By Lisa Petrison
Throughout the many years of my active ME/CFS, I mostly paid attention to what I ate in order to try to avoid the triggers that made me feel worse. I did buy mostly organic produce (and then usually threw most of it away after being too sick to prepare it), and I didn’t ever eat fast food or other obvious junk. But beyond that, I didn’t ask too many tough questions about the origins of what was on my plate.
After I realized what a difference pristine air made to me, food slipped a little further down the list of priorities. The wilderness of, say, Wyoming or New Mexico can be a very long way from an organic grocery store! I did make a lot of hundred-mile round trips just to buy food, but I also on occasion resorted to non-organic produce from Wal-Mart (which I never would have considered back at home).
Since late 2010 though, I have become increasingly convinced that avoiding toxins in foods — and when possible pursuing what might be called “uber-nutrition” — is very important with regard to maintaining or regaining health in our very toxic world. I spent nearly a year focused only on food, during the long break that I took from the illness community last year.
My overdue conclusion: our food supply has undergone just as much of a profound change as the air in our neighborhoods and our homes — and that this has consequences.
I now believe that for people with chronic neuroimmune conditions (and really for basically everyone), the question of “What should I eat?” may well be effectively summarized into three basic food rules.
1. Eat only foods that were available prior to 1900 in the same form and (for the non-elite populace of any country) the same rough quantities.
2. Don’t eat foods contaminated with mold toxins.
3. Don’t eat foods that prompt obvious individual sensitivity reactions until those reactions go away.
Just following these basic rules almost invariably gets me extremely close to the sorts of diets that many people with “mystery illness” and “environmental illness” report finding beneficial, without having to think any further about what to eat.
These rules steer me away from modern-day wheat (mycotoxins, hybridized grains); from all non-organic food; and from many problem foods that previously masqueraded as healthy (soy oil, agave nectar, vitamin supplements), for instance.
These rules also lead me to a diet similar to that suggested by some of the people who have influenced me most on nutritional issues, including Dave Asprey (The Bulletproof Executive), Andrea Fabry (momsAWARE and It Takes Time) and Terry Wahls (The Wahls Protocol).
Except for the potatoes.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SPUD
Potatoes are a New World food eaten by natives of both North and South Americans in prehistoric times. Starting in the 1600s, the potato spread to many other parts of the world and became a staple food in many places. In Ireland, for instance, up to 70% of the peasants’ diet consisted of potatoes at one point. This dependency was catastrophic when the potato crops failed due to blight, but insofar as food supplies were sufficient, diets consisting of mostly potatoes appear to have resulted in comparatively robust health.
Compared to many whole foods in modern supermarkets (such as grains, fruits and meats), potatoes have experienced relatively few changes over the past century or so. Even the standard russet potato is said to be unchanged since the late 1800’s, and heirloom potatoes (such as can be obtained at some farmers’ markets) go back much farther than that.
Also, based on the 5000+ abstracts of papers on mycotoxins that I’ve read and also based on my own observations, toxic mold does not seem to be very much of a problem with regard to potatoes. Aflatoxin (a mycotoxin regulated in most of the developed world that mostly affects grain and peanuts) and ochratoxin (a mycotoxin regulated in Europe and associated with coffee, dried fruit, wine, chocolate, beer and cereals) both seem not to affect potatoes much. And while molds that make trichothecenes (a class of mycotoxin regulated in Europe that seems to be a particular problem on grain products in the U.S.) have occasionally been reported as being present on potatoes, this seems fairly unusual and mostly associated with poor storage conditions.
COULD EVEN GOOD POTATOES ACTUALLY BE BAD?
Of course, this is all assuming that the potatoes are organic and cooked appropriately. As Michael Pollan describes, non-organic potato farms tend to use insane amounts of pesticides, and Bud Nip is an additional danger. Frying potatoes in unhealthy oils will lead to unhealthy food even by conventional standards, in part due to the aldehydes and acrylamide formed. The GMO potatoes that appear to be on the horizon do not seem like good idea to eat either.
However, even when it comes to organic heirloom potaoes, several diets that otherwise make a lot of sense according to my food rules steer sharply away from potatoes. For instance, the Bulletproof Diet (created by Dave Asprey, a mold illness survivor who has generously agreed to be on the Paradigm Change board) seems to perceive potatoes especially negatively — rating them as poorly as peanuts, legumes, high-sugar fruits, non-organic grains, factory farmed eggs and meat, farmed seafood, white sugar, cooked honey, table salt (non sea salt), and low fat milk.
Hmmm. I don’t eat any of those other things, ever, except sometimes the fruits or some (pre-soaked) beans. (And admittedly, as did farm families in the 1800’s when company came, I sometimes have a little organic cane sugar.) So that makes potatoes peculiarly bad, according to Dave.
Dave also rates white potatoes as worse than a variety of organic grains (wheat, corn, quinoa and oats); worse than pasteurized milk (organic or not); and much worse than organic brown or white rice.
AM I A POTATO JUNKIE?
Admittedly, throughout most of six years since I fled the moldy house and started moving toward recovery, I myself have not eaten a lot of potatoes. Part of the reason is because I didn’t have an oven to use for convenient baked potatoes for a lot of that time, but they also didn’t sound that appealing to me.
That changed recently, when I was doing a lot of metals detox and especially subsequent to doing a juice fast for a few days. Suddenly I found myself craving multiple baked potatoes per day, drowned in grass-fed butter and organic Greek yogurt. And more than pretty much anything else I ate, these potatoes seemed to quell the feelings of nausea that I believed to be associated with the loosening up of toxic metals. Until I hit upon brown seaweed (as Modifilan), nothing else worked nearly as well as those potatoes.
13 CUPS OF JUICE, 5 COFFEE ENEMAS….AND LOTS OF POTATOES!
I therefore was interested to realize that the Gerson diet — which is specifically geared at promoting detox — is quite potato-centric. In addition to the 13 glasses of juice (and five coffee enemas), Gerson patients eat a large amount of vegetarian food (plus, after the initial stage, yogurt). This includes two bowls of their special “Hippocrates Soup” (consisting mostly of root vegetables including potatoes) plus at least one baked potato per day.
The Gerson protocol is a very controversial alternative treatment for cancer, focused on the idea of eliminating toxins from the body. There isn’t any evidence in the literature demonstrating that it is effective, and the fact that the Gerson Institute is discouraging of chemotherapy has led many people to feel strongly negatively about their whole approach. The program by design alters the electrolyte balances in the body (strongly tilted toward potassium and away from sodium), and this is controversial as well.
Nonetheless, Gerson was likely the first protocol to focus on detoxification as a major goal of therapy, and components of the program have been incorporated into more mainstream healing approaches. For instance, juice fasting was the topic of the popular movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” and coffee enemas are increasingly recognized as a useful treatment within the Lyme community. One You Tube video on coffee enemas now has more than 100,000 hits.
The single person with serious “mystery disease” — she called it “Chronic EBV” — that I have met who did full Gerson for an extended period of time has been totally well for a couple of decades, working all day every day doing chores on her farm raising organic/pastured chickens, goats and sheep. Admittedly, the air is good where she lives. But still, this is a good testimonial in my book.
The more that I have experimented with parts of the protocol (I’ve yet to try the whole thing), the more respect that I have gained for its apparent ability to simultaneously prompt fast detox and to support the body in the context of that detox.
Whether the Gerson protocol is a good idea for cancer patients is something that I have no opinion whatsoever on. If the goal is detoxification though, then until “science” decides to put some effort towards figuring it out, I think that this protocol may be worth some reflection.
ANDREA FABRY’S TAKE
Mold survivor Andrea Fabry and her husband have nine children, including one with historically life-threatening diabetes. She states that her family generally avoids white potatoes, commenting:
Sugar and starch are one and the same. Sugar is a simple carb. Starch is a complex carb, which means a string of simple sugars. Starch may take a bit longer to enter your bloodstream, but too much starch has a similar effect to too much sugar. Consider red potatoes or mashed cauliflower. Add good quality fats such as butter, ghee, or coconut oil to any starchy vegetable to help stabilize blood sugars. Or, try your hand at homemade sour cream for a nice probiotic addition.
Andrea continues making a case against potatoes in another blog post focusing on a variety of different kinds of diets designed to restore the intestinal tract:
With the exception of Body Ecology’s inclusion of grain-like seeds such as quinoa or buckwheat, all of these diets are grain-free. Grains and many root vegetables such as yams and potatoes are rich in starch. Digestion of starch requires quite a bit of work for the digestive system, leaving much of the starch undigested. Undigested starch provides food for pathogens. Doug Kaufmann, author of the Phase One diet, notes that mycotoxins are commonly found in grains because ‘sugar is the staple food of fungi, which makes grains one of their prime targets.
The GAPS diet, for instance, lists both white potatoes and sweet potatoes in the “Foods To Avoid” category. (Most fruits, on the other hand, are in the “Recommended Foods” section.)
TERRY WAHLS’ POSITION
Terry Wahls’ diet revolves around the consumption of nine cups of produce per day, plus a few other foods such as high-quality animal protein (including organ meats) and mushrooms. The produce is split into three categories: greens (such as kale or lettuce), cruciferous vegetables (such as cabbage or cauliflower) and “colors” (such as sweet potatoes or blueberries).
The diet eliminates processed foods, grains, dairy, sugar, soy and legumes. “Starches” (such as potatoes and corn) also are discouraged. What I can’t find on the Internet and don’t recall from her book (lost in my avoidance adventures a while back) is whether this is because they are perceived to convert too quickly to sugar; because she sees them as relatively devoid of nutrition compared to the other foods consumed on the diet; or both.
DAVE ASPREY’S PERSPECTIVE
Dave Asprey reports similar reasons for avoiding potatoes as Andrea Fabry but goes into more detail on them. On the topic of starch, he writes:
I believe that having starch constantly present on a daily basis is a bad idea because it will feed bacteria in your gut, and even if you take probiotics, your gut biome is almost hopelessly jacked compared to the way it should be. The things we’ve done to the planet’s bacterial ecosystem by using antibiotics and fungicides have come back to haunt our gut bacteria. I also fully comprehend the cognitive and biological benefits of ketosis and eating starch on a daily basis doesn’t lend itself to being in this important fat burning metabolic state.
Starch is a preferential food for mycotoxin forming fungi like Aspergillus and Fusarium. The vast majority of starch-based foods get fungal contamination during processing or storage, and those toxins affect your gut, your brain, and your health.
That’s why I recommend you eat a moderate amount of starch, about 100-150 g, every 3 to 7 days. I recommend you eat it in the evening before bed because it will improve your sleep quality by creating glycogen which your brain will use. This will effectively cycle your body in and out of ketosis, avoid overfeeding gut bacteria you don’t want, and provide raw materials for forming tears and mucus.
Dave also advises against the consumption of potatoes because of his goal of avoiding toxins. He recommends white rice and sweet potatoes instead, stating:
I do not believe white potatoes are a smart food to eat because as members of the nightshade family they contain lectins, proteins that bind to the sugars that coat the cells in your body and cause inflammation. Potatoes are also notorious for harboring mold and there are more than 20 things you need to do to store them properly to avoid introducing new toxins as they age, especially mycotoxins. They are simply a high-risk food. Fortunately, sweet potatoes are not the same.
However, some people of prominence in the Paleo community, such as Paul Jaminet of the “Perfect Health Diet,” do consider potatoes to be a helpful starch. Paul writes:
The concept of “safe starches” has nothing to do with their glucose content. “Safe starch” is a term of our invention and refers to any starchy food which, after normal cooking, lacks toxins, chiefly protein toxins. We do not consider glucose to be a toxin, though it may become toxic in hyperglycemia.
RITCHIE SHOEMAKER’S THOUGHTS
Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, a physician focusing on mold illness, proposes a different but related reason to avoid potatoes: because they contain amylose. “How to Lose the Weight You Hate” is another one of those books I read a long time ago and lost somewhere along my mold-avoidance journey, but according to a blog article linked on the “Surviving Mold” website,
The concept of the no-amylose diet is to eliminate foods that contain a high concentration of amylose, an enzyme found in human saliva that initiates the digestion and conversion of starch into sugar. Basically, going amylose-free means shunning wheat and other cereal grains because they contain high amounts of this enzyme.
In short, he believes that immune responses to toxins produced by the body in the presence of Lyme disease, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and other conditions, impair the function of leptin, a key enzyme involved in the perception of hunger and the storage and burning of fat…..Shoemaker explains that the no-amylose diet differs from the popular low-carbohydrate diet since the latter utilizes fats to increase leptin production, which would naturally suppress appetite and reduce impulse cravings. However, Shoemaker contends that this method is ineffective because the consumption of foods that are high in amylose triggers sudden spikes in blood sugar levels and promotes resistance to both insulin and leptin.
With the exception of bananas, Shoemaker says that all fruits are low in amylose. Lean meats are permitted, as are many vegetables. In terms of the latter, the general rule of thumb is to adhere to varieties that grow above ground, especially green vegetables….The no-amylose diet advocates the avoidance of all sugars and grains with the exception of certain varieties of “waxy” corn. Other specific foods to avoid include potatoes, yams, carrots and other root vegetables; cereals that contain rye, wheat, rice, oats or barley; and foods enhanced with corn syrup or maltodextrins.
GERSON: THE ODD MAN OUT
All the diets above have a lot of common, with a big focus on high-quality animal proteins, high-quality fats, and whole vegetables (mostly raw or lightly cooked). On the other hand, Gerson includes no animal protein except yogurt; almost no dietary fat; large amounts of mild juice; salads and well-cooked vegetables; no added salt; and a few supplements (including extra potassium). Like the Paleo-oriented diets, it includes no beans and almost no grains.
It seems to me that Paleo diets are focused largely on avoidance of irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, which is why they can provide such quick benefits for people who have gastrointestinal problems.
Gerson, however, is focused on detoxification — which (especially if mold toxins are involved) all things being equal tends to make the digestive tract more irritated. So Gerson is oriented toward the long-term and not necessarily a diet that is going to result in immediate feel-good results.
Huge amounts of produce, strict limits on high-sodium vegetables like celery, added potassium and no added salt creates a diet that is heavily tilted toward potassium. Supposedly, this results in the forcing of toxins from the cells in the body where they otherwise would remain trapped. (From what I have been able to ascertain, the low amounts of fats seem more specific to reducing cancer tumors.)
Although Gerson’s stated reason for including potatoes is the protein present in them, another noteworthy attribute is their large amount of potassium — more than almost any other fruit or vegetable. Potatoes also contain a reasonably large amount of Vitamin C, as well as some B vitamins (such as B6 and folinic acid) and some fiber (both soluble and insoluble).
So based on all of this, can potatoes be a good choice for people recovering from chronic neuroimmune illness, as their usage in the Gerson protocol suggests? Or are they more likely something that should be avoided in this illness, as some of these other individuals suggest?
WHAT ABOUT TOXINS?
As noted above, I have not found any appreciable amount of literature suggesting that potatoes tend to have a substantial problem with regard to being contaminated with toxic mold, and I’ve encountered very few extreme mold avoiders who have suggested that potatoes have been a problem for them in the way that other mold-contaminated food can be. So until I get more evidence to validate Dave’s suggestion that potatoes are a particularly risky food for those people sensitive to mycotoxins, my own conclusion is that careful purchase and usage of high-quality potatoes (individually selected and well-washed) may be worth considering even for those attempting to scrupulously avoid mycotoxins in food.
Potatoes certainly have natural toxic substances such as glycoalkaloids and lectin, however. The point of these substances seems to be to protect the plant from being eaten (making them “antinutrients”). Conventional thought is that cooking plants breaks down these substances to make them relatively harmelss. Also, since most of these chemicals are located near the skin (especially when the skin is noticeably green), peeling would further resolve problems with antinutrients (and also would seem to resolve issues with any molds that might be present).
What this may assume, however, is that the person eating the potato has a digestive tract that is functional enough to neutralize any toxins that survive the cooking process. And for that, the microorganisms in our guts — rather than our bodies themselves — seem to do most of the work.
For instance, Michael Pollan ponders in his most recent book, “Cooked”:
An interesting question is why the body would enlist bacteria in all these critical functions, rather than evolve its own systems to do this work. One theory is that, because microbes can evolve so much more rapidly than the “higher animals,” they can respond with much greater speed and agility to changes in the environment — to threats as well as opportunities. Exquisitely reactive and fungible, bacteria can swap genes and pieces of DNA among themselves, picking them up and dropping them almost as if they were tools. This capability is especially handy when a new toxin or food source appears in the environment. The microbiota can swiftly find precisely the right gene needed to fight it — or eat it.
Pollan’s comments make it seem that insofar as our gut bacteria are in good shape, neutralizing the toxins in foods like potatoes should be a simple matter. However, insofar as the microbiome is in a state of dysbiosis, then the problem with potatoes may not just be that the starch feeds the bad microorganisms and makes them worse. It also may be that toxins that would be easily neutralized in a healthy gut remain unchecked and thus do harm.
Increasingly, my own feeling is that the disturbance of the microbiome is perhaps the main way that mycotoxins exert their negative impact (though certainly there are other factors at play here as well). The main reason that mold is generally thought to make toxins at all is to kill off competitive bacteria and other micoorganisms so that it can grow more freely in the environment. Although bacteria work very hard to neutralize the mycotoxins that they encounter, at some point the amount present will become too much for them, causing dysbiosis whether in the microbiome (gut) or the macrobiome (environment).
I became especially convinced of this when I went through a period of time detoxifying large amounts of mold toxins very quickly through my intestines. Even though I was continuing to practice avoidance successfully, I found that I needed to drink a quart or two of homemade milk kefir to keep the yeast from going out of control at that time. After that stage of my recovery was finished, I found that I was able to skip the kefir and eat sugar without having any such problems at all.
The idea that mycotoxins might be responsible for gut dysbiosis should hardly be a surprise, considering that antibiotics are made mostly from mycotoxins (or, in the case of erythromycin, bacterial toxins). The idea that mycotoxins may establish gut dysbiosis in animals — leading to the proliferation of harmful microorganisms such as E. coli and salmonella that would not be an issue in a healthy gut — is well established in the agricultural literature as well.
This makes me think that perhaps the reason that my body didn’t have much interest in potatoes earlier in my recovery process was because insofar as I was detoxing mycotoxins through my intestines at that time, maybe they actually were not a very good idea for me to be eating.
On the other hand, if potatoes effectively serve as a binder for certain toxic substances such as heavy metals, it does make some sense that I would be craving them now, when proactively detoxing metals and with mold toxicity issues fading into the background.
And the idea that I would be especially wanting to eat potatoes drowned in lots of high-fat yogurt with active cultures that might help to neutralize the toxins makes a lot of sense too.
I’d like to hear more comments from blog readers about this.
Can you eat potatoes? Do you think they are a good thing for you? What kind of positive or negative effects have you experienced when you’ve tried eating them? Have any of these things changed over the course of your illness or move toward recovery? What issues related to potatoes has this essay left out or insufficiently discussed?
Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section below.
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