Starch: the good, the bad, and the ugly

There’s some debate out there about starch in our diets. Some say you need it to live; some say it will make your life miserable. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and it all depends on your body and how you digest food.

What are resistant starches?

Starches are just a form of carbohydrate. Not all carbs are starches, but all starches are a form of carbohydrate.

Resistant starches are complex carbs that resist being digested (hence the name). They hang on right until the end, where our gut bacteria go into a feeding frenzy and let us have the leftovers as a major energy source. In a healthy body, that’s a good thing.

Resistant starches are found in larger proportions in grains (wheat, rice), legumes, root vegetables (potatoes), some squashes (pumpkins), and other foods as well. This list of foods and their starch content is worth a look.

The good

So let’s start with the good. Australia’s premier research organisation, the CSIRO, neatly explains why resistant starches are important for healthy people:

The problem is: what if you’re not healthy? What if these resistant starches do some people more bad than good?

The bad

Not everyone fits into the CSIRO’s view of the world. Some people find that eating resistant starch gives them crippling pain with a host of inflammatory diseases: ankylosing spondylitis, iritis, Chrone’s disease, IBS, and more. There’s a solid genetic link: 95% of ankylosing spondylitis victims have the HLA-B27 gene.

The published medical literature has theories for why this is so. One idea (and the oldest theory) is that people with the HLA-B27 gene are more prone to inflammation from a bit of an overgrowth of the Klebsiella bacterium in their gut, for example:

Excluding resistant starch can free some people from a lifetime of crippling pain.

If this is all new to you, the best easy-to-read resources are at:

The ugly

So how can finding a way of managing an otherwise incurable disease be ugly? Well, it’s not, but the heated arguments around it can be. Just as arguments around paleo vs vegan can turn nasty.

Part of the problem is that we don’t really understand enough about how the human body works to say to someone never eat resistant starch again, or you could get cancer if you don’t eat starch. But people say these things anyway.

Part of the problem is also that responses to changes in diet are individual: what works for one person doesn’t work for another. Even the Low Starch Diet book (link above) says this, and it has a suggestion for how to start working out what causes the problems. The people on the forum say it too. It’s trial and error. Find what works for you.

The relief

Finding a dietary solution for chronic, crippling pain is up there with walking on water. Just ask the people over at, or any of the many blogs that have popped up in the past few years (such as this one). It’s a huge relief to find a way to reduce the pain, and sometimes even end it altogether.

Fortunately for us, the HLA-B27 gene and its associated diseases is not in my immediate family. We occasionally cook for someone who is affected, and that started the reading to understand the disease and what can be done about it.


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