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Here's another relatively new take on safe starches for paleo diets. It's not always about feeding you, sometimes it's about feeding your probiotic bacteria.

Most paleo dieters get great results from their meat and veggie diets at first. The pounds fall off. The nagging health issues go away.

But for most of us, trying to go no-carb leads to breakdowns in self-control. And simply having to repeat the mantra "I won't eat carbs, I won't eat carbs, I won't eat carbs" all day long, well, burns a lot of carbs. The brain runs on glucose. Sooner or later, all but the most ardent, or genetically suited, followers of paleo and primal diets succumb to carb cravings, and many erase the results of months of hard work.

This doesn't have to be. 

There are relatively safe carbs. They happen to be boring carbs, so chances are you are not going to lose control with them.

Irish Potatoes, White Rice, Winter Squash, Yams, and Plantains (But Not Bananas)

Safe starches for paleo dieters include Irish potatoes, white (but not brown) rice, winter (acorn) squash, yams, and plantains. Please note that this list does not read au gratin potatoes with lots of cheese and bacon, white rice pudding with whiskey sauce, winter squash with caramel, candied yams, or plantains in tequila flambe served with ice cream.

If you want to satisfy your body's legitimate carbohydrate needs while staying as close as possible to paleo or primal principles, you will need to:
  • Stick to this relatively short list of starchy vegetables. Other starchy vegetables (including brown rice and bananas) contain chemicals that counteract their nutritional value.
  • Cook them by boiling in water. The boiling process changes starches into a safer, more slowly digested form in ways that aren't accomplished by eating these foods grilled, baked, steamed, roasted, or raw.
  • Let them cool after cooking before you eat them. Cooling cooked starchy foods changes the structure of starch into a more slowly digested form.
  • Limit yourself to 1 or 2 servings per meal. About 1/3 of a pound, or 150 grams, of starchy foods is about all the body can process at a single meal. Diabetics probably need to cut that serving size in half. That's 1 or 2 servings of all starchy foods considered together, not 1 or 2 servings of each food on the list.

And Maybe Rye

Rye flour and rye cereals contain gluten, but the reality is, less than 1% of the population has celiac disease, and only about 10% of the population has any immune system reaction to gluten at all. The problem with cereal grains is that they activate inflammation--except for rye, which counteracts the inflammation that can be caused by wheat products and by baked or fried (but not boiled) potatoes. In the United States, most "rye" bread is actualy mostly wheat, so you will have to look for "100% rye" products.

The Real Role Of Starches In Healthy Diets

Even our paleolithic ancestors consumed some starches. Potatoes and grains as we know them now did not exist before 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, but there is good evidence that humans gathered and ate tubers and starchy roots of various plants as long ago as 35,000 years ago. Sugar sabotages modern diets, but starch is not necessarily always a bad thing. Here's why:

  • The brain's preferred fuel is glucose. Even though the brain comprises 2% of the body's total mass, it uses about 20% of the body's glucose supply. Starches break down into glucose without potentially toxic byproducts.
  • Starches break down into glucose, but only slowly, and incompletely. They do not place the same burdne on the body as other carbohydrate foods. 
  • Tubers generally contain "resistant" starches. These complex molecules can't be broken down by enzymes the human body produces, but they can be broken down by probiotic bacteria. They bacteria turn resistant starch into fatty acids such as propionic acid and butyric acid that the body can burn for fuel, but can't store as fat. Most of the energy needs of the colonocytes, the cells lining the colon, are provided by these fatty acids, and as much as 6 to 7% of all the calories your body burns come from fatty acids broken down from resistant starch by bacteria, not by your own digestive enzymes.

The butyric acid that probiotic bacteria make from resistant starch holds a number of benefits for their human hosts. Butyric acid:

  • Prevents degeneration of neurons in the brain. The brain can use butyrate to make energy when other energy sources are deficient. Butyrate prevents the need of creating ketone bodies from other fats, or breaking down protein into glucose and toxic urea.
  • Fosters tissue repair throughout the body. A laboratory study with animals found that supplemental butyrate and vitamin A accelerated tissue repair after experimentally induced heart attack.
  • Heals inflammatory bowel disease. Doctors have successfully used butyrate treatments for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
  • Helps stabilize blood sugars, at least in diabetic mice.
  • Helps you lose weight. Butyrate increases sensitivity the liver's to insulin, so the pancreas releases less insulin, the belly stores less fat, and fat pads all over the body release fatty acids more quickly.
  • Repairs "leaky gut." The linings of the small intestines can become “leaky,” allowing allergens and toxins to pass into the bloodstream. Butyrate feeds the barrier cells known as colonocytes and helps keep the lining of the gut strong.
  • Lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol.
  • Lowers triglycerides.
  • Prevents colon cancer. Butyrate helps ensure that colon cells differentiate, which is to say, mature, into normal forms. The chemical also helps prevent mutations. The cancer-protective effect of butyrate is enhanced by docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 essentially fatty acid found in microalgae and fish oil. DHA should only be consumed in small amounts, no more than 1 gram per day, about the equivalent of 3 capsules of fish oil or 5 capsules of microalgae oil daily.
  • Reduces inflammation in other parts of the body. Certain healthy bacteria, especially Lactobacillus, have a calming effect on the central nervous system by sending it butyrates. The butyrates relieve stress, and stress reduction results in lower inflammation.
  • Relieves constipation. Fiber doesn't actually relieve constipation. The butyrates probiotic bacteria release from fiber relieve constipation. (This means that fiber doesn't help you stay regular unless your gut bacteria are healty.) The fiber from rye—which is usually OK in small amounts even on paleo diets—is especially useful for feeding the bacteria that make the butyrate that makes stools easier to pass and increases the frequency of bowel movement.
All that from mashed potatoes or boiled sweet potatoes or boiled winter squash. And maybe an occasional slice of 100% rye bread.

Starch isn't just about feeding you. It's also about feeding the probiotic bacteria that feed you nutrients you can't easily get in food. To get the benefits of starch, you need to establish probiotic bacteria in your gut by avoiding antibiotics to the greatest extent possible, and by eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi.

Maybe on some level our paleolithic ancestors knew that they needed to feed their healthy bacteria, too, and naturally sought out tubers. It didn't make them fat. 

Small amounts of the right carbohydrates prepared by boiling won't make you fat, either.
Read full article

  • Gao Z and collaborators. Butyrate improves insulin sensitivity and increases energy expenditure in mice. Diabetes. 58(7). July 2009. 1509-17.
  • Suzuki T and collaborators. Physiological concentrations of short-chain fatty acids immediately suppress colonic epithelial permeability. British Journal of Nutrition. 100(2). August 2008. 297-305.
  • Photo courtesy of David Prasad by Flickr :
  • Photo courtesy of Patrick Collins by Flickr :

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