Attack of the Safe Starches
If you have been lurking around paleoland recently you will have heard the debate about safe starches (you may be sick of hearing about it in fact). Last fall I ran an experiment to find out whether it might be a good idea to dip my toe into the safe starch swimming pool. I was tracking my lipids around this time with the CardioChek PA so I could have some idea of what was going on with my metabolism. Here are the results.
I first experimented with a low carbohydrate diet in 2009 after reading Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. I lost 15 pounds in the first three months (though I had no idea I was carrying any extra fat). I gained muscle without changing my exercise program. My seasonal allergies went away. My teeth got whiter, less sensitive and stopped collecting plaque. I got fewer sunburns. My joints stopped aching after exercise. You get the idea.
Around this time I took an oral glucose tolerance test and found my numbers to be a bit high, though not in the pre-diabetic range just yet. I tend to get a high initial blood sugar spike, though the value quickly returns to normal. I thought this (along with the other general health improvements I experienced) was an indicator that a low carb diet was a good approach for me. I bought a cheap glucometer to play with and stuck with the low carb program.
Over the years my diet progressed to a paleo approach, while I continued to avoid starches. On most days I ate only eggs, meat, fish, some nuts and a good helping of green veggies. Given the safe starches controversy, I thought it would be interesting to try adding 100g or so of carbs per day in the form of sweet potatoes, just to see what would happen. There is a variety of chatter about the possibility that low carbohydrate diets can raise LDL, so I thought I might see a drop in non-HDL cholesterol with a bit of added starches. I did get a drop, but it wasn't to the non-HDL.
Mean non-HDL did not change during the experiment (193 to 203, not statistically significant), but mean HDL dropped by a significant amount (67 to 57, p<0.001). I stopped the experiment after one month. You'll see in the plot below that the HDL went back up to the previous level after the daily sweet potato was dropped.
|Boxplots show minimum, maximum and quintiles. Mean HDL: 67 (control), 57 (carbs).|
|The trendline is a linear model based on all low carb data points (before and after, but not including, the carb intervention).|
|Trendline based on all low-carb points. Non-HDL cholesterol was not significantly affected.|
Details of the ExperimentThe data points were collected as previously discussed in the butter experiment. Data does not include any points during the butter experiment, as there was a significant change in HDL and non-HDL during that time. Statistical significance test is based on a linear model, calculated by ANOVA using R.
Sweet potatoes were eaten slowly so as not to spike blood sugar above 120, though spikes may have occurred on occasion. It usually takes me about an hour to eat one, though I can eat them very fast without a spike if I've recently completed a heavy workout.
There are a number of limitations to the interpretation of this data that are worth mentioning. Perhaps most significantly, this is a very short term test (1 month). It is possible that long term adaptations would have reversed the effects seen here. Second, there was only a single intervention period, which could have corresponded to another unknown variable which caused HDL to decrease. Since foods differ in micronutrient, mineral and toxin content, it is not possible to generalize from sweet potatoes to all carbohydrates. I may have had a different result with white rice, white potatoes, taro, tapioca, etc. Finally, of course this result applies to me only. There may be others who have a much higher carbohydrate tolerance, or who may even see the opposite result.
Is This Actionable Information?
So why am I bothering with this? First of all, simple curiosity. I have the ability to collect data that most people do not collect, and there is some interesting science concerning these molecules and what they may be able to tell me about my metabolism.
Does the decrease in HDL identified here represent an unhealthy change? Perhaps. Though HDL is commonly referred to as the "good cholesterol", I would not suggest that all decreases in HDL are unhealthy. In fact I don't know how one would go about establishing the truth or falsehood of a statement like that. Conversely, we know of chemicals that raise HDL while simultaneously causing heart attacks. My HDL was never "low" during the course of this experiment. However, together with certain other data I was also collecting at this time (which is a story for another day), I believe that 100 grams of starch per day is too much for me. At least in my current metabolic state, with my current lifestyle, exercise habits, sleep, stress level, etc.
Some smaller amount of starch is most likely "safe," and may be a good idea. These days I often eat a banana (about 20-30 grams of sugar+starch) after lunch, and I have not seen the negative effects caused in me by higher amounts of carbohydrate. As mentioned, I also have found that I can eat 100 grams of carbs immediately after a heavy workout with no significant change in my blood sugar (e.g. it might increase from 65 to 83 in response to a pound of sweet potatoes after two hours of powerlifting). These days, workouts like that occur about once a week (sometimes less), and I have not noticed any negative effects from eating carbs this infrequently. Since many smart (and strong) people advocate carbs post-workout, I am willing to go along for now, at least while I do not have any contradictory evidence.
Perhaps if I had looked this stuff up in the scientific literature first I would have been less surprised by my results. It turns out there is plenty of published research supporting the idea that carbs lower HDL. However, it is a bit surprising that the relationship continues even below 100g/day. I doubt there is published research on this relevant to long-term low carbers, so three cheers for personal science on that front. A study by a German team, published in January 2012 in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, does a good job summing up the research that is out there. Here is their conclusion regarding carbohydrates and HDL:
"There is convincing evidence that a higher carbohydrate proportion in the diet at the expense of total fat or saturated fatty acids intake lowers the plasma concentration of HDL cholesterol."
The paper is called "Evidence-Based Guideline of the German Nutrition Society: Carbohydrate Intake and Prevention of Nutrition-Related Disease." It is worth a read if you are interested and still awake. If instead you are sleeping (and not German), perhaps you are dreaming of a world in which the nutrition organizations in your country also use evidence as the basis for their guidelines.