Where Angels Fear to Tread

Experience never errs; it is only your judgments that err by promising themselves effects such as are not caused by your experiments.

–Leonardo DaVinci

If you read any news from the low-carb/Paleo sort of world, you can’t help but have been assaulted recently by all the screaming about resistant starch. It’s the New Big Thing.

Now, don’t let my sarcasm fool you. There might really be something to it. The theory seems sound. It’s just that a lot of stuff remains unproven and is down to personal experience. That doesn’t mean everyone promoting it won’t be proven correct in the next few years. It just means a lot remains unknown. Plus, I’m always leery of the New Big Thing. So let’s talk very briefly about what it is and what’s going on. I’m just going to do a basic rundown because there are far better, in-depth analyses of this that have been done by others. If you want to really get into this, I recommend these:

Pro-Resistant Starch

1. Tom Naughton in a series of three posts.

2. Dr. Chris Kressler, always balanced.

3. Mark Sisson, very clear. Always well-researched.

4. Free the Animal, who is completely insane, but has some great, informative stuff.

Anti-Resistant Starch:

1. Dr. Michael Eades, no dummy, he.

2. The Primal Docs, always thoughtful.

3. Lifextension, always interesting, though she sometimes draws more conclusions than I think are valid.

So what are we talking about?

The concept is this: of all the cells that make up You, only 10% actually belong to you. The other 90% you carry around all day are mostly in your gut. These are microbes that are extremely important to your health. So far this is all undisputed, but we get to disputed really, really quickly.

Most people are familiar with some very basic concepts already: yogurt is “good” because of all the stuff like bifidus regularis and lactobacillus. The truth is we don’t actually know for sure what all those bacteria do, nor if they are always helpful. We talk about “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria, but science does not yet know all. Science also doesn’t know the exact makeup of your particular bowel flora, so they don’t know if throwing lactobacillus into it will actually be helpful or not. Most of the time it seems to be, but not infallibly.

To really know you, you have to have an expensive analysis of your excrement. Even then, it’s not 100% clear and simple. Recent studies have revealed a people group in Africa with gut microbes completely unlike anything in the Western world. They have great health, but they don’t have all the “healthy” bacteria you’re supposed to have and they do have all the “bad” bacteria you’re not. So nothing is clear, people.

There’s also incredible disagreement over whether our mythical Paleolithic ancestors ate tubers or not–which are full of resistant starch. I think this particular point is not worth arguing about, since we really have no idea what these supposed ancestors ate. We actually KNOW what people have been eating for several thousands years, and people have mostly been eating tubers and other resistant starch foods.

However, there are multiple hunter/pastoral/gatherer/fishing groups that don’t or didn’t, yet have or had perfect health. However all of them–at least the great majority–have eaten or do eat fermented foods all the time. Fermented foods aren’t resistant starch, but they are a steady supply of the little critters the resistant starch is supposed to feed.

What we haven’t been doing since the dawn of time is wiping out all our intestinal flora with antibiotics twice a year. What we also haven’t been doing since the dawn of time is washing ourselves and everything we eat with antibiotic soaps and spraying down the entire house with Lysol all the time, so that no bacteria of any sort gets into us from the outside. We’re beginning to believe that this might be very bad behavior.

Now we think that the reason fermented foods are good for you is to give you a good balance of microbes in those 90% of your body’s cells–located in your gut–which are regulating all kinds of things from your moods to your sleep to your digestion to your immune system. Those critters need to be kept up via things like probiotics or fermented food, and also fed. Enter resistant starch, their favorite food.

Resistant starch gets that name because it’s a starch that resists being digested. It therefore is not supposed to spike your blood sugar and instead is supposed to go intact into the colon, where it feeds your gut biome. Those critters will then reward you with more energy, better sleep, vivid color dreams without nightmares, better digestion, better blood sugar control, weight loss, and improvement in your thyroid function. And possibly a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Supposedly all these miracles are performed through the creation of butyrate, a byproduct of their digestion and a short-chain fatty acid that has proven benefits to the immune system, among other things.

Resistant starch can be found in tubers, rice, and green bananas or plantains, among other things. There are some catches, though. For one, all these foods are only part resistant starch. The other part is just plain old blood-sugar spiking glucose. This means most people with weight issues can’t just go bonkers with potato chips and expect anything good to happen. And bananas or plantains lose all their resistant starch once they are no longer green.

Another catch is that if you heat resistant starch too much, you turn all the resistant starch into plain old starch. That piping hot baked potato or bowl of rice is nothing but a sugar bomb. If you cook your potato or rice and then cool it down, you turn lots of the starch into resistant starch. Or at least that’s the story. One way to get around all this is to take your resistant starch in the form of unmodified potato starch or plantain flour, both of which are said to be 100% resistant starch. For all the reasons elucidated above, people in the low-carb world are starting to advocate adding these kinds of starches–primarily tubers and bananas–into your diet or taking 4 T of unmodified potato starch per day.

Another, somewhat-related-but-not-really issue is that adding a few more non-grain, non-refined sugar carbohydrates into the diet seems to be helpful for some people who start having symptoms of thyroid problems (like cold hands and feet, hair loss, mood swings, loss of energy) after too long on a very low-carb diet. That would be defined as less than 50g of carbohydrates per day. Many now advocate adding things high in resistant starch as the answer. Kill two birds with one stone. Pocket two balls with one shot. Feed your gut biome and also up your carb count to 100-150g per day.

So…what to think, what to think…

-O, the arguments. There is science on both sides. There are paleobiologioevoluntionary arguments on both sides. (My spelling checker just helpfully informed me that “there may be a determiner agreement problem” in that previous sentence.) There are mean, hateful people on both sides. There are calm, rational, thoughtful people on both sides. I can’t see that either side has proven its point infallibly with clear, well-conducted scientific studies. On the plus side, there are some realities of recent discoveries in microbes and digestion that suggest there’s sound science behind the pro-resistant starch band. But what’s missing is taking that science-even sound science-and applying it to real-world applications in a controlled environment. This wouldn’t be first time that a theory was beautiful and sound in the lab, and it just fell all to pieces in the real world.

-O, the experimenting. And here’s where I remain most unconvinced. I don’t just read the article: I read the comments. And articles for both sides are inundated with ordinary people that have tried the resistant starch and seen no benefit, great benefits, minor problems, and serious issues. I keep seeing articles on the “pro” side that seem to suggest that nearly everyone who tries it sees all these wonderful benefits–and the few who don’t would if they’d just add a probiotic, or take it more slowly, or give it more time. Ok. Maybe. Maybe people just “aren’t doing it right.” But maybe they aren’t seeing benefits because it’s not helping them.

The comments are nearly half and half. This is a very individual thing, clearly, and this is uncharted territory. No once can tell you for sure what will happen to you if you start doing this.

-Remember that no one is advocating a high-carb diet. One misconception that the pro-resistant starch people seem to constantly have to counter is that they are not advocating a return to unhealthy, high-carb diets. What they are saying is that if you have problems with a long-term, very low carb diet you should consider eating carbs up to 100 or 150g per day. And no one is even hinting that you should be eating refined sugar and grains to get there: instead, why not choose carbs that contain resistant starch like potatoes, yams, and other tubers and beans?

-Beware Big Agi. This whole resistant starch thing is a godsend to the corn industry, which has taken a huge hit what with everyone realizing corn syrup is basically poison and all. They are already working overtime to tear apart corn and use chemical processes to isolate the “resistant starch” to produce high-carb, super-processed, chemical-laced junk food that is “healthy” because Now With Resistant Starch! Don’t fall for this. If you are going to try it, do eat real food, yeah?

-What about the butter and coconut oil? That’s what I want to know. The thing that makes all this so amazingly wondrous is supposed to be the butyrate. No doubt, butyrate is clearly a great thing. Except that butter already has a ton of that, which is in fact where butyrate got its name. (From the Greek word βούτῡρον meaning “butter.”) Oh, and so does coconut oil. But the milk fats of grazing animals are absolutely chock full of this stuff. And that might explain my reaction.

You see, in the spirit of being your guinea pig, I’m giving the whole thing a go for a few weeks. The pro-resistant starch people claim that I have to go four to six weeks before I can really say yes or no on this. They claim that all the people seeing problems from it would find those problems resolved if they just gave it a fair shot. They say that lots of people initially gain weight, only to lose it quickly–and a lot more–after the second or third week. They say a lot of people have terrible gas and bloating because their guts are in such bad shape, and that some probiotics and more time will take care of it. Ok.

For about two weeks now, I’ve been eating cooked and cooled potato, in moderate amounts, along with a few small green bananas. One or two small bowls of of cooked and cooled rice. So far, I’ve gained five pounds. It’s all in my stomach, which isn’t fitting well into my clothes anymore.

I’m not thrilled.

However, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and keep going a few more weeks. Also, my unmodified potato starch just arrived, which supposedly means I can ditch the bananas and potato. This would mean I could keep to my regular diet, which would mean fewer confounding variables in the experiment.

I have had no bloating or any digestive issues, which according to the pro-starch people means my gut must be in excellent health. I would say that my dreams have been vivid, colorful, and controllable–because they have–but they have been like that a lot since I went high-fat. I haven’t noticed any change, nor have I noticed sleeping better. cy.

So my advice for now? We as a society are re-discovering how to eat after seventy years of being given horrifically bad advice and learning to eat things that aren’t food, like Ding Dongs; so there’s bound to be some hiccups along the way. Your ancestors assuredly ate microbe-laden foods and thrived off them, and some of them ate lots of tubers, too. Just beware that your mileage may vary. If you are doing great, why fix what ain’t broke? If you’ve got some issues with digestion or a big weight stall, why not give it a try? If it bothers you, QUIT. If it doesn’t, keep going if you want. Let other people know your experience, but don’t assume that they’ll have the same one.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, remember:




One thought on “Where Angels Fear to Tread

  1. Yes, the New Big Thing describes well the tendency for people to go mad in herds and come to their senses one at a time. It is seen in every part of human existence, science and engineering included. Global Warming? Radiometric dating? There is always one more New Thing.

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