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My Long-Term Experience Eating Safe (and Other) Starches

Years ago, before the Perfect Health Diet came out, I followed a program that involved eating quite a bit "safe starch." It was called Body for Life. It involved eating six small servings of carbohydrate along with six small servings of protein, plus two servings of fibrous vegetables per day. (A serving was the size of your fist or the palm of your hand.) There were six workouts a week (three weightlifting, three cardio) and one free day every week where you ate whatever you wanted and didn't exercise.

In all fairness, these two programs are different: BFL allows certain grains, legumes and low-fat dairy and discourages fat. It doesn't call for a wheelbarrow full of vegetation. Nevertheless, my experience eating lots of fruit and lots of starch is relevant to the PHD because the amount and type of digestible carbohydrates are similar, and for the first few years, I didn't eat wheat except on free days.

At first on BFL, I felt great. Before, I was continually hungry and thinking, "I just ate a few hours ago!" That's not a problem on BFL because you eat every few hours. I also lost two dress sizes within a few months--lifting weights puts that bolus of insulin to good use building muscle. All was well for a few years.

At some point, though, I started noticing a sour taste in the back of my mouth. It was worse if I bent over. I also had a sour stomach fairly often. It became hard to swallow and food got stuck in my throat, taking a good deal of hacking to spit it out. I even ended up at the hospital once. The doctor looked at me like she didn't believe me. I didn't want her treating me, so in a panic, I went to the sink, gave it all I had, and coughed up the food like Bill Grogan's goat.

Eventually, I went to see a gastroenterologist for my swallowing trouble. He sedated me and gave me an endoscopy. When it felt like there was a big black box that was going to tear my throat from the inside, I pulled out the tube. I told the nurse why, and she, too, looked at me like she didn't believe me. In reality, though, tearing was one of the dangers listed on the consent form I signed. Nevertheless, they got a few pictures. One of them showed an esophageal ulcer.

After a condescending phone call from the nurse, I hung up on her, hanged her in effigy and took my business to a different gastroenterologist, who diagnosed me with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). It means that your stomach acid ends up in your throat and mouth often enough to cause serious problems. Untreated, it can lead to esophageal cancer, which killed one of my grandfathers. The doctor prescribed acid blockers, and all was well again.

Well, not everything. I had one cavity when I started BFL. By the time I finished in 2009, I had several fillings, along with tender gums and sensitive, dingy teeth. I told my dentist I brushed twice a day and flossed often; I'm not sure if he believed me. And a visit with my doctor for a sore shoulder showed that I'd gained 20 pounds since I lost some weight when I started BFL. Part of the problem was that I'd started eating wheat more than occasionally in late 2006, but my chart showed a steady weight gain from before that time. The cavities--same pattern.

What does this have to do with starches and fruit? My GERD went away on a low-carb diet. When I found out how bad acid blockers can be long-term, I stopped taking them and ended up with acid rebound--i.e., hell in my stomach and throat. I found the suggestion that a low-carb diet cured GERD at the Protein Power website via Dr. Davis (back when he was a voice in the wilderness) and thought it was a crazy idea, but I was willing to try anything to put out the fire. It worked! Anytime I indulged in more than a little carb, my GERD returned to horsewhip me. Microbiologist Norm Robillard has a hypothesis that in some people, the gas created by bacteria that digest carbohydrate pushes their stomach acid up into their throat.

As to cavities, starch begins breaking down into glucose (a sugar) in your mouth, and sugar is well-known to cause cavities. Likewise, my blood sugar was probably higher eating carbohydrate throughout the day, and higher blood sugar is related to cavities, too.

I was also getting tired of preparing and eating six little meals every day. It took a fair amount of time and effort. It was inconvenient while traveling--it's not always easy to get fruit or rice or a baked potato on the road. Winter squash, sweet potatoes--forget it.

Why little meals throughout the day? Why not two or three regular meals? BFL says this is a paleolithic practice (it isn't) and that grazing animals are leaner than binge eating animals (absurd); I don't know PHD's reasons. I say it's because a big serving of carbohydrate turns into a big batch of glucose requiring a big bolus of insulin. If you have wonky blood sugar, the end of that cycle can make you feel tired and/or hungry when the insulin sends your blood sugar crashing down. I now know that I'm hypoglycemic--for much of my life, I had most of the symptoms Drs. Atkins and Richard Bernstein list in their respective books and I'm from a family full of diabetes. A few hours after a piece of fruit or half a baked potato or somesuch, I'm hungry enough to eat the wallpaper. If you're that hungry and don't have some "safe starch" or "authorized food" on you, you'll eat whatever you can get your hands on. Of course, not everybody has that reaction to digestible carbohydrate, but who's more likely to buy a diet book?

Again, in all fairness, there are some important differences between BFL and PHD, but they both call for a level of carbohydrate that's harmful for some people. Eating lots of carbohydrate gave me acid reflux, an esophageal ulcer, sensitive teeth and gums and a mouthful of cavities. And it took a lot of time and effort to get that way! PHD looks like it would take even more effort to do by the book. Cooking starchy tubers takes time; cooking the bone broth that PHD calls for can, I've read elsewhere, take hours to simmer. Most organ meats and exotic vegetables aren't available on the road or at the supermarket, and the organ meat recipes I've seen take a lot of preparation. Just eating a bucketful of vegetation would take me hours. I suspect that for most, PHD in practice will become a meat and potatoes diet with a salad.

A low-carb diet might not be for everyone, but four years on, I have nothing but praise for it. Since I quit BFL for a low-carb diet, I haven't had any new cavities or tooth decay. Even when I couldn't brush my teeth for a few months due to an accident a few years ago, my dentist said there was no decay. My surgeon remarked that I took two shots in the gums without flinching. (PHD is probably a better dental health diet than BFL since it has more fat-soluble vitamins your teeth need.) I spend a lot less time cooking, eating, exercising and grocery shopping. Most days, I have bacon or scrambled eggs for breakfast and broil a hamburger and fix a salad for dinner. If I'm still hungry, I might spend a few minutes making low-carb ice cream. I eat dark chocolate or nuts as a snack. I make a few other things that take some time, but they're not a big chore and they're not required. If I go out, I usually have a bunless hamburger or a naked burrito. Working on a project without stopping to eat every few hours is freedom--and frequent little meals aren't always possible. My GERD returned only when I had too much carb or anything fruit flavored or too much Sudafed (certain medications can cause acid reflux). The 20 pounds fell off, too. Haven't had the dry eyes, lack of mucus, cold hands or lethargy some people feel on a LC diet. If anything, I feel more energetic and less cold than I did in my twenties (I'm 45).

Even though I'm hypoglycemic, I don't find that I need much carbohydrate to feel well; I eat roughly 50g per day. If your blood sugar is normal, you have around one teaspoon of glucose in all the blood in your body. On PHD, you might eat 150g of carb per day, which is, or breaks down to, over two-thirds of a cup of  sugar. That doesn't include the glucose you make from stuffing yourself with a bale of fibrous vegetables. (Dr. Bernstein calls this the Chinese Restaurant Effect.) Yes, the fat in the PHD slows down digestion and blunts sugar spikes. But when there's too much insulin in your bloodstream, your body burns sugar and stores fat.

Of course, people should experiment if they're unhappy with their diet. But I, for one, don't have a reason to add any starches. 


Larcana said…
Wow, your story is bit like mine. GERD from carbs kills me. I'm at the point of if it means heartburn then no dice on eating matter what someone else says.
Lori Miller said…
My thoughts exactly.
tess said…
there are SO many more problems with a higher-carb diet than mere weight control issues -- I like to be reminded of what other people experience from it, even when I don't have the same issues!
Lori Miller said…
The great thing about upper GI problems is that if you go too far off the straight and narrow, you're punished for it pretty quickly.
Almond said…
" grazing animals are leaner than binge eating animals (absurd)"

Do people really use this argument?
Lori Miller said…
It's in the book Body for Life. Wish I'd had my thinking cap on when I read it.
Galina L. said…
My mom has GERD without a heartburn, but with too much mucus, especially after waking up. Her Esophageal sphincter lost its ability to be tightly closed. Going LC and gluten free diminished the amount of mucus, but that was it. Mom eats a lot of vegetables in big volumes.
Lori Miller said…
She might give a dairy-free diet a try for a few days.
Galina L. said…
I will try to encourage her when in Moscow.
Brilliant post Lori.

We do all need to take our own underlying health issues into account but for me my lifestyle is LCHF, it suits me, I feel healthier for it, I wouldn't have it any other way...only wish I'd discovered it earlier.

Have a great weekend

All the best Jan
JanKnitz said…
I have GERD that went away completely the first time I did low carb, but so much damage had been done in the 12 years after low carb that it hasn't gone away completely this time.

I'm experimenting--carefully--with safe starches, and I'm surprising myself that my GERD is actually BETTER. I've read Norm Robillard's book, too, and heed his warnings, but so far my self-experimentation has been OK. The trick is that I'm only using safe starches that are considered "resistant".

I think the contentions that resistant starch, paired with probiotics, has the potential to heal your LARGE intestine has some merit. SIBO happens when the large intestine isn't in good shape, and gas and bacteria go into the small intestine where they don't belong (per Robillard). So if you can get the large intestine in good shape, that will help the small intestine, which in turn will reduce the gas pressure pushing stomach contents past the sphincter and into the esophagus (GERD). The theory behind resistant starch is that the resistant starch makes it to the large intestine where it feeds up the good bacteria and helps heal the gut lining by making better mucous cells.

I'm successfully having potato starch daily (not up to the 30 grams, though), small servings of cooked, cooled, and then gently warmed rice and potato, rice pasta and wrappers WITHOUT increased GERD--in fact I think I'm having much less GERD/heartburn WITH these retrograded safe starches.

Then again, when I eat freshly cooked rice, I pay for it. I'm learning to keep rice in the freezer, so when my family is eating fresh rice, I grab a bag of rice and a frozen cube of homemade bone broth to make my own rice serving. When I do that, no heartburn or reflux, blood glucose stays under 100--lower the next morning, and my Ketonix shows that I still am in some degree of ketosis.

Everyone is different, so this may not work for you. I'm actually surprised it's working for me!
Lori Miller said…
Thanks, Jan.
Lori Miller said…
Interesting! I'm glad this is working for you.
Lori Miller said…
JanKnitz, I think you've solved a mystery for me. When I was first trying to cure my GERD, I took spoonfuls of oat bran, uncooked, and felt better. I wonder if it has resistant starch in it.
Almond said…
The argument completely falls apart when you take a binging, carnivorous animal ( cheetah) and the hippocampus ( grazing herbivores).
Lori Miller said…

The example the author gives as a binging animal is the bear. But bears put on fat to hibernate during the winter. And the deer he mentions as grazers graze on grass and bushes. Should we be raw vegans, then?
Galina L. said…
I remember some half-wit former Peter's follower which commented under the nickname of GanterGatheree who turned into a vegetarian observing lean and muscular horses grazing. Getting a vegan GF also helped him to see the eating meat in evil light. The last comment of him I have read on Hyperlipid was about a new Plantpositive youtube video.
Lori Miller said…
Oh, brother. But it's just as bad when vegan advocates look to chimps and gorillas as models for a human diet. It's been over five million since we split off from them.

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