Starches. What is it and what is it good for?

In this installment of Simple Food Terms Explained, we explore the world of starches, carbohydrates and the role they play in a healthy diet.

What are Starches and What are They Good for?

Starch is one of three types of nutrients called carbohydrates; the other two are sugars and fiber. Most starches are broken down to sugars during digestion, and used in this form as energy by the body. Starches consist of many glucose united linked together and can be found in a variety of foods such as beans, vegetables, and grains.

Carbohydrates, or carbs, may have gotten a bad reputation in recent years. The fact is that carbohydrates are still considered one of the main nutrients in a healthy diet. The two main forms of carbs are:

Simple Carbohydrates (or simple sugars): such as fructose, glucose, and lactose; these are found in nutritious whole fruits and milk.

Complex Carbohydrates (or starches): found in starchy vegetables, whole grains, rice, legumes, and breads and cereals.

During the process of digestion, your body breaks down the sugars and starches and turns them into glucose (blood sugar). This is the main energy source for the brain, central nervous system, and red blood cells. Glucose that is not immediately used by the body is stored in the liver and muscle; all excess calories get converted to body fat.

With simple carbs, troubles arise when you eat too many of the type of carbs that are easily broken down into simple sugars, causing blood sugar level to rise quickly. This triggers the pancreas to release insulin, which moves sugar from the blood into the cells and creates a burst of energy. In many instances, the “sugar high” is often followed by a “crash,” leaving you feeling lethargic.

Complex carbohydrates like those in whole grains, however, are broken down more slowly. This allows a more gradual rise in blood sugar and less spiking of insulin release.

What are Healthy Sources of Starch?

It’s recommended that you get most of your carbohydrates from whole foods. This benefits you because, in addition to calories, whole foods provide fiber, minerals and vitamins.

The following foods are nutrient-rich, high in starch, and many are also rich in fiber:

Fresh Fruits: Although they contain simple carbs, they also contain fiber and vitamins (12-45g).

Starchy Vegetables: Potatoes(15-60g), sweet potatoes(60g), corn(15-30g), green peas(15g), lima beans, winter squash(10-30g) and parsnips.

Whole Grains: Think brown rice (45g), barley, quinoa, and oats (10g).

Canned and Dried Beans: Kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, split peas, black-eyed peas, and garbanzo beans (15g) are good examples.

How Much Starch is Enough?

The USDA’s recently revised MyPlate Food Guide is a great starting point to see how much starch you should be consuming for a healthy diet. It breaks down and illustrates the amounts of food in each group that you should consume daily. Recommendations are based on your age, gender, height, weight, and activity level. It also gives serving suggestions and even lists the types of foods to avoid.

The Institute of Medicine recommends an acceptable range for carbohydrates of 45-65 percent of total calories. So if you get 2,000 calories daily, then 900-1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates (225-325 grams per day).

How to Balance Your Starch Intake

Eating too many carbs in the form of processed, highly refined, or sugary foods results in an increase intake in total calories. Weight gain is a noticeable result.

If you severely restrict carb intake, a condition called ketosis may occur. This happens when your body starts metabolizing your fat stores for energy because you are not eating enough carbs in food. Ketosis may side effects such as headache, nausea, bad breath, and physical and mental fatigue.

As with everything, moderation is key. Too much or too little carbs will prevent you from a healthy diet. Eating healthy is a lifelong journey. Choosing wisely what you eat and drink today will lead you down the path to a healthier future.