03/30/2011 08:25 am ET | Updated May 30, 2011

Resistant Starch and Other Fad Diets: What We Can Learn

In the unending and increasingly urgent quest for weight loss, we Americans have an abundance of diets to choose from. Faddish diets come and go so fast we can barely learn their formulas. From glorifying particular foods (like the acai berry) to demonizing others (like high-fructose corn syrup) diet promoters hop from one aisle of the grocery store to the next.

In contrast, long-term transformational programs cover all aspects of life, from eating to stress management.

Some diets are anchored in geography like the Mediterranean, Scarsdale and Sonoma diets. Others are named after famous people such as the Atkins, Suzanne Somers and Jenny Craig plans. Some associate themselves with a religious reference, for instance, Pastor Rick Warren's Daniel Plan. Others are named after a specific food like the cookie, grapefruit or cabbage soup diet. Others take on descriptive names such as Weight Watchers and TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly).

Some use technical-sounding names, for instance, the hCG Diet, which first surfaced in the '50s. Even for diet groupies, the hCG diet seems severe (and is expensive). Calories are limited to 500 a day, and promoters claim that a daily injection of the pregnancy hormone hCG will make unwanted fat in the wrong places disappear. After reports of health complications, this regimen triggered a warning by the Food and Drug Administration; nonetheless, the hCG diet continues to grow in popularity.

While not as severe as the hCG diet calorie restrictions, all diets share the common goal of limiting calories to achieve weight loss. The dieter, forced to live in a constant state of deprivation and hunger, eventually finds the diet difficult to sustain. When the regimen is predictably discarded, the dieter regains the lost weight and frequently adds a few pounds more.

As an alternative to dieting, what if an easier (albeit slower) method of weight loss was available? One that was inexpensive and healthful? One that simply involved the increased consumption of resistant fiber?

When I read about the weight-loss results of human subjects resulting from the consumption of resistant fiber, I was curious. Quite frankly, eating carbohydrates to lose weight -- after their demonization by low-carb zealots -- seemed too good to be true.

I decided to experiment with a sample of Hi-maize resistant starch flour to see if I could replicate the weight-loss results of various scientific studies. My kitchen became my laboratory; my body became the test tube.

Incorporating the resistant starch into meals produced some amazing results. First, I noticed that my late afternoon drop in energy disappeared along with the craving for sugar. I surmised that my glycemic level had stabilized. In addition, I found myself satisfied much longer after meals and almost disinterested in eating when the next mealtime arrived.

Curious about these remarkable reactions, I turned to Hope Warshaw, RD, CDE, a nationally recognized dietitian and diabetes educator. Hope has over 30 years of experience as a consultant, an author and an educator, with a special emphasis on nutrition for people with diabetes. One of her books, "Eat Out, Eat Right," is in its third printing and has sold a half million copies.

Here are my questions and Hope's responses:

HW: "Most starches are digested and absorbed into the body through the small intestine, but some resist digestion and pass through to the large intestine where, through fermentation, they are digested. This type of starch is called resistant starch. The formal definition of resistant starch is the total amount of starch and the products of starch degradation that resist digestion in the small intestine of healthy people."

What's the role of fiber and, more specifically, resistant starch fiber in a balanced diet?

HW: "A consistent finding is that a high fiber intake, including whole grains, helps with disease prevention, including heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes. One study published on February 14, 2011, in the Archives of Internal Medicine correlated high fiber intake with a lowered risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious and respiratory diseases -- by 24 to 56 percent in men and by 34 to 59 percent in women. Over 388,000 adults, ages 50 to 71, participated in this National Institutes of Health -- AARP Diet and Health Study. As you can see, fiber plays an important role in maintaining our health and wellness.

Unfortunately, as Americans have increased their consumption of processed and convenience foods, they've decreased their intake of dietary fibers and resistant starch. A 2008 study showed that Americans consume approximately 5 grams of resistant starch per day. A recommended level of resistant starch is 15 to 20 grams per day. This amount can help people obtain the full physiological and health benefits of resistant starch."

What are the health benefits of resistant starch?

HW: "A number of studies (250 peer-reviewed) conducted over the last 20 years demonstrate that consuming resistant starch as part of a healthy eating plan provides multiple benefits:

  • Dietary fiber intake is increased.
  • Satiety and a sense of fullness increase and may, therefore, help with weight control. Researchers report that subjects who consumed resistant starch said they felt fuller and more satisfied 24 hours after eating than those who did not consume resistant starch.
  • Energy fluctuations are minimized. Glycemic levels are more stable and insulin sensitivity increases, while insulin resistance decreases.
  • Digestive health improves through an increase in beneficial bacteria and a suppression of harmful bacteria. The resistant starch functions as a prebiotic fiber. Hi-maize resistant starch promotes regularity with a mild laxative effect and restores normal intestinal function in individuals with diarrhea."

What foods contain resistant starch?

HW: "Resistant starch is found naturally in some foods, including fruit (such as slightly green bananas), legumes (such as lentils, yams, white beans, chickpeas, peas and potatoes), and some whole grains (such as rolled oats, pearl barley, brown rice and fruit). For a more complete list, go here."

Besides eating foods that naturally contain resistant starch, how can I increase my intake?

HW: "Hi-maize resistant starch can be found in a growing group of commercial products, such as bread, pasta and snacks. For a list of products containing Hi-maize resistant starch, go here.

"You can also purchase and use Hi-maize resistant starch as a separate ingredient. For instance, it can be added to foods like smoothies, oatmeal or soup for an easy fiber boost. One tablespoon of Hi-maize delivers approximately 5 grams of dietary fiber.

"King Arthur Flour sells Hi-maize resistant starch (item #4765) that can be substituted for up to one-quarter of the flour in a wide variety of recipes. King Arthur Flour also sells high fiber flour (item #3511), a mixture of flour and Hi-maize that can be substituted for 100 percent of the regular flour in recipes; however, these King Arthur Flour products are not guaranteed gluten free. Celiac Specialties sells Hi-maize resistant starch that is guaranteed to be gluten free."

How many calories are in a tablespoon of Hi-maize resistant starch?

HW: "One level tablespoon of Hi-maize resistant starch contains 10 calories."

Are there any negative side effects of consuming Hi-maize resistant starch?

HW: "Large amounts of resistant starch found naturally in foods and in the ingredient Hi-maize can be consumed (up to 45 grams per day) with no reported digestive side effects. Hi-maize resistant starch does not cause gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort or diarrhea, as some fibers are known to do."

Is Hi-maize resistant starch the magic bullet we've been searching for to help us lose weight?

HW: "No! Losing weight and, more importantly, keeping it off long term, require a multipronged approach that includes healthy foods, portion control, a good bit of physical activity and plenty of restraint. But incorporating an increased amount of resistant starch into an otherwise healthy and lower-calorie eating plan, balanced with sufficient exercise, may well be one more boost to help individuals lose weight and keep it off."

Given the research results that I am able to confirm through my own experience, I'm convinced that resistant starch can be a wonderful aid in weight loss, one I will keep in my arsenal of fat-fighting weapons. Maybe I will give a name to my resistant starch program: "Carole's Fat to Fit No-Diet Diet."