Starch Blocker: Low-Carb Diet Help?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

What's the scoop on these popular products?

By Denise Mann
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

You've been on a low-carb diet for a few weeks now and, sure, the pounds are melting off. The problem? You really miss pancakes, muffins, bagels, and pasta!

If that's the case, maybe you can have your cake and eat it too by taking starch blockers before you eat your favorite carbohydrate-laden food.

"It's a high-protein diet made doable," says Steven Rosenblatt, MD, PhD, a family practitioner in Los Angeles and co-author of The Starch Blocker Diet.

The increasing popularity of low-carb diets such as Atkins, South Beach, Protein Power, and Sugar Buster's seems to have boosted sales of starch blockers. The Washington Post recently reported that Spins, a San Francisco-based marketing company, saw sales of starch blockers jump 900% since September 2002.

Some diet experts, however, caution consumers who are overeager for a magic bullet that this isn't it.

'High-Protein Diet Made Doable'

"The starch blocker diet grew out of my medical practice where I was seeing patients who were 20, 30, 40, and 50 pounds overweight and really had to bring their blood pressure down and I would say 'eat less and exercise more' but that wasn't good enough," he tells WebMD.

Using supplements available at most drug- and health-food stores, "the new diet blocks the conversion of starch into sugar so you can incorporate starch into the diet," he says. "It's a tool that people can use with high-protein diets and include starches," he says.

"The actual starch blocker is an enzyme taken from white kidney beans that, when taken before consuming carbohydrates, inhibit the body's production of the starch-digesting enzyme, alpha-amylase," he says.

With lessened amounts of alpha-amylase, the body is less able to break down starches (carbohydrates) into sugar (glucose) for further digestion and absorption, Rosenblatt tells WebMD. "This gives people a change to widen their diet."

Cautioning "it's not a miracle pill," Rosenblatt says most patients lose one and a half to two pounds a week over a six- to eight-month period. "So over few months, you can lose 40 or 50 pounds," he says. "It's a slow, steady, and effective weight loss and you can keep it off."

Basically, you take the pills 15-20 minutes before eating. "I plan on two with each meal, which means that you take somewhere around four to six starch blockers per day," he says.

"This is a tool to help you, but not a license to overeat because if you abuse them, they won't be as effective as they should be," he says.

'Starch-Blocking Is Useless'

Others in the nutrition community have their doubts about starch-blocking. Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health in New York City, says any product that inhibits the enzymes that break down starch will place excess starch in the gastrointestinal tract, and if it's not absorbed, it can cause problems.

"It's probably a lot safer to just eat less starches to start with," she suggests.

"This is not the magic bullet," Kava says." If you are always looking for magic bullet, you are not paying attention to a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle." There is no substitute for a well-balanced diet, she stresses.

"It's another gimmick, but that's not to say that it can't be helpful," she says. "It's like using sugar substitutes; they can be helpful if used appropriately."

New York City physician Fred Pescatore, MD, former medical director of the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine, is less positive. "[Starch-blocking] is useless. I have never seen any starch blockers work and I have seen many in my practice."

If you are craving carbs while you are on a high-protein diet, "eat whole-grain pasta or whole-grain pancakes, don't resort to white carbohydrates," he says. "There is a place for healthy carbohydrates in a low-carbohydrate eating plan, so if you are craving them, have them."

"Just stay away from white pasta and white potatoes and eat whole grains instead," he says.

Starch-blocking "is like taking one of those pharmaceutical drugs [that block the absorption of fat] and then you have diarrhea and ruin your liver," he says.

"It's a nice gimmick, but it doesn't work," he says.

SOURCES: Steven Rosenblatt. MD, PhD, family practitioner in Los Angeles and an author of The Starch Blocker Diet. Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health in New York City. Fred Pescatore MD, private practice physician in New York City and former medical director Atkins Center for Complementary medicine.

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