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.