Starchy foods are our main source of carbohydrate, and play an important role in a healthy diet.
Low-carbohydrate (low-carb) diets usually involve cutting out most starchy foods. These diets tend to be high in fat, and eating a high-fat diet (especially saturated fat from foods such as meat, cheese, butter and cakes) could increase your risk of heart disease. Low-carb diets could also restrict the amount of fruit, vegetables and fibre you eat, so try to ensure starchy foods make up about a third of your diet.
For information and advice about healthy weight loss, see Lose weight.
Starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, cereals, rice, pasta should make up about a third of the food you eat. Where you can, choose wholegrain varieties.
Starch is the most common form of carbohydrate in our diet. We should eat some starchy foods every day as part of a healthy balanced diet.
Data published by the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, which looks at food consumption in the UK, shows that most of us should be eating more starchy foods.
Why do you need starchy foods?
Starchy foods are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet.
As well as starch, they contain fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.
Some people think starchy foods are fattening, but gram for gram they contain fewer than half the calories of fat. Just watch out for the added fats used when you cook and serve them: this is what increases the calorie content.
Learn more about fat in Fat: the facts.
Starchy foods and fibre
Wholegrain varieties of starchy foods are good sources of fibre. Fibre can help to keep our bowels healthy, and can help us to feel full, which means we are less likely to eat too much. This makes wholegrain starchy foods a particularly good choice if you are trying to lose weight.
Fibre is only found in foods that come from plants. There are two types of fibre:
- Insoluble fibre. The body can’t digest this type of fibre, so it passes through the gut, helping other food and waste products move through the gut more easily. Wholegrain bread and breakfast cereals, brown rice, and wholewheat pasta are good sources of this kind of fibre.
- Soluble fibre. This type of fibre can be partly digested and may help reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood. Oats and pulses are good sources.
Tips to eat more starchy foods
These tips can help you to increase the amount of starchy foods in your diet.
- When you choose wholegrain varieties, you’ll also increase the amount of fibre you are eating.
- Porridge is perfect as a warming winter breakfast.
- Whole oats with fruit and yoghurt make a great summer breakfast.
- Opt for wholegrain cereals or mix some in with your favourite cereal.
- Have more rice or pasta and less sauce.
- Try different breads, such as seeded, wholemeal, and granary, and go for thick slices.
- Try brown rice: it makes a very tasty rice salad.
- If you’re having sausages and mash, have more mash, some vegetables and cut down on the number of sausages you eat.
Types of starchy foods
Below you’ll find more detailed information about the nutritional benefits of some of the most common starchy foods, along with information on storage and preparation from the Food Standards Agency.
Potatoes are classified nutritionally as a starchy food.
Although a potato is a vegetable, it doesn’t count towards your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Instead, potatoes count as starchy food, because when eaten as part of a meal they are generally eaten instead of other starchy sources, such as pasta, rice or bread.
Potatoes are a healthy menu choice when they’re not cooked in too much salt or fat. They’re a good source of energy, fibre, B vitamins and potassium.
Although potatoes don’t contain much vitamin C compared to other vegetables, in Britain we get a lot of our daily vitamin C from them because we eat so many.
When cooking or serving potatoes, try to go for lower fat (polyunsaturated) spreads or unsaturated oils like olive or sunflower oil, instead of butter.
Leave the skins on where possible, to keep in more of the fibre and vitamins. If you’re boiling potatoes, some nutrients will leak out into the water, especially if you’ve peeled them. To stop this happening, only use only enough water to cover them and cook them for the minimum time.
When storing potatoes, keep them somewhere dark, cool and dry, but not in the fridge. This is because putting them in the fridge can increase the amount of sugar they hold, which could lead to higher levels of a chemical called acrylamide when the potatoes are roasted, baked or fried at high temperatures. Acrylamide is thought to be harmful to our health: for more see the FSA page on acrylamide.
Keeping potatoes cool and dry will also help stop them sprouting: don’t eat any green or sprouting bits of potatoes.
Rice and grains
Rice and grains are an excellent choice of starchy food. They give us energy, are low in fat and good value for money.
There are many types to choose from, including:
- bulgar wheat
- all kinds of rice, such as quick-cook, arborio, basmati, long grain, brown, short grain and wild
As well as carbohydrates, rice and grains contain:
- protein, which the body needs to grow and repair itself
- fibre, which can help the body get rid of waste products
- B vitamins, which help release energy from the food we eat, and help the body to work properly
Rice and grains, such as couscous and bulgar wheat, can be eaten hot or cold and in salads.
There are a few precautions you should take when storing and reheating cooked rice and grains. This is because the spores of some food poisoning bugs can survive cooking.
If cooked rice or grains are left standing at room temperature, the spores can germinate. The bacteria multiply and produce toxins that can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. Reheating food won’t get rid of the toxins.
Therefore, it’s best to serve rice and grains when they’ve just been cooked. If this isn’t possible, cool them within an hour after cooking and keep them refrigerated until reheating or using in a cold dish.
It’s important to throw away any rice and grains that have been left at room temperature overnight.
If you aren’t going to eat rice immediately, refrigerate it within one hour and eat within 24 hours. Don’t reheat rice and grains more than once.
Follow the “use by” date and storage instructions on the label for any cold rice or grain salads that you buy.
Bread, especially wholemeal, granary, brown and seeded breads, is a healthy choice to eat as part of a balanced diet.
Wholegrain, wholemeal and brown breads give us energy and contain B vitamins, vitamin E, fibre and a wide range of minerals. White bread also contains a range of vitamins and minerals, but it has less fibre than wholegrain, wholemeal or brown breads.
Some people avoid bread because they think they’re allergic to wheat, or because they think bread is fattening. But cutting out any type of food altogether could be bad for your health, because you might miss out on a whole range of nutrients that we need to stay healthy.