In our current era of Atkins, gluten-free diets and the wildly popular Paleo movement, carbohydrates have gotten somewhat of an undeserved bad rep. But before you toss that box of pasta, don’t despair: Some medical experts suggest that starches can, and should, be a part of a sensible weight loss program.
Foremost among these is physician and nutrition expert Dr. John McDougall, a staunch defender of the humble grain. McDougall’s basic health philosophy is that a variety of health ills can be prevented and cured by adopting a vegetarian diet consisting of whole, unprocessed foods, particularly starches such as potatoes, rice and beans. If McDougall sounds familiar, it’s probably because you have seen his line of best-selling food products lurking on the shelves of your local health food store. Designed for healthy people on-the-go, Dr. McDougall’s Right Food’s Inc. is a line of high-quality convenience meals such as soups, cereals and meals that make healthy eating accessible to all. McDougall is also the founder and medical director of the nationally renowned McDougall Program, a 10-day residential program located at a luxury resort in Santa Rosa, Calif., where patients work to regain their health by consuming a low-fat, plant-based diet. In his revolutionary new book, The Starch Solution, McDougall challenges the commonplace notion that eating starch is unhealthy and proposes a groundbreaking health philosophy: That fueling your body with carbohydrates, rather than with proteins and fats, promotes optimal health, battles fatigue and prevents a variety of diseases. We sat down with the distinguished physician, author and nutrition expert to discuss his health philosophy, his latest book and why it’s time to stop labeling carbs as fattening.
Spry: You believe that diet—not genes—controls a person’s health destiny. What lead you to this belief?
Dr. John McDougall: A person’s health destiny is a combination of both genes and environment. Environment, in this sense, refers to a person’s diet. You can’t change genes, but you can change environment. In reality, people are stuck with the genes they inherited, and there’s little you can do about it. So you have to focus on what you can fix—what goes into your mouth. True genetic diseases occur at a rate of about 1 in 5,000. When I say true genetic diseases, I’m talking about diseases you can’t just fix with environment. In a true genetic disease, you’ve got such a disarray of the genes from what is normal that even if you ate well you would still die young. These diseases are truly a genetic problem. Tendencies, on the other hand, are completely fixable by what you eat. Consider a tendency toward high cholesterol, which a lot of people have in their families. If you eat well and incorporate low-cholesterol foods into your diet, that tendency toward high cholesterol never expresses itself. So only 1 in 5,000 people have a genetic disease that’s truly genetic—in other words, no matter how hard they work to control their habits, they may never correct the whole issue. Most people think they have genetic diseases or family tendencies, but in fact the tendencies aren’t strong enough to overpower the environment. The bottom line is that you can’t fix genes—they’re irrelevant. Focus instead on your lifestyle, on your diet.
Spry: If you had to sum it up, what is your health philosophy?
JM: The McDougall diet is starch-based with fruits and vegetables. The McDougall diet does not contain animals, free oils or pure oils. My philosophy is that people in our country are sick because they eat like kings and queens. Every meal is a holiday—that’s why people are sick. That’s why they have diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer and so forth. They eat like kings and queens, so they get fat like kings and queens. My medical approach is to put individuals on a starch-based diet, which is what the workers and servants ate back in the day. You see, the kings and queens feasted on pigs and pheasants, but the guys out there tilling the fields ate barley and grains and starches. All I do is I take these obese kings and queens—these people who are fat because they eat like royalty—and I put them back on the human diet. A starch-based diet. Diabetes goes away, their arteries clean out, the acne disappears, the joints feel better. People get well. They plain and simple get well when you stop feeding them like kings and queens.
Spry: Nowadays, there is a lot of conflicting information about what diet is the best to follow. Can you explain the scientific basis of the McDougall diet program?
JM: The human being does have a diet that allows the human being to look, feel and function their best, just like every animal. For example, let’s say I mentioned a horse. If you have any familiarity with the animal, you come to the conclusion that horses eat grass and hay and oats. If I say a parrot, you think, well, parrots eat fruits and vegetables and nuts. If I mention a cat, you know that cats eat meat. Every animal has a “diet,” and it would be animal abuse if you fed a cat oats, or if you fed your parrot meat. When it comes to people, you ask, what’s the diet of a person? Well, people can eat like cats and subsist entirely off meat—you’ve got the Paleo folks and the Atkins folks advocating a meat-heavy approach—or they can go to the other extreme and eat completely vegetarian. Or, you can be like most people and think you can survive off of cakes and cookies and pies.
But there is a definitive diet for people, and I’ve spent roughly 45 years trying to figure out what that diet is. I looked throughout human history and examined various populations of people on Earth and found that the bulk of human populations lived on a starch-based diet. In other words, the majority of their calories came from starch. Think about the successful populations from Central America—particularly the Mayans and Aztecs. These people are known as the “people of the corn.” They lived on corn for 8,000 to 13,000 years! Maybe once in awhile they ate some vegetables or some animal meat, but on the whole their diet was primarily corn. The Incas lived on root vegetables—primarily potatoes—for 14,000 years. Or, in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Japan, people live on starch, too—they live on rice.
So throughout all of human history, and even today, all successful populations of people have obtained the bulk of their calories from starch. Starch is a plant part that has a lot of energy. stores a lot of sugar—like potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, quinoa and rice. The diet of a human being is a starch-based diet. Always has been, always will be. If you look back in history, you see that the toughest warriors—Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great—conquered the known world on armies that lived on starch. We almost lost WWII to starch eaters.
Spry: In your new book, The Starch Solution, you argue that carbs are not the enemy. But many people have been conditioned to believe that bread and pasta are fattening. Why do you think this is not the case?
JM: Starch is the diet of human beings. That’s why the book is called The Starch Solution. Once somebody gets that key understanding that you need to live on starch, everything makes sense. Let’s say you are of Italian descent: When you go home, comfort food is starch. Grandma brings out the pasta—that’s comfort food. If you’re Asian, you go home and your comfort food is rice. Starch is the diet of people, with the addition of fruits and vegetables. People have almost always eaten meat, but meat foods are supposed to be for feast or famine. Dairy is rare in most societies. The basic diet of all successful human beings is a starch-based diet of fruit and vegetables, a tiny bit of meat here and there, and no dairy.
The book is a discussion of why we’re starch eaters and how to lose weight on a starch-based diet. When I mention Asia, do you think of the word fat? No—Asians are some of the trimmest people on the planet. But you also think rice in the same sentence, right? Everywhere—throughout all of human history—people who live on starch-based diets are trim and strong and healthy. Why? Because starch is what people are supposed to eat. However, today people think bread and potatoes will make them fat. Nearly two-thirds of the American population is overweight, and that’s because they think starches are fattening. People believe that you need to eat protein to be healthy—that you need to eat meat and dairy. But the truth is, meat and dairy are full of fat. Fat foods lead to fat bodies. So the book provides scientific evidence as to why starch diets are key to optimal health.
Spry: In the book, do you emphasize a sensible approach to eating carbohydrates? For example, do you distinguish between “good” carbs—such as whole grains and oatmeal—and “bad” carbs? It seems some people might misinterpret the notion that carbs are good as license to gorge themselves on bread and pasta.
JM: The 1.73 billion Asians out there today who live on rice—all of whom are thin—do you think they count every single kernel of rice they eat, or do they simply eat until they’re full? The answer is that they eat until they are full. There have never been fat people living on starch-based diets. Why? Because you can’t overeat starch. The reason you can’t overeat starch is because the appetite has a feedback mechanism that tells you when you’ve had enough starch, so you get satisfied more quickly. You don’t have that same feedback mechanism when you eat a diet high in fat. When you eat a diet high in starch, it’s hard to overeat. So, to answer your question, do I caution people to not overeat starch? No. You need to eat enough starch to have enough energy. To answer the second question, do I make sure to emphasize “good starch?” I do, to some extent. I try to get people to eat brown rice and whole grain breads. But there are 1.73 billion Asians who don’t have breast cancer or heart disease or type II diabetes, and they live off white rice. So, brown rice is better, but white rice is not a deal-breaker.
Spry: You launched a line of healthy packaged foods, Dr. McDougall’s Right Foods. What inspired you to develop this product line?
JM: My product line is called Dr. McDougall’s Right Foods. Note that I call them “right” foods—not “perfect” foods. We designed these foods 20 years ago. They’re starch-based cup systems such as soups, cereals and meals. They’re sold in over 6,000 stores across the country. We work really hard to make the food taste good. We put starch in all of our food products. Lots of corn, noodles, things like that. We’ve got 40 different products out there. We make sure they taste delicious but also have high-quality ingredients. In my opinion, people should use these as part of their diet, not their full meal plan. The intention was never to make it a full meal plan. It’s good for a lunch on the go or a quick meal when you’re pressed for time.
Spry: What else is coming up for you?
JM: I’m publishing two studies, one on MS and another on 1,700 of our patients. Recently, I wrote and passed a law in the state of California—it’s called “SB380”—which forces physicians, by law, to learn about human nutrition. It was unanimously passed by Congress and both Houses of Representatives and signed by governor Jerry Brown. So we’ll be working on implementing that law in the next few weeks. I’m also lecturing a lot—I lecture all over the country. I run my clinic, Dr. McDougall’s Health and Medical Center, where I personally take care of people. I’m a board-certified internist, so I love taking care of patients. I take care of between 50 and 60 people at our clinic. Twice a year my wife, Mary, and I host adventure trips to different countries. In two weeks we’re traveling to Costa Rica and bringing over 100 patients there so that they can go on vacation, eat good food, learn good things and come home healthier than when they came. People consistently lose weight on our adventure trips, even though there is no portioning of food—our patients eat as much as they want. The average weight loss is a half a pound a day.
Spry: How does exercise factor into the Dr. McDougall Diet Plan?
JM: In my opinion, to be trim and healthy, you don’t have to formally exercise. You just have to be active in everyday life. Chase after your kids, walk around the house, get up and grab the mail from the mailbox. I would say exercise is important, but it can also be a scapegoat, an excuse to eat more than is necessary. There are a lot of people out there who think they can eat whatever they want as long as they exercise. At our clinics, we teach exercise as a side part of what the McDougall program is. It’s all about the food—the food is key. You can exercise to death, and while you may be trim, you’re not healthy if you’re gorging yourself on junk food. So the bottom line is that food is paramount, exercise is secondary.