What Is the Starch Solution?

Roasted sweet potatoes and herbs

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In This Article

The Starch Solution is a diet plan developed by John A. McDougall, MD. Like the name suggests, it’s a whole-food, plant-based diet with a heavy emphasis on starches. The plan doesn’t shy away from carbohydrates like low-carb diets. In fact, the majority of compliant foods on The Starch Solution are complex carbohydrates that are high in starch and fiber, such as potatoes, grains, and legumes.

According to Dr. McDougall, a diet based on starches is the ideal diet for humans. He claims his diet plan will help people lose weight and support overall health. Since resistant starches tend to be rich in nutrients and health properties, Dr. McDougall believes The Starch Solution is a long-term answer to sustainable weight loss and improved health.

However, there is criticism that The Starch Solution is too strict. It eliminates all animal products, vegetable oils, simple sugars, and processed foods. It also limits dietary fats like nuts, seeds, and avocados. Restricting these foods is believed to accelerate weight loss, but critics advise that cutting out foods with proven health benefits, such as certain dietary fats, is unnecessary.

Background

John A. McDougall, MD is a doctor, author, and founder of the McDougall Programs and Dr. McDougall’s Right Foods. He advocates a low-fat plant-based diet and has published several studies on the effects of a vegan diet on various health conditions, such as arthritis, cholesterol, blood pressure, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

The Starch Solution is based on a book that encapsulates Dr. McDougall’s findings on how weight loss is not only achievable but probable on a low-fat vegan diet.

In his book, Dr. McDougall outlines how to lose weight by consuming mainly complex carbohydrates. While the book emphasizes weight loss, it also offers insight on reducing inflammation and thereby reducing the risk of various health conditions.

Since the plan is based on a plant-based diet, The Starch Solution rose to popularity in the vegan community. Not all vegan foods are health-promoting, so vegans aren’t immune to chronic illnesses and health problems. The Starch Solution is one answer to the question, “What do vegans eat?”

The Starch Solutions appeals to non-vegans, too. The book can help carnivores switch to a plant-based diet, especially those with existing chronic illness or increased risk of developing one. Cutting back on animal products is especially appealing to people with high cholesterol, blood pressure, and risk of heart disease.

While some people worry about not getting enough protein on The Starch Solution since it is free of animal products like meat and eggs, the plan includes plenty of plant-based proteins. Legumes like beans and lentils are excellent sources of protein for vegans. Other starches — quinoa, brown rice, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc. — also contain protein.

How It Works

People following the Standard American Diet will overhaul their entire way of eating in order to follow The Starch Solution. Not only does the plan eliminate all animal products — meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs — it’s also low in fat and sugar. This means eliminating most processed and prepackaged foods. It also means restricting healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut butters.

Dr. McDougall recommends jumpstarting The Starch Solution with his 7-Day Sure-Start Plan or using it as a trial period to see if the diet is right for you. During these seven days, followers are allowed to eat as much starch as they want. Recipes are provided for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert for the week-long trial.

The Starch Solution diet consists of approximately 70% starch, 20% vegetables, and 10% fruits. Healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are kept to a strict minimum if consumed at all. Soy protein like tofu and tempeh are also kept to a minimum, though they’re not as strictly limited as dietary fat.

For maximum weight loss, consume the same amount of vegetables as starch — 45% starch, 45% vegetables, and 10% fruit. Since vegetables are naturally low in calories, dedicating nearly half of your food intake to vegetables creates an effortless calorie deficit.

Other rules on The Starch Solution include:

  • Eat when you’re hungry. This isn’t a calorie-restricted diet. So long as you consume compliant foods, you can eat until full and satisfied.
  • Try to avoid consuming non-compliant foods. The Starch Solution is designed to be a lifestyle, but veering from the plan regularly makes it difficult to return.
  • Use low-fat condiments, seasonings, and sauces to add variety to your food. For example, use a low-fat tomato sauce as a dipping sauce for oil-free baked potatoes.
  • Avoid dried fruit and fruit juices as they’re high in calories.
  • Opt for whole grains instead of foods made with white flour. For example, choose whole grain wheat bread instead of white bread. Brown rice is also preferable to white rice.
  • Make compliant versions of your favorite foods. This may require some creativity and substitutions, but if you love burgers, make a black bean burger. If you love ice cream, blend up frozen bananas.

Since starches are naturally filling, satisfying foods, The Starch Solution can be sustainable long-term. To use The Starch Solution to maintain weight loss, continue to consume starch as the bulk of your diet and follow the guidelines (i.e. low-fat, free of animal products, etc.).

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Legumes

  • Grains

  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Some soy products

  • Some dietary fat

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Animal products

  • Vegetable oils

  • Processed and packaged foods

Compliant Foods

Legumes

Beans and lentils are an excellent source of plant-based protein. They’re also rich in resistant starch, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Consume a variety of legumes: black beans, red lentils, chickpeas, mung beans, pinto beans, etc.

Grains

Brown rice and quinoa are staples in many diet plans. Grains are also cost-effective health foods. Pair beans and rice to form a complete vegan protein.

Vegetables

As expected on a plant-based diet, The Starch Solution includes plenty of vegetables. This includes starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and squash as well as non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, and spinach.

Fruits

Though they only make up 10% of The Starch Solution, fruits play an important role. They’re an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and they’re associated with many health benefits. Plus, they make for an easy yet healthy dessert.

Some soy products

Contrary to popular belief, The Starch Solution does allow for some soy products. Whole soy like edamame or soybeans are preferable, but tofu and tempeh are fair game.

Some healthy fats

The Starch Solution is strictly a low-fat plan. It’s almost a “no-fat” diet because followers should avoid vegetable oils as much as possible. Dietary fats like avocado, nuts, and seeds should also be strictly limited.

Non-Compliant Foods

Animal products

For many meat lovers, giving up animal products will be a challenge. However, it’s worth it. The Starch Solution revolves around a low-fat diet, and animal products are naturally high in saturated fat. They’re also high in cholesterol and associated with an increased risk of serious health conditions like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Any carnivores interested in The Starch Solution will switch over to plant-based proteins instead of animal protein.

Vegetable oils

Olive oil is a highly popular vegetable oil. Its popularity may even be due to the rise of people following the Mediterranean diet. However, this vegetable oil along with other oils are not used for cooking or dressings on The Starch Solution. Vegetable oils are high in fat, so they’re not suitable for a low-fat plan like this one.

Processed and packaged foods

The Starch Solution has a strict stance on processed and packaged foods, especially those that are high in refined carbohydrates and simple sugars. Followers should prepare their own food and go so far as to avoid dried fruit and fruit juices.

Recommended Timing

One of the advantages of The Starch Solution is that followers are free to eat when they’re hungry. This means following the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner if it suits your schedule, or eating when hunger strikes as long as your meals are starch-based and low-fat. Even snacks and desserts are allowed as long as they fit the mold.

Resources and Tips

The Starch Solution book lays out the science behind a starch-based diet and the health benefits. It also contains weight loss tips and nearly 100 plant-based recipes that claim to help with weight management and prevention of chronic illness.

One of the challenges that people face on The Starch Solution is cooking without oil. In place of oil, try using an oil-free vegetable broth or another runny condiment like coconut aminos. Water can even be used to saute vegetables. Many people rely on roasting, air frying, or baking to avoid sauteing without oil.  

The key to success on any diet, including The Starch Solution, is enjoying your meals. If plain potatoes and vegetables don’t sound appetizing to you, spice them up with condiments. Try spices like paprika, garlic, cumin, onion powder, chili powder, nutritional yeast, and so on. Look for compliant sauces or try making your own, such as barbecue sauce, ketchup, teriyaki sauce, hot sauce, and sweet chili sauce.

Some starch-based recipes to get you started include: 

Dr. McDougall also has his own line of packaged foods available at many grocery stores. Most are low in sugar, salt, and fat, but double-check the ingredients list and nutrition facts. Some of the selections include oatmeal cups, various soups, and quinoa salads.

Modifications

The Starch Solution is free of food allergens related to animal products: fish, dairy, and eggs. However, it contains the following allergens: gluten, soy, wheat, and nuts. Foods containing these allergens are rarely consumed on The Starch Solution, so they can be avoided easily. For example, cook with brown rice pasta instead of semolina pasta or use seeds in place of nuts.

To make The Starch Solution higher in protein, use more legumes and grains than starchy vegetables. One-half cup of black beans contains 7 grams of protein alone. Quinoa is another source of plant-based protein with 8 grams of protein per cup.

Since the diet is based on starches like potatoes, rice, beans, and lentils, purchase these foods in bulk to save money. You can even batch cook grains and legumes as your staples throughout the week. 

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Suitable for weight loss

  • Decreases the risk of chronic illness

  • Compliant foods are unlimited

  • High in fiber and nutrients

What We Don't Like

  • Low in dietary fat

  • Can be difficult to follow

Pros

Suitable for weight loss

Starches aren’t magical weight loss foods, but The Starch Solution has had many success stories related to weight loss. This success is likely due to cutting back on animal fat and processed foods, which are naturally high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat. By focusing on whole plant-based foods, followers naturally consume fewer calories. The calories also come from nutrient-dense sources.

Decreases the risk of chronic illness

Dr. McDougall has it out for inflammation. He attributes many serious health conditions to inflammation in the body, so it’s no surprise that The Starch Solution is full of anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Cutting back on animal products is also associated with less inflammation and reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Compliant foods are unlimited

Followers need not count calories or limit their portion sizes. In fact, followers are encouraged to go back for seconds if they’re still hungry. Dr. McDougall believes that starches are the foundation of the human diet, so he places no restrictions on them. Vegetables are also unlimited. As long as meals are comprised of mainly starches and veggies, there are no limitations on how much you can consume.

High in fiber and nutrients

Many Americans don’t get enough fiber. However, fiber is an important part of a healthy diet and it’s associated with many health benefits. Fortunately, The Starch Solution is packed with fiber among other nutrients. It’s also rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. 

Cons

Low in dietary fat

Similar to carbs, there are “good fats” and “not-so-good fats.” However, dietary fat is part of a balanced diet. Since Dr. McDougall’s meal plan is notoriously low in fat, some suggest that The Starch Solution is not balanced in terms of macronutrient ratio. Healthy fats are associated with many health benefits. Dr. McDougall claims that overt fats like nuts and seeds can hinder weight loss. He insists that the fat in starches and vegetables is enough.

Can be difficult to follow

Though the diet can be followed long-term, it may not be an easy plan to stick to. There are a lot of dietary restrictions. This makes it almost impossible to eat out at restaurants, so followers must prepare their own food at each meal. It can be time-consuming to prepare every meal, and it can be challenging to come up with fresh recipes. Though the benefits may outweigh the fact that The Starch Solution can be difficult to follow, followers must prepare to put in the time and effort to make compliant meals.

How It Compares

The Starch Solution is often paired with other vegan diets, but its specific food restrictions set it apart from the others. It’s notoriously low in fat, which has its pros and cons. It also has some significant differences from the USDA Dietary Guidelines. This isn’t a beginner-friendly vegan diet, but it’s suitable for someone who’s serious about weight loss and disease prevention. 

USDA Recommendations

The USDA recommends incorporating all of the well-known food groups, including animal products. They have specific recommendations for vegetarians, which include foods that The Starch Solution forbids, such as dairy, eggs, and oils.

The Starch Solution has stricter guidelines than the USDA Dietary Guidelines, which also encourage weekly servings of nuts, seeds, soy products, and refined grains, all of which should be consumed in moderation on Dr. McDougall’s plan.

Despite these differences, The Starch Solution and USDA agree on a couple of things: People should consume more fiber-rich foods and plant-based protein sources.

Calories

Unlike many diets, The Starch Solution gives no advice or recommendations when it comes to calories. To lose weight, one must be in a caloric deficit. However, Dr. McDougall advises against counting calories. Instead, he recommends eating as much starch and vegetables as you’d like. If weight loss is your goal, fill half of your plate with vegetables and the other half with starches. According to Dr. McDougall, this will create a caloric deficit effortlessly to accelerate weight loss.

Similar Diets

Not all vegan diets are the same. Some vegan diets are similar to the Standard American Diet in that they’re high in processed foods, saturated fat, and refined carbohydrates. However, The Starch Solution is a strict whole-food diet. Similar diets include:

Whole Foods Diet

The Whole Foods Diet is another diet based on whole, unprocessed foods and shares many similarities with The Starch Solution. Both emphasize fruits, vegetables, and legumes, but The Starch Solution has a strict no-meat policy.

Engine 2 Diet

Another oil-free plant-based diet, the Engine 2 Diet is remarkably similar to The Starch Solution. They’re also both heavily associated with weight loss and disease prevention. However, the Engine 2 Diet is more flexible when it comes to dietary fat like nuts and seeds.

TLC Diet

Well-known for being a heart-healthy diet, the TLC diet has a lot to offer its followers. It’s also highly regarded among health professions. It also advises consuming around six servings of grains per day, so followers get a fair amount of starch. Where it differs from The Starch Solution is that it allows foods like lean meat, low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.

A Word From Verywell

The Starch Solution likely isn’t an easy plan to follow, but it may be worth it if you’re serious about weight loss and encouraging overall health. Its core message also counteracts that of diet culture, so you don’t have to count calories or restrict your portion sizes to have success on this diet.

Dr. McDougall advises that a starch-based diet is the ideal diet for humans, but the best diet for you is the one that’s most sustainable. Strictly limiting dietary fat is one of the biggest caveats of The Starch Solution. If the strictness of The Starch Solution is intimidating, try modifying the diet to suit your preferences and lifestyle.

Alongside regular exercise and healthy habits like staying hydrated and getting enough sleep, The Starch Solution can help many people get closer to reaching their goals.

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