spinning facts, creating “facts,” and cherry picking/ignoring data.
Fortunately it does seem that in the internet age, fewer people are falling for this kind of thing as they can readily do research for themselves, and see through the spin.
At K says
Go to the PCRM website: http://www.pcrm.org and listen to Dr. Barnard. Buy his book on Dementia. Try and get a bigger picture on all this. The worst of all this is that not too many people here have spent 40 years watching people die too young from poor food choices. Good luck. Don’t get discouraged. Forget the 2nd hand information!
Art K says
Sorry, the r got missed in Art K. This is collaboration, not argument. We all need to work this out through gentle discussion and sharing from our pasts.
Reviewer definitely has an axe to grind, and has no qualms about misrepresenting the book to support his own views.
Theresa Collier says
Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO health provider in the country, is now advocating the plant-based diet that Dr. McDougall has been writing about for the past 40 years. Would they be doing that if the scientific research did not back up this way of eating?
It will get them more customers and increase their earnings. They love it! Even Dr. McD. Would admit that big healthcare/ big pharma like to sell a lot of things. One thing I do see, whether vegan or meat eater, both side cut out simple sugars. That says a lot to me. Since we’ve increased sugar in our diet everything from weight to teeth health has declined. I’m guessing Dr. McD would agree that high fructose corn syrup isn’t part of a healthy regimen either.
He advocates adding little sugar to his recipes in order to “increase palatibility” (this directly taken from one of his newsletters.
Lisa truitt says
That lets me know to ignore it! Do the opposite of all advice given by mainstream sources and you be in good shape
Cole Melville says
Hey now….just because McDougall flubbed some details don’t be knockin’ on the mighty starch! And what about those hundreds of people on the Youtubes whose lives were changed in some pretty major ways? Magic? For some people – me included – starch was the answer.
That said – your “Mom is that you?” cracked me up so you can’t be all bad 🙂
I love how the reviewer says that “This book amply demonstrates that you can find studies on Medline, the Internet, and whatever else to back up veganism, or the Atkins diet, or anything in between” and then goes on to reference this website and only this website to back up their stance on fats and cholesterol.
Dr. McDougall is sort of right. If you give up all the junk food, additives, processed foods that aren’t really food, you’ll get better — but you could eat rocks for a few years instead of all that junk and do better.
What I can’t stand is the holier-than-thou attitide of the die-hard McDougallers on his message board. They are so rude andjudgmental of anyone who disagrees with them. I can’t imagine being so anal can be healthy, regardless what you eat? And they always accuse the doctors who promote animal products as part of a healthy diet as doing so because they get rich off it. Well, it’s not like Dr. McDougall got poor pushing his starch-based way of eating. He’s rich too. He makes a lot of money simply by telling people to eat potatoes and broccoli. Why do people even need to go to a resort to learn to eat potatoes? Waste of money.
In addition to all the already mentioned half-truths and twisted version of truths spewed by Dr. McDougall, what really boils my lobster is how he mis-quotes the Holy Bible to push his agenda. First he says the Bible promotes a vegan diet. Obviously, Dr McDougall has never read the Bible because God makes it clear that we can eat ANY animal and ALL vegetables. More recently, he uses an example of some people refusing the rich diet of the kings and instead eating a peasant diet and being healthy weeks later. That Bible story isn’t about the food keeping them healthy, it’s because they trusted God and God kept them healthy.
So, if Dr. McDougall insists on using the Bible to back up his diet, at least have the decency to quote it correctly or else stay away from my Bible!
Oh and btw, the Bible states that anyone who pushes a vegan diet is pushing a doctrine of demons, and that only sick people eat just vegetables. If you look at all the Star McDougallers, they are all very sick people before starting it and their “after” pictures look horrible. Their fat “befores” look much better.
Doug Bell says
Chester, read “The Starch Solution” more than once.
Also please give your references (the Bible quote) so we can get more educated with your facts. Use the famous, Who?, where?, why?, when? what? They help isolate facts quickly from a commentary degree.
A billionaire friend told thousands of us at seminars of reading things thirty, or forty times to get correct answers. Try that.
The only accuracy I find on your review could be the date.
Dr. McDougall is half right. We should eat a whole foods diet rich in fruits, vegetables, tubers, and legumes, with very little added to them. It’s all the additives and preservatives that kill us because our bodies don’t recognize those things as food and doesn’t know what to do with them.
When I ate exactly as The Starch Solution prescribes, I felt weak, always hungry no matter how many potatoes I stuffed in myself, I was moody, and my numbers weren’t that great. Once I added a bit of meat and fats like extra virgin olive oil, I feel fantastic and my numbers are consistently perfect.
So for me, the perfect diet is a starch based diet with lots of vegetables and a little meat and some healthy fats. That’s what keeps me looking, feeling, and being perfectly healthy.
The problem with Dr. McDougall and his cult followers is that they insist every person on the planet has the exact same needs and therefore no one should ever eat any animal products or added fats. That’s simply not true. Some of us don’t absorb key nutrients from plants as well as we do from animals — like iron and protein, for example.
So yes, he’s half-right. Cut out all the processed junk, replace it with potatoes and and kale (or whatever you like in the starch/veg department) and your health will, for sure, improve. But is meat poison? No. Is olive oil poison? No. What is, for sure, poison, is the half-truths Dr. McDougall sells as irrefutable science.
That was my experience exactly. I felt weak. I couldn’t do as many pull ups as I could do before starting the diet. The good part is that I increased my vegetable and fruit consumption. I did see some good results with psoriasis that I have. I think that this is attributed to eating all whole foods and cutting out wheat and gluten. I do feel that I have relied on more meat and protein in my diet than I truly needed.
This review is so desperate! Ridiculous and embarrassing for humans.
Manure Maiden says
A friend referred me to McDougall’s YouTube video about starches and I got about halfway through before I couldn’t stand it any longer. It was all half-truths — for instance, saying that ancient civilizations lived mostly off of starches but then neglecting to mention the very important other part of what they ate…animal products! I would have to say HIS was the desperate endeavor. My truth and wisdom-o-meter eventually hit the empty mark and I turned it off. Where are the thriving vegetarian civilizations in history?
Joe Kohn says
Manure Maiden…do some research before you spout manure.
Haha, great review! Loved it, thanks.
My experience has been very different. Starch-based works very well for me, and makes me feel alert and strong. I always felt so sluggish after ingesting mammal flesh. Now I eat a little fish flesh, but mostly grains, starches, and veggies, and I feel much better! To each their own.
Dr. McDougall’s program is excellent in may ways. He, along with Fuhrman, Esselsyen, Ornish, Campbell, and other “plant-based diet” advocates, have helped thousands reverse heart disease, diabetes, etc. But they give credit for their success to the wrong reasons! Other diets, much lower in carbohydrates and higher in animal sources, have produced similar results. How do we account for this? I think the answer is that advocates of both kinds of diets—and everything in between—advocate NOT smoking and losing excess weight. That’s basically it! Carbs are not toxic. Neither are fats! IT’S THE CALORIES, STUPID! And, of course, there are a FEW other factors that make a difference. Other than smoking, trans-fats do matter. And, I would say that there are individual differences (genetics) that make a difference. On the latter, I can offer a little anecdotal evidence for my “genetics” argument: A friend of mine had bypass surgery. During and after his recovery, he read Ornish and others and adjusted his diet accordingly. We would go to lunch together frequently. He always had “rabbit food”—veggies mostly—while I had multiple servings of chicken-fried steak and other fat-laden items (and sometimes topped off with apple pie and ice cream or some other desert full of the evil twins of sugar and fat. My friend was thrilled to get his lab results. His cholesterol was down to 160. Awesome! What a great success story for the plant-based diet! I got my lab results, too. They might have been “better” had I not gained a few pounds. My cholesterol was 118. My triglycerides were also low. The doc was impressed. What is my secret? I don’t have one. It’s all due to my genetics. My cholesterol has always been low. So have my triglycerides. I can go on a McDougall-type diet, and my triglycerides will go up, but not very much. My HDL goes down, and my LDL goes up, but the numbers are still in the “normal” range. I think McDougall and his ilk have done a lot of good for a lot of people, but the good they have done could have been accomplished without eliminating all meat and dairy. As for the link between the cattle industry and global warming, that’s nothing but pure BS! McDougall should be ashamed of himself! He’s a good man, but he needs to understand that such far-left-lunatic remarks about the health of the planet do NOT help him get his personal health message across.
Mark Ray says
Stop with the politically correct ‘smoke and mirrors’ fantasies! The only healthy vegans are elephants, bovines, orangutans, gorillas and other ruminants equipped with the multi-segmented digestive systems designed to cope with the otherwise indigestible masses of crude cellulose. For your interest, even chimpanzees eat meat! Fatty meats perfectly nourished our paleolithic ancestors and has NEVER been THE problem. Instead, when seeking fault with processed meat, look no farther than the carcinogenic additives like sodium nitrate and nitrite, BHT, etc., and definitely NOT the meat itself. On their early explorations of America, Cortez and de Vaca described the Amerindians as tall, phenomenally strong and fleet of foot, having the amazing ability to outrun a deer and take it down with a tomahawk and knife!