What Is the Starch Solution Diet?

Starch diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The Starch Solution is a whole-food, plant-based diet with an emphasis on starches. It was developed by John A. McDougall, MD, a physician, author, and founder of the McDougall Programs and Dr. McDougall’s Right Foods. 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 an ideal diet for humans. He claims his diet plan will help people lose weight and support overall health. Because 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 outcomes.

However, the Starch Solution eliminates all animal products, vegetable oils, simple sugars, and processed foods. It also limits dietary fats like those from nuts, seeds, and avocados. While restricting these foods is believed to accelerate weight loss, critics advise that cutting out foods with proven health benefits, such as certain dietary fats, is unnecessary.

As an advocate for a low-fat plant-based diet, Dr. McDougall has also published research on the effects of a vegan diet on various health conditions, such as arthritis, cholesterol, blood pressure, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

In his book, "The Starch Solution," 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.

What Can You Eat?

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.

The Starch Solution diet consists of approximately 70% starch, 20% vegetables, and 10% fruits. This means the Starch Solution eliminates most processed and prepackaged foods and restricts healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and nut butters. While some people worry about not getting enough protein on the Starch Solution, the plan does include plenty of plant-based proteins like legumes.

Other starches, such as quinoa, brown rice, and sweet potatoes, also contain protein. Soy protein, such as the protein in tofu and tempeh, is also kept to a minimum, though they’re not as strictly limited as dietary fat.

The Starch Solution is similar to a whole foods diet, which is also based on whole, unprocessed foods and emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and legumes—though it does include meat. Another oil-free, plant-based diet is the Engine 2 diet, which is also associated with weight loss and disease prevention, but more flexible about dietary fat like nuts and seeds. The TLC diet is another similar diet that advises six servings of heart-healthy grains per day. Those on the TLC diet still get a fair amount of starch but are still allowed foods like lean meat, low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.

People following the standard American diet must overhaul their entire way of eating in order to follow the Starch Solution. Not only does the plan eliminate all animal products (including meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs), but it’s also low in fat and sugar.

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 eat as much starch as they want. Recipes are provided for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert for the week-long trial.

What You Need to Know

The Starch Solution is free of food allergens related to animal products: fish, dairy, and eggs. However, it contains other common allergens like gluten, soy, wheat, and nuts. People with food allergies need to make substitutions in some cases to make the diet safe for them.

Using more legumes and grains than starchy vegetables makes the Starch Solution higher in protein. 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.

"The Starch Solution" book details the science behind a starch-based diet and its health benefits. It also contains weight loss tips and nearly 100 plant-based recipes that claim to help with weight management and the prevention of chronic illnesses like heart disease.

For maximum weight loss, Dr. McDougall suggests consuming the same amount of vegetables as starch—45% starch and 45% vegetables—and 10% fruit. Because vegetables are naturally low in calories, dedicating nearly half of your food intake to vegetables creates a 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.
  • Avoid consuming non-compliant foods. The Starch Solution is designed to be a lifestyle, and veering from the plan regularly makes it difficult to maintain.
  • 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.
  • Choose whole fruits. Fruit is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals and is associated with many health benefits.
  • Opt for whole grains instead of foods made with refined flour. For example, choose whole grain wheat bread instead of white bread; brown rice is also preferable to white rice. Grains are also cost-effective health foods. Pair beans and rice to form a complete vegan protein.
  • Load up on legumes. Beans and lentils are an excellent source of plant-based protein. They’re also rich in resistant starch, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Make compliant versions of your favorite foods. This may require some creativity and substitutions. If you love burgers, make a black bean burger. If you love ice cream, blend up frozen bananas.
What to Eat
  • Legumes

  • Grains

  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Some soy products

  • Some dietary fat

What Not to Eat
  • Animal products

  • Vegetable oils

  • Processed and packaged foods

Vegetables

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

Soy Products

The Starch Solution does allow for some soy products. Whole soy like edamame or soybeans are preferable, but tofu and tempeh are acceptable as well.

Dietary Fats

The Starch Solution is strictly a low-fat plan. It’s almost a "no-fat" diet because followers are advised to avoid vegetable oils and all animal products, which are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Dietary fats like avocado, nuts, and seeds are allowed in very small amounts.

Vegetable Oils

Olive oil is a popular vegetable oil. Some of its popularity may be due to the rise of people following the Mediterranean diet. However, this vegetable oil along with other oils is 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 the Startch Solution.

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. Those who follow this plan should prepare their own food at home.

If you eat meat and are interested in the Starch Solution, you will need to make the switch to plant-based protein instead of animal protein. If plain potatoes and vegetables don’t sound appetizing to you, you can always spice them up with condiments.

Sample Shopping List

Shopping for compliant foods on the Starch Solution can be tricky given that it's a plant-based diet that restricts certain healthy fats like avocado and limits servings of minimally processed foods like tofu. Since the diet is based on starches like potatoes, rice, beans, and lentils, followers of the diet can purchase these foods in bulk to save money. You can even batch cook grains and legumes as your staples throughout the week. 

If you're short on time, you might try Dr. McDougall's line of packaged convenience foods, Dr. McDougall's Right Foods, which are available online and 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.

But if you would rather procure your own groceries and cook your meals, the following shopping list provides suggestions for getting started with the Starch Solution diet.

  • Starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, butternut squash)
  • Regular vegetables (broccoli, beets, carrots, mushrooms, kale, arugula)
  • Whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, couscous, barley, oats)
  • Whole fruits (berries, cherries, bananas, apples, pineapple)
  • Egg-free pasta (chickpea, lentils, buckwheat soba, rice noodles)
  • Legumes (black beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, mung beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans)
  • Flours (wheat, buckwheat, garbanzo bean, potato)
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Compliant spices (paprika, garlic, cumin, onion powder, chili powder, nutritional yeast)
  • Compliant sauces (barbecue sauce, ketchup, teriyaki sauce, hot sauce, sweet chili sauce)

Sample Meal Plan

A compliant meal plan on the Starch Solution diet should break down to around 70% starch, 20% vegetables, and 10% fruits. The following three-day meal plan includes some ideas for compliant meals and includes a few starch-based recipes to help you get started. Note that this plan is not all-inclusive and there could be other meals that work better for you.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Suitable for weight loss

  • Decreases the risk of chronic illness

  • Portion sizes aren't limited

  • High in fiber and nutrients

  • Encourages mindful eating

  • Sustainable

Cons
  • Low in dietary fat

  • Plant-based allergens

  • Cooking without oil

  • Can be difficult to follow

There are a number of health benefits to going on the Starch Solution. Weigh the pros and cons can help you decide whether this is the right diet type for you.

Pros

Suitable for Weight Loss

Starches aren’t magical weight loss foods, but cutting back on animal fat and processed foods, which are often high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat, can contribute to weight loss. By focusing on whole plant-based foods, you may consume fewer calories while maintaining satiety. The calories also come from nutrient-dense sources.

May Decrease Risk of Some Illnesses

Dr. McDougall 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.

Portion Sizes Aren't Limited

People following this eating plan don't need to 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.

As a result, the diet places no restrictions on starches. 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 is associated with many health benefits. The Starch Solution is packed with fiber among other nutrients. It’s also rich in vitamins and minerals. 

Encourages Mindful Eating

One of the advantages of the Starch Solution is that you are free to listen to your body's cues and eat when you'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 low-fat and starch-based. Even snacks and desserts are allowed as long as they fit the mold.

Sustainable

Because starches are naturally filling, satisfying foods, the Starch Solution can be sustainable long-term.

Cons

Low in Dietary Fat

Dietary fat is part of a balanced diet. Some dietary fat is necessary because it is essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D, E, and K. Because Dr. McDougall’s meal plan is notoriously low in fat, the Starch Solution is not balanced in terms of macronutrient ratio.

Healthy fats are associated with many health benefits. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are important structural components of cell membranes, serve as precursors to bioactive lipid mediators, and provide a source of energy. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory effects. Dr. McDougall claims that overt fats like nuts and seeds can hinder weight loss. He insists that the small amount of fats found in starches and vegetables is enough.

Includes Plant-Based Allergens

Despite that the Starch Solution is free of common allergens found in animal products, many of the plant-based foods listed on the diet include allergens like gluten, soy, wheat, and nuts.

Cooking Without Oil

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.  

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 restrictions. These restrictions make it almost impossible to eat out at restaurants, so people on the Starch Solution program may find themselves preparing their own food at most, if not all, meals.

It can be time-consuming to prepare every meal yourself and 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, those who choose this eating plan must be prepared to put in the time and effort to make compliant meals.

Is the Starch Solution a Healthy Choice for You?

The 2020-2025 USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend incorporating all of the food groups, including animal products, in a balanced diet. The organization also has 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's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which also encourage weekly servings of nuts, seeds, soy products, and refined grains—all of which followers are instructed to consume sparingly on Dr. McDougall’s plan.

Though the Starch Solution is often paired with other vegan diets, 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's guidelines. This isn’t a beginner-friendly vegan diet, but it can suitable for someone who’s serious about long-term weight loss and overall health.

When combined with regular exercise and healthy habits like staying hydrated and getting enough sleep, the Starch Solution may help some people get closer to reaching their weight loss goals.

Despite these differences, the Starch Solution and USDA agree that people should consume more fiber-rich foods and plant-based protein sources.

Health Benefits

Unlike many diets, the Starch Solution gives no advice or recommendations when it comes to calories. A caloric deficit is required for weight loss. 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. However, many health and nutrition experts recommend calorie counting as an effective way to lose weight.

Health Risks

Though there are no common health risks associated with the Starch Solution diet, there is the possibility for nutritional deficiencies since the plan is relatively low in dietary fat. While the reduction of saturated fats plays a key role in lowering the risk of heart disease, research continues to show that healthy dietary fats are an important part of a balanced diet.

A Word From Verywell

The Starch Solution isn’t an easy plan to follow, but it may be worth it if weight loss and supporting overall health are your primary goals. A plus for many is that counting calories or restricting portion sizes aren't necessary to have success on this diet.

Dr. McDougall may advise that a starch-based diet is ideal for humans, but the best diet for you is always 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.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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