Why Carbs Can Help You Lose Weight (And The Paleo Diet Is Crap)
Dr. John McDougall has been writing about and researching nutrition and obesity for decades. He's written 12 best-selling books on the subject, and helped countless people lose weight. But his new book stands to get him more attention than any of the others. Much of what's in The Starch Solution, which came out earlier this year, is excellently researched, scientifically-backed…and totally contradictory to what most Americans think they know about food and weight loss.
Touting the merits of carbs and good starches and of a healthy vegan diet (read: not a highly-refined, full-of-crap one), Dr. McDougall's book is a summing up of all the questions he's heard over his lengthy career. Do carbs really make you fat? What did early man actually eat? What kinds of foods fight disease?
It also speaks to today's diet and weight loss trends. Most notably, high-protein paleo diets, which eliminate most carbs–and are the exact opposite of Dr. McDougall's recommended lifestyle. I wanted to talk to him about why there are so many misconceptions and contradictions in what most people know about nutrition, and why he believes so strongly in his research and writing. Here's our conversation:
You’ve been working in the field of diet and nutrition for years–why did you decide to write this book now?
The thought came about because I write a newsletter every month. So for a week or two every month, I write this newsletter. And it gives me a chance to focus on different topic, and over the last six years, I've been able to really get to a lot of topics. It just kind of all flowed together–I found myself hitting the same viewpoints, and having the same discussions, and answering the same questions from many different angles. So that's how it came about. I decided to bring them all together into a book.
There's a lot of information in this book, but the starch part–which is that people need good starches and that they can encourage weight loss–is really the basic message. Can you tell me about that a little?
Well, it's because starch is the diet for people. And that's really basic. It is, studies have shown, what works best. But I think you need to start with some really basic understanding.
I think most well-educated people who have been around for a little bit realize that there are diets for every animal. The cat sitting next to me likes to eat meat. If I put a potato in front of that cat, he'd probably knock it around like a ball of yarn. He wouldn't know what to do with it. And my dog eats some vegetables and some meat. I used to have parrots, and they ate fruits and vegetables and nuts. Every animal seems to have a diet that helps it look, feel, and function the best. The question that all consumers need to answer is, “What is the diet for people?” There must be a diet for people. I realize that people survive on Twinkies and Coca-Cola, but what it is that allows us to be our best?
That solution is a starch-based diet. It's just what works. If you stick to it, it really does actually work.
And the reason the book is called The Starch Solution is because I wanted to take a sharp stick and poke it in peoples' eye. And make them realize that what people have to focus on is this essential nutrient, which is starch. You could call the book a vegan diet, or a plant-strong diet, or any of those kinds of terms–but that really doesn't get people to focus on what's most important, which is that they eat rice, corn, potatoes, beans, peas, lentils, and other good starches.
The book explains how a starch based diet can both spur weight loss, and also fight diseases. How does it do that?
Well, the way it fixes it is by solving the problem. It's just like if you have somebody with a bad cough and gunk coming out of their lungs. And you look them over carefully, and you see that they smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. You could stop that bad habit and, of course, you'd expect them to get well. It's the same thing with common diseases in our society.
People suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, and type 2 diabetes, and constipation, and heart attacks, and so on, because they eat the wrong diet, which is the rich Western diet. People live on high-fat, high-calorie, high-sugar, high-protein meals that are way out of proportion with what the body was designed to consume. So the body makes all kinds of alterations to deal with it. The blood sugar goes up, they gain weight…it tries as hard as it can to fight the adversity, and, as a result, you end up fat and sick.
And you fight that as hard as you can, but until you actually relieve that burden from the body, and you give it nutrients and good food, it does what bodies naturally do. Which is attain excellent health.
You body doesn't want to be sick. One of its underlying forces or drives is to be healthy and fit, so it can forage for food and attract mates. Looking good and feeling good is a survival mechanism. It's innately built into the human body, that drive to survive. When you stop making it sick, it can just get well. It can heal and lose weight. There's no more well-detailed explanation I can give you.
One of the things you spoke about in the book is what an actual, foundational, early-human diet really looked like. Are you concerned about the popularity of the meat-heavy, so-called paleo diet?
Absolutely. I wrote a big critique of that in my newsletter. Basically, the paleo diet is a terrible diet. It's just an apology of the Atkins diet, which we know now is super-dangerous. And not only is it unhealthy for people, it's untrue. The archaeological evidence that the paleo people claim to be true–that we were primarily animal-eaters–is untrue. And it's not by a small margin. You'd be hard-pressed to find an article written in the last 20 years that says anything other than that the human being is a starch eater. We can document, over the last 100,000 years, people living in Africa who were starch-eaters. We can document the neanderthal as a starch-eater. Even the so-called “paleo” population of Europe, they ate grains and flowers and cooked vegetables.
Basically, the people behind the paleo diet are lying to the public. And they know better.
But even if what they said were true–even if we were actually supposed to eat a diet that's 55% made up of animals–it would be for sure unkind to the animals, and would also be destructive to the environment, because of the damage done by raising livestock. Deforestation, polution, CO2, methane gasses…it's just an environmental disaster.
Nothing about the paleo diet is true. And they don't even defend themselves. My article got a lot of publicity, and I didn't hear from them. I only heard from second-tier people. And all they could say was that my wife and I looked “pale and scrawny.” Excuse me? I'm 65 and I'm going to leave after this interview to go into the Pacific Ocean and go windsurfing with the kids. I'm not sure what “pale and scrawny” means, but that's the only response they could give us. A personal criticism.
A lot of what you have to say in this book–like that fish can actually increase the risk of heart disease, and that quality carbs can actually help aid weight loss–are going to sound really incongruous with what a lot of readers may think they know. Aside from, say, people who promote untrue diets, where do you think these health ideas, or maybe misconceptions, come from?
Well, I think you need to look beyond the diets or ideas themselves, and look at the industries and the systems we have in place. You know, there's a whole chapter in the book about the USDA, which is a prime example of a government industry that has loyalty to two separate groups: Agro-business, and the people of the United States. But agro-business brings in buckets, and the people of the United States bring in very little. So we have to consider agro-business to be a major source of misinformation.
And I'm not saying that the dairy and the meat industry actively support these various untrue diets, but I'm sure they're laughing and cheering when they hear people being told to eat all these animals, and not fruits and vegetables.
But there's plenty that they do actively do. They heavily influence the FDA, and the dietary guidelines are severely contaminated by these industries. So you've got industries influencing the major sources of dietary information that most people get.
You've also got the food industry paying for scientific research that basically the biggest source of studies in health journals. Of the studies in health journals, about 70% are paid for by food companies.
You've also got the drug industry, which obviously profits from this misinformation, because most of the diseases in this country are caused by unhealthy food. They probably don't actively support any policies, but similarly, they are probably just fine with all the money they receive from cholesterol medicine and other things that can be cured, if people would just fix there food.
And doctors, too, are that way. If heart disease and all these other problems were taken care of with a healthy, starch-based diet, doctors would be out of a job. So they're quick to prescribe, but not quick to advise about eating. They have a financial reason to keep doing the wrong thing. It's profitable to do the wrong thing. There's no profit in doing the right thing, which is to keep people healthy. It's not malicious–all of these people eat the same food, and feed their families the same food. But the misinformation is so well-accepted, because there's just no reason to tell the truth. It dominates society.
People also love to eat salt and sugar. We just like to do that. And meat and dairy heavily uses salt and sugar in flavoring, so people tend to just keep eating those foods, whether they're healthy or not.
Is there anything else that you think our readers should know about the book or the diet?
I think people should know that it's the best I could do. I worked really hard on it. I've written 12 best-selling books, but I don't think any does as good of a job at laying down the information and the science around what people should eat.
One of the things you run into all the time is the question, “Why should I listen to you? Someone else says you should eat all this meat and avoid wheat and everything will be fine.” This book answers that question. I've laid it out with historical evidence and studies. It's all there.
You know, we're kind of all in this together. I'm genuinely concerned about the health of this country, and we've got to just keep answering questions.
Image: The Starch Solution, and ARCANGELO via Shutterstock