Starchy foods and carbohydrates

Starchy foods are our main source of carbohydrate and play an important role in a healthy diet.

Low-carb diets

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 and butter) 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, rice, pasta and cereals should make up just over a third of the food you eat, as shown by the Eatwell Guide. Where you can, choose wholegrain varieties, or eat potatoes with their skins on for more fibre.

We should eat some starchy foods every day as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

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 by reading Fat: the facts.

Starchy foods and fibre

Wholegrain varieties of starchy foods, and potatoes – particularly when eaten with their skins on – are good sources of fibre. Fibre is the name given to the diverse range of compounds found in the cell walls of vegetables, fruits, pulses and cereal grains. 

Indigestible fibre helps other food and waste products move through the gut more easily. The skin on potatoes, wholegrain bread and breakfast cereals, brown rice and wholewheat pasta are good sources of this kind of fibre.

Fibre can help keep our bowels healthy and can help us feel full, which means we are less likely to eat too much. This makes wholegrain starchy foods and potatoes eaten with their skins on a particularly good choice if you're trying to lose weight.

Some types of fibre – present in fruits and vegetables such as apples, turnips, sweet potatoes, oats and pulses – can be partly digested, and may help reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood.

Tips to eat more starchy foods

These tips can help you increase the amount of starchy foods in your diet.

Breakfast

  • Opt for wholegrain cereals, or mix some in with your favourite healthy breakfast cereals.
  • Porridge is perfect as a warming winter breakfast.
  • Whole oats with fruit and yoghurt make a great summer breakfast.

Get more healthy breakfast ideas.

Lunch and dinner

  • Try a baked potato for lunch – eat the skin for even more fibre.
  • If you're having sausages and mash, cut down on the number of sausages you eat and replace them with vegetables.
  • Have more rice or pasta and less sauce – but don't skip the vegetables.
  • Try different breads, such as seeded, wholemeal and granary. When you choose wholegrain varieties, you'll also increase the amount of fibre you're eating.
  • Try brown rice – it makes a very tasty rice salad.

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 (FSA) and the British Dietetic Association (BDA).

Potatoes

Potatoes are a great choice of starchy food and a good source of energy, fibre, B vitamins and potassium. 

In the UK, we also get a lot of our vitamin C from potatoes – although they only contain 11-16mg of vitamin C per 100g of potatoes, we generally eat a lot of them. They're good value for money and can be a healthy choice.

Although potatoes are vegetables, in the UK we mostly eat them as the starchy food part of a meal, and they're a good source of carbohydrate in our diets.

Because of this, potatoes don't count towards your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but they can play an important role in your diet. 

Potatoes are a healthy choice when boiled, baked, mashed or roasted with only a small amount of fat or oil and no added salt. French fries and other chips cooked in oil or served with salt are not a healthy choice.

When cooking or serving potatoes, try to go for lower-fat (polyunsaturated) spreads or small amounts of unsaturated oils, such as olive or sunflower oil, instead of butter. In mashed potato, use lower-fat milk – such as semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk – instead of whole milk or cream.

Leave potato skins on where possible to keep in more of the fibre and vitamins. For example, eat the skin when you're having boiled potatoes or a baked potato.

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 enough water to cover them and cook them only for as long as they need.

Storing potatoes in a cool, dark and dry place will help stop them sprouting. Don't eat any green, damaged or sprouting bits of potatoes.

Bread

Bread – especially wholemeal, granary, brown and seeded varieties – 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. If you prefer white bread, look for higher-fibre options.

Some people avoid bread because they think they're allergic to wheat, or they think bread is fattening. However, cutting out any type of food altogether might mean you miss out on a whole range of nutrients people need to stay healthy. If you're concerned that you have a wheat allergy or intolerance, speak to your GP.

Bread can be stored at room temperature. Follow the "best before" date to make sure you eat it fresh.

Cereal products

Cereal products are made from grains. The benefits of eating wholegrain cereals are that they can contribute to our daily intake of iron, fibre, B vitamins and protein. Higher-fibre options can also provide a slow release of energy.

Wheat, oats, barley, rye and rice are commonly available cereals that can be eaten as wholegrains. This means cereal products consisting of oats and oatmeal, like porridge, and wholewheat products are healthy breakfast options.

Barley, couscous, corn, quinoa and tapioca also count as healthy cereal products. 

Many cereal products in the UK are refined, with low wholegrain content. They can also be high in added salt and sugar. When you're shopping for cereals, check the food labels to compare different products.

For more advice, read about healthy breakfast cereals.

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:

  • all kinds of rice – such as quick-cook, arborio, basmati, long grain, brown, short grain and wild  
  • couscous
  • bulgur wheat

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 work properly

Rice and grains, such as couscous and bulgur 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.

It's therefore 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. Rice should be reheated thoroughly, reaching a core temperature of 70C for two minutes (or equivalent) so it's steaming hot throughout.

Rice should not be reheated more than once – it should be discarded. Don't reheat rice unless it has been chilled down safely and kept in the fridge until you reheat it. Further information on how to reheat and store rice can be found on the FSA website.

Follow the "use by" date and storage instructions on the label for any cold rice or grain salads that you buy.

Pasta in your diet

Pasta is another healthy option to base your meal on. It consists of dough made from durum wheat and water, and contains iron and B vitamins.

Wholewheat or wholegrain are healthier alternatives to ordinary pasta, as they contain more fibre. We digest wholegrain foods more slowly, so they can make us feel full for longer.

Dried pasta can be stored in a cupboard and typically has a long shelf life, while fresh pasta will need to be refrigerated and has a shorter lifespan. Check the food packaging for "best before" or "use by" dates and further storage instructions.

Acrylamide in starchy food

Acrylamide is a chemical that can be found in some starchy foods when they're toasted, roasted, baked, grilled or fried at high temperatures.

Some studies have suggested that acrylamide could be harmful to our health. The FSA recommends that bread should be toasted to the lightest colour acceptable, and, when chips are made at home, they are cooked to a light golden colour.

Manufacturers' instructions for frying or oven-heating foods should be followed carefully. When roasting or baking potatoes and root vegetables such as parsnips, or baking bread or pastry, avoid overcooking or burning these foods.

Boiling, steaming and microwave cooking are unlikely to produce much acrylamide.

Store potatoes somewhere dark, cool and dry, and not in the fridge. Storing potatoes at a very low temperature can increase the amount of sugar they hold, which could lead to higher levels of acrylamide when they are cooked.

For more information about acrylamide in manufactured food products, see the FSA survey on acrylamide.

Read more about preparing and cooking food safely.

Page last reviewed: 31/03/2015

Next review due: 31/03/2017

Ratings

How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 714 ratings

All ratings

211  ratings
93  ratings
48  ratings
40  ratings
322  ratings

Add your rating

How to get more fibre into your diet

Most people need to eat more fibre. Find out which foods are high in fibre and how to include more in your diet

Your NHS Health Check

Millions of people have already had their free 'midlife MOT'. Find out why this health check-up is so important

Eating well on a budget

In this video, dietitian Azmina Govindji gives advice on how to eat healthily on a budget.

Media last reviewed: 27/04/2015

Next review due: 27/04/2017

The truth about carbs

We sort the wheat from the chaff to bring you the evidence-based truth about carbs

What is a Mediterranean diet?

Find out what foods make up a typical Mediterranean diet and how it can benefit your health

Top diets review for 2016

Find a weight loss plan to suit you with our review of the most popular diets

Should you cut out bread from your diet?

Find out how to combat wheat sensitivity with a special wheat-free, anti-bloat diet

Is it a food allergy or intolerance?

Around 2% of people in the UK have a food allergy, but many more have a food intolerance

Food and diet

Find out how to achieve a healthy, nutritious diet to help you look and feel your best

5 A DAY

Whether you're cooking for a family or eating on the run, our tips and recipes can help you get your 5 A DAY

Food safety

How to prevent food poisoning at home, including E. coli, with advice on food safety and keeping germs in check