Is Starch Worse for Your Health Than Sugar?

Amazingly, starchy foods such as bread and pasta, but also potatoes, quinoa and beetroots (at least in their cooked form) may be worse for your health than sugar. Very hard to believe, I know. The reasons for saying this are, however, based on research, personal experience and common sense. Let me explain.

The scientific name for starch is 'polysaccharide', which literally means 'many sugars'. As you probably already know, starchy foods and carbohydrates are broken down in the body into sugars. Whereas table sugar is a 'disaccharide', containing only two sugars (saccharides), starch contains many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of saccharides, as explained by Carol Sinclair in 'The IBS Low-Starch Diet' (book).

"There is more 'sugar' in your bread than in your sugar bowl." - Carol Sinclair
unhealthy starch

So much confusion about sugar is beginning to fall away now, and I finally start to see through much contradictory and incomplete health advice about the dangers of sugars.

You are probably familiar with these views, but just to recap: sugars cause weight gain quicker than fatty foods, sugars are very addictive (mentally and physically), sugars can be blamed for the biggest killer-diseases of the industrialised world: heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. In addition, they cause mood swings, inflammation, low energy, wreck your teeth, and so on. Granted, many of these points are probably at least partially true.

Sugar seems to be very bad for you if your health is compromised in certain ways, especially if you have candida, parasites, cancer, infections, low immune system, insulin-resistance, or another condition that makes you effectively sugar intolerant.

On the other hand, many extremely healthy raw foodists and athletes eat large quantities of fruit, which are very high in natural sugars - and they stay disease free, have high energy and seem to thrive.

An extreme example of this are fruitarians. Personally I used to not be able to tolerate fruit, but as I've strengthened my body through the years through various natural health methods, I can tolerate fruit again, and they are now one of the foods that make me feel and look my best.

My attempts at very low carbohydrate diets were failures, as I lost more and more physical and mental energy every day, feeling like a lazy and demotivated zombie within one week on the diet.

Carbohydrates, in my experience, are vital to maintaining good levels of physical and mental energy, health and beauty.

Similarly, my energy levels on juice fasts were mostly good, as long as I kept drinking fruit juices (though I did develop health problems as well). On the other hand, strict green-juice-only fasts (no fruit juice) and a recent water fast seriously sapped both my energy levels and moods.

"A starch is a carbohydrate - but not all carbohydrate is starch." - Carol Sinclair

For the last three days I have been eating almost no starch whatsoever and I am feeling very well. I'm losing weight and looking more fresh than usual. I don't get cravings for starchy carbs as I usually do.

I think a complete abstinence from cooked starchy carbs - especially grains - may be easier than limiting them, since one bite of bread or pizza will cause cravings for more, and the desire to overeat.

It has slowly been dawning on me in the last few months that not only am I very addicted to starchy foods, but that they also seem to be very bad for my health - not only gluten, processed wheat, and grains, but surprisingly also cooked beetroots, potatoes, quinoa, hummus and chickpea flour.

During the recent water fast already mentioned, I began to look younger, healthier, and leaner. I quickly shed a lot of water weight (10kg/ 22 lbs in 7 days), which was regularly causing puffy eyes and bloatedness. Coming off the fast, everything went well until I made beetroot dishes in the oven. I straight away noticed the addiction - I couldn't stop eating them to excess! And very quickly I began to look less vibrant and healthy and I also immediately put on weight. Other foods such as nuts, cashew nut butter and fruit did not trigger the same desire to overeat. Also quinoa-flour bread (cecina), cooked cauliflower, and sweet potatoes seem to be quite addictive for me, probably because they are starchy.

Another curious incident happened some time back, when I came off one of my juice fasts. I broke the fast with fruit as usual, was content eating just a little bit and felt well. But again, once I ate a small portion of cooked quinoa, which is also starchy, I got ravenously hungry and couldn't help but eat more until I felt much too full and bloated. Also, I began to look and feel much less healthy very quickly, probably undoing many of the benefits of the juice fast.

"It is the starch, or the refined carbohydrate, that causes what experts now call 'carbohydrate craving'. I prefer to call it starch addiction, because it is the starch rather than the carbohydrate that causes the craving." - Carol Sinclair

I always knew that starch was broken into sugars in the digestive system but thought that sugars themselves were the unhealthy carbohydrate whereas some starchy foods were perfectly healthy, such as potatoes, root vegetables, rice, oats, quinoa, vegetables and beans, etc. I thought that wholefoods would be ok, because they contained fiber, and various micronutrients, whereas processed starches, especially wheat and other refined flours, were unhealthful. This still seems quite a reasonable assumption, however, in my case it turned out to be faulty.

According to Carol Sinclair, not everyone is sensitive to starch. I definitely seem to be, though I had much less or possibly none of these problems as a child. Sinclair explains that especially digestive and arthritic problems are often caused or made worse by starch, via a genetic starch intolerance. The degree to which one can eat starch varies - many people can eat a limited amount of starch, whereas others seem to have no problem with it. In the case of Carol, very strict starch avoidance has completely changed her life around.

Carol Sinclair began to have dreadful symptoms of gut pain and bloating, which came to be diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). She later discovered that in her case the IBS was just a symptom of an arthritic disease called ankylosing spondylitis (AS). The primary symptoms of these and other diseases ending in 'itis' are pain and inflammation. She explains:

"When I discovered that the gut pain and bloating disappeared when I gave up eating starch, I knew I had at last found the solution to my agony." - Carol Sinclair

Carol found that simple avoidance of wheat flour and all grain foods cleared her symptoms of IBS, pain and bloating after many years of consulting health specialists and reading books in vain. However, after a year or so her symptoms returned despite sticking to the diet. After some thought and experimentation, she found relief by giving up potatoes, rice and corn also. She felt well for some time until, to her frustration, she began to get ill again. This rollercoaster continued, and she ended up having to give up cooked starchy vegetables, as well as certain pills and tablets given to her by her doctor, which used starches as fillers. By strict starch avoidance she has continued to feel well and many others have found relief by following her example too. Most people, she says, can tolerate some amount of starch but experience benefits from limiting the quantity of starchy foods eaten.

"If your diet until now has been a low-protein diet, consisting mainly of bread, cereals, pasta and foods made from wheat, the IBS Low-Starch Diet will not only eliminate your painful symptoms, but also boost your energy levels and feelings of well-being - and help you achieve your ideal weight."

Sinclair explains that people with irritable bowel syndrome or ankylosing spondylitis seem to have different levels of starch tolerance/ intolerance. She reports that symptoms usually begin to improve within three days to one month of starch avoidance. Professor Erbinger recommends at least three months' trial but Sinclair adds that especially if your problem is IBS you should experience relief from pain and bloating within a shorter time.

Starch avoidance forms the central component of Sinclair's 'IBS Low-Starch Diet', but similar diets also go by the names of 'GAPS' nutritional protocol, and 'London AS Diet'. Some forms of paleo and raw food diets can also be low in starch.

Starch avoidance can initially seem to be bad news for vegetarians and vegans, since not only does one have to avoid many cooked vegetables (potatoes, quinoa, rice, oats, many root vegetables, bread, wheat, grains) but in the extreme version of starch avoidance lentils, pulses, beans and peas also have to be avoided. Luckily, many people only have to eliminate some of these foods to find relief from inflammation and bloatedness. Carbohydrates from fruit are non-starchy, and therefore can provide a needed replacement for starchy carbohydrates. However, getting adequate protein may be more problematic for low-starch vegans and vegetarians, if pulses and beans are out of the picture. Neverthless, with some extra effort the needed protein can be gained from greens, algae, tofu, mycoprotein (quorn), nuts, and seeds. Depending on the person, hemp protein powder may or may not also be tolerated.

The good news is that raw vegetable starch seems to be fine to eat even for starch intolerant people. Carol Sinclair writes that the cell walls of vegetables are changed during cooking, releasing the starch, whereas the starch in uncooked vegetables passes the full length of human digestive system in 'unopened pockets' and can therefore cause no harm. This explains why many traditional cultures were able to stay healthy on starch-rich diets at least before the discovery of fire.

Of course, many people who've found excellent health through the avoidance of starches, grains, wheat and/or gluten point out that the downfall of human health probably started with agriculture, and the mass-farming of cereal grains. Raw foodists say that it started even earlier, with the invention of fire and cooking. Others think that we wouldn't get any problems (such as food intolerance) in the first place, if we didn't overeat - calling the most prevalent modern chronic diseases the 'diseases of the rich'. There is probably some truth in all of these theories, though we must keep in mind that different diets seem to suit different people, and therefore the final truth of the matter may be more complex.

The more complex the saccharide is, the longer it's cooked or processed, and the more you eat, the more trouble it tends to cause, Sinclair says. Monosaccharides (glucose and fructose in fruit) don't cause her any problems whether raw or cooked, whereas disaccharides (lactose in dairy, sucrose in sugar cane and sugar beet, and maltose in germinating cereals) and polysaccharides (starches) are all problematic when cooked or processed.

My Italian friend says that pasta is only unhealthy if not cooked 'al dente'. This would explain why - at least it would make sense that overcooked pasta (starch) would be more likely to cause digestive problems.

There is plenty of useful information in Carol Sinclair's book, regarding much more specific guidance on how to avoid starchy foods, recipes, the genetic & bacterial reasons for starch intolerance (HLA-B27 blood group and the klebsiella microbe), etc. In addition, researching the GAPS diet and Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride may prove useful.

In conclusion, it therefore seems that starch can be much worse for your health than sugar, given that it is broken down into more sugars in your body than 'simpler' sugars. In my experience, starch is much easier to overeat than sugar as well, and even more addictive. Of course, bad forms of sugar are best avoided, but fruit sugar in my experience (as well as Carol Sinclair's) seems to be absolutely fine, especially in wholefood (non-juice, non-processed) form. If, however, you cannot tolerate sugar (I used to be there too), I suggest you look into eliminating infections, infectious agents and parasites from your body. Read also: carbohydrate intolerance. Currently, I am feeling clear benefits from three days of starch avoidance but will provide an update once I have longer-term experience of this way of eating.

An important point to note is that there are also other causes of bloatedness, gut problems (dysbiosis), inflammation and pain than starch and sugars. A notable relief has in my case come from the avoidance of the nightshade family of plants, which I seem to be intolerant of. Weston Price Foundation website suggests that anyone with inflammation-related conditions should avoid nightshades. Generally it is advisable to learn to use the pulse test to eliminate food intolerances, as they are much more commonplace than generally thought, and often accompany gut problems.

In addition, note that too much fiber can also cause and exacerbate gut problems.

This article was informed by Carol Sinclair's book: 'The IBS Low-Starch Diet: Why Starchy Food May Be Hazardous to Your Health'.


October 2016:

Cooked starches do seem to cause bloatedness and other problems with me. This may be linked to leaky gut syndrome (undiagnosed), especially since I have food intolerances as well. Digestive enzymes taken before a meal help a lot if I sometimes have to eat starch or other foods I am sensitive to. It seems that grains are not good for me, as I tried to eat raw soaked oat groats for breakfast for a while and kept getting lots of bloatedness and air from it. (Later note: If soaked with a little salt for 24h (and rinsed every 12h) raw oat groats seem absolutely fine and don't cause bloatedess.) I was hoping the grains would work in raw form but they really didn't. However, raw carrots in small quantity and steamed vegetables (the ones with less starch) seem to be absolutely fine.

March 2017:

This month I got a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) from my doctor (GP). Therefore I have personally proven Carol Sinclair's theory of 'cooked starch intolerance' and its link to irritable bowel syndrome.

It seems that I may also have histamine intolerance (self-diagnosed - DAO enzyme eliminates certain food intolerance symptoms) and candida overgrowth (undecenoic acid makes me feel stronger). All these can be linked problems. For updates on whether I managed to correct these, please see the links to the conditions above.

December 2017:

I saw a Dietitian today who very interestingly explained that starches give your body more energy than fruit. Therefore if you try to replace starches in diet with fruit you will probably either 1) fail, 2) end up with very low energy, or 3) become a fruitarian and have to train your stomach to process much more fruit than it is used to. She explained that glucose is the main source of energy for our bodies. Dietitians are highly formally educated in nutrition (more so than nutritionists). Their strength and limitation at the same time is that they have to go by official research results only.

My solution to the starch-problem now is to eat the starches raw and in wholefood form. They seem to give energy but not cause any problems, at least in my case. Therefore I eat sweet potatoes in smoothies, raw beetroot (in very very small quantity as it can cause gas like you've never experienced before), 24h soaked oat groats, sprouted millet and quinoa, bananas, eddoes, carrots, etc. - all uncooked. These seem to be healthy source of starches and energy. I cannot eat too much of them due to insoluble fiber being too harsh for my particular stomach but the conclusion is that starch in raw form (at least when blended in a smoothie) seems to be both energy-giving and non-problematic even for someone like me with gut sensitivities.

Note, however, that it is not advisable to eat white potatoes, wheat, grains or many other starchy foods raw.

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