Starchy foods

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, cereals, rice and pasta should make up about a third of the food you eat. Where you can, choose wholegrain varieties, or eat potatoes with their skins on for more fibre.

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, and potatoes – particularly when eaten with their skins on – 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 and potatoes eaten with their skins 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.
  • Try a jacket potato for lunch, and eat the skin for even more fibre.
  • 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 and the British Dietetic Association.

Potatoes

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

In the UK we get a lot of our vitamin C from potatoes because, although they only contain between 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 menu choice.

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

Although a potato is a vegetable, in the UK we mostly eat them as the starchy food part of a meal. 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. 

When cooking or serving potatoes, try to go for lower fat (polyunsaturated) spreads or unsaturated oils such as olive or sunflower oil, instead of butter.

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 jacket 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 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:

  • couscous
  • bulgur 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 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.

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

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.

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.

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

Pasta

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, as well as a small amount of sodium (salt). Wholewheat or wholegrain are healthier alternatives to ordinary pasta as they contain more fibre. Also, 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 refrigerating and has a shorter lifespan. Check the food packaging for "best before" or "use by" dates and further storage instructions.

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. They can also provide a slow release of energy throughout the day.

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 the nutrition levels of different products.

Always check the food packaging for "best before" or "use by" dates and for storage instructions.

Acrylamide in starchy food

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

Some studies have suggested that acrylamide could be harmful to our health. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommends that bread should be toasted to the lightest colour acceptable, and, when chips are made at home, that they are cooked to a light golden colour. Manufacturers' instructions for frying or oven-heating foods should be followed carefully and, when roasting or baking root vegetables and potatoes, or baking bread or pastry, it is a good idea to avoid overcooking or burning.

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

When storing potatoes, keep them 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, see the FSA survey on acrylamide.

Page last reviewed: 29/03/2013

Next review due: 29/03/2015

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Comments

The 24 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Gill Wiz said on 05 May 2014

I cannot believe how out-of-date the NHS guidelines to healthy eating are! Ditch the starchy carbs including brown rice and wholemeal bread if you want to lose weight. Get your carbs from vegetables (they include fibre for helping your gut and avoiding Diverticular disease) and up your protein to a minimum of 150grams a day. Look at books recommended by the Diabetic Association for sensible eating. Try 'Carbs & Cals' for easy referencing. Add regular exercise, walking, swimming, or a team sport at least 3 times a week and you'll be well on the way to feeling fitter and healthier.

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Amy414 said on 23 October 2013

@lee930 I agree with most of what you've written; however, one does not need to vary exercise as much as you've stated. Walking is the best and easiest way to stay in shape. It's free and easy. Walk, walk, walk. Move around during the day. Other exercise, such as swimming, is also good. But if you don't have access to a pool, just walk. Also adding some resistance training (light weight lifting) is good, particularly for adults over 40. Couple walking with healthy eating, and you will lose weight and become an overall healthier person.

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lee930 said on 08 October 2013

Eat a balanced diet, that means vary what you eat from each group every day. For example for lunch today I had a salad made from carrots, cabbage, apple, sardines, cucumber, lettuce, onions and mushrooms. After the salad I had a kiwi fruit.

Tomorrows lunch might be corn on the cob (without the butter) and a banana.

Just pick something from each food group and make sure it's different to what you ate yesterday.

Dairy products are bad for you, we all know that, but no reason why you can't have a bowl of cereal every other day. At least you are getting some calcium. I wouldn't trust milk on a daily basis because it contains growth hormone from the cows, this is bad news for us guys and it's why the majority of guys these days have moobs. Same goes for chicken or any other factory farmed meat, don't eat it everyday, alternate it with fresh fish.

I would most definitely avoid cheese, cakes, crisps, all sweets, butter / margarine, salt, take-away food and ready meals. There really is no excuse to eat them whatsoever, they are not that nice anyway. Save the indulgence for when you go out to a restaurant.

Exercise...you only need 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise, that's been proven time and time again. So don't let anybody talk you into spending 3 hours a day wearing out your joints on a treadmill. They are the sort of people that end up with arthritis anyway. Again, vary your form of exercise, day 1 go for a run, day 2 maybe some yoga, etc etc.

We are not machines, we need to vary what we do when it comes to eating and exercising.

I ate ready meals and takeaway food for 10 years and switched to healthy eating about 2 years ago, the last time I felt this fit and healthy was when I was 15, I'm 33 now. I used to get aches and pains, heart palpitations, was constantly out of breath and tired. Now I feel like I've been reborn.

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Perry90 said on 25 August 2013

Reading the comment's there seems a lot of confusion on the subject.

There are three main types of Carbohydrates, some good some bad:

Starches (Complex) and dietary fiber which are good for you, like dry beans, peas, corn, oatmeal, nut's and seeds also fruit yes fruit contains carbohydrates.

Sugar itself is a form of carbohydrate, in such things as fruit it can be a good thing. 65% of our bodies use of carbs is fuel to the brain and needs a certain amount of glucose to function correctly from the likes of carbohydrates.

Where it all goes wrong are other refined types of carbohydrates like, refined sugar in any variety, white breads, desert pie's, cookies etc. In essence highly refined (Human) made cheap fatty food's packed full of carbs are an easy way to cause hypoglycemia (potentially diabetes) and gain weight very fast.

Your body is made to run on carbs, it's just knowing the right ones to use. E.g. White bread bad, wholegrain bread good.

Pizza is off the menu.

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Imipak said on 02 August 2013

Well, that's just great. My partner (who's lost a lot of weight on a very low-starch diet) is dead sure that starchy foods are fattening. But the official NHS advice is that it's not fattening, in fact it's good for you and should be a third of what I eat. Then I read the comments. Now I'm even more confused than ever, and I really haven't a clue what to think.

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oliverthered said on 06 May 2013

Ok, i've done some research, the french paradox, the australian paradox, origional studdies suggesting low fat diets, low carb diest, fat and carbohydrate metabolism, GI.GL, diabeties advice (which is total carbs not GI is the most important thing overall, though low GI is also recomended).. There also seems to be a link between high carbs (not exercised off) and increased LDL (bad cholesterol) and high fat and increased HDL (good cholesterol) and decreased LDL. Calorie controlled diets (no good once you stop) weight maintained diets, add-lib diets, low carb, low fat, high fat, high carb etc.. diets (those are the ones you wan as you naturally stop eating less or eat more etc...)

Anyhow, this is by far the best published summary I've found regarding, 'government' dietary advice.

The same research group conducted another study in overweight children (60). Two weight-loss diets were tested, one in accordance with the US dietary recommendations (En%: 15–20% as protein, 25–30% as fat, and 55–60% as carbohydrate). The other diet was a nonenergy-restricted diet with a low GI but also low carbohydrate content (20–25% of energy as protein, 30–35% as fat, and 45–50% as carbohydrate). Weight loss was 1.2 kg in the low-GI group, whereas the recommended-diet group gained 1.4 kg. The results in this study regarding the type of carbohydrate are also difficult to interpret because a number of dietary factors apart from carbohydrate type, including the amount of carbohydrate, were different in the 2 groups. Lindroos et al (61) followed 409 gastroplasty patients for 2 y and found that patients who continued to select sweet foods appear to maintain lower energy intake and lose more weight.

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oliverthered said on 29 April 2013

dietry information is out of date, diets low in carbs not fats are better for metabloic syndrom, strongly linked to heart diesese.

I'd also like to add that starch is nothing more than a load of sugar molicules stuck together. would you eat a bag of sugar a day? if your eating that much starch then that's effectivly what you are doing.

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Anniejay said on 17 April 2013

I am SO glad there are some people out there who are informed enough to realise how flawed the information on pages like these is. Sugar is the enemy and is the main reason for our obesity epidemic. Starch/carbs should be the least prominent food group in our diet and I do not believe government websites should be giving us 'Tips to eat more starchy foods' ! Far from it, we do not need carbs to survive (unless you are an endurance athlete perhaps). I firmly believe people should go primal/paleo to find out what real health feels like.

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Mike Cercatore said on 04 April 2013

User 363614 on 13/08/11 foolishly claims our species 'homo sapiens' evolved without carbs. Watch a BBC documentary on You Tube where Dr Alicia Roberts (in a series on human evolution and anatomy) explains the importance of amylase (starch receptor). Chimps have 2 in their mouths, we have 6. Starch eating may have led to an increase in our brain size (together with cooking). The pre-columbian site at Monteverdi in Chili, dated to 13,800 years ago, has shown evidence that the people were eating the primitive potato, as well as numerous other wild seeds (all starches). A pre-neolithic site At Abu Hureya in Syria shows the people there were gathering and processing wild seeds (Starches) hundreds of years before the advent of agriculture.

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Mike Cercatore said on 04 April 2013

User 363614 claims homo sapiens evolved without starchy carbs. Chimps have 2 receptors in their mouth for amylase (starch), we have 6. At Monteverde 13800 years ago people were eating potatoes (starches) plus many other wild seeds (starches).

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LBaileyLorenzo said on 24 February 2013

I've just read about starchy foods and carbohydrates on the NHS, the BBC, the Food Standards Agency and Diabetes UK. They all argue that it's good for you and contributes little to weight.

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saxon158 said on 18 February 2013

Bread always knocks my glucose level out of spec. If I avoid bread, then I'm OK.

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Dave Houlbrooke said on 11 February 2013

Whenever I read stuff like this, I always think there's some massive conspiracy going on - and I'm generally the sort of person who believes in that kinda stuff!

Like, 90% of the world's people get 90% of their diet from grains. They're cheap and easy to grow. If we suddenly announced "Oh, maybe they're not good for you", there'd probably be a bit of a panic.

We just don't grow enough cows or healthy green vegetables to feed everyone better. Billions of people would likely die in the ensuing panic, and the price of meat would go through the roof as demand soared.

So for now, remember, grains are healthy. But if you want to live longer and not get horrendously overweight, don't eat them - because we've really not evolved to digest them properly.

Just don't tell anyone - protect the secret, and let's not let all the poor people on the planet realise they've been tricked into eating cardboard. Rich people eat high quality meat and veg. Poor people eat grains.

Is it just me?

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DaiB said on 24 January 2013

I agree with CRCombie. This rubbish is dished out to many new diabetics i.e. eat carbs with every meal and at the % shown on the Eat-well plate and surprise, surprise many see their blood sugar rise and have to have more meds added; madness. Carbs are not an essential part of any diet but are fine at a sensible calorie level . They are NOT needed to keep the brain going (one of many NHS mis-truths) as fat and protein can provide the glucose needed. The word Starch should be banned as it may be fine when food is uncooked but often produces a high-GI carb when cooked. Use the terms 'high-fibre' and 'low-GI'. In summary excess, high-GI carbs = obesity and high blood sugar in a growing percentage of the population

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CRCombe said on 08 September 2012

Unbelievable that this rubbish is still mainstream advice. All the diseases caused by the starch-carb diet are getting more and more widespread and life expectancy is expected to drop. When will people notice the elephant in the bread bin?

As for the side-bar on low-carb diets....give me a break. I know of no Low-carb regime that promotes eating cakes. Some like Atkins do exclude veg and fruit, but a balanced diet of meat, fish, veg, fruit and nuts (Paleo/primal) is the diet we're genetically programmed to eat.

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randompaul said on 19 July 2012

The China study, and for that matter The documentary forks over knives, is deeply flawed and full of bad science. Although The sentiment is in The right place, but it continually groups The nutrition world into only two possible diets, The vegan (sorry...whole foods plant based) diet, or The diet that The rest of The world eats. There's no mention of fish, for example and it seems to think that casein isolate fed to rats at 20% caloric intake is a good comparison to all meat eating and so recommends not eating meat. And a MacDonald burger is not The same as a grass fed steak! For a great critique, read http://rawfoodsos.com/2010/07/07/the-china-study-fact-or-fallac/. also, we don't need starchy food for slow burning energy, nor do we need to replace starch with even more fruits and vegetables (which are very good for you and should be eaten in large quantities)... Fat is The body's preferred fuel source, which is why we store excess foods as fat. People need to remove starchy food and add more fatty whole food like organs, butter, avocado, coconut, nuts, fish, and red palm oil.

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ificouldrecapture said on 15 July 2012

fruit and veg are better sources of carbs, but as they digest quickly we would need a hell of a lot of them to fill up on for our calories so we also need slower digesting ones like rice, pasta, grains etc for our busy modern lives. 70-80 % of your diet should come from fruits/veg and starches and the rest from fat and protiens to stay lean. It's not rocket science. Sugar is not the enemy, it's bad fats and processed foods.

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ificouldrecapture said on 15 July 2012

People who think high carb, low fat makes you overweight are so wrong. The healthiest groups of people on the planet survive off a high carb, low fat diet, read 'The China Study' or watch this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZ3hS9jpmm0

The mainstream health industry need to stop promoting contradicting information and only promote the facts. I say well done to the NHS for putting the truth out there in this case.

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randompaul said on 14 July 2012

Also, since when did wheat, or even grains, become a food group??? There are three food groups, protein, carbs, fat, and we should be getting plenty of all three while avoiding the nasties that are in grains.

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randompaul said on 14 July 2012

This article is ridiculous! There is no mention off the fact that potatoes and rice will quickly break down into sugar, causing a spike of insulin, and for the excess carbohydrates to be converted and stored as fat. Carbohydrates serve a purpose during endurance or intensive exercise, but the body goes in to emergency mode when it has too much sugar in the bloodstream any other time... Whether it's complex or simple, it all turns to sugar in the bloodstream fast! And that's not even mentioning the phytates and anti nutrients in other grains that not only make absorbing any vitamins and minerals from the grains themselves, but also block the absorption of any from other food too, leaving you worse off than before! And wheat is an appetite stimulant, meaning you just can't stop eating it until you feel bloated, then need to eat more soon after. People should be getting their carbs from none starchy real food like vegetables and fruit, using starch like potato after intensive exercise to triple glycogen in the muscles.

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Rev James said on 24 February 2012

Limiting sugar in the diet is the key to longevity. White bread, potatoes, white rice and pasta all break down to sugar in the body.

It is the high carb low fat diet that is causing the obesity epidemic in the U.K.

I didn't read a mention of High/Low GI food.

I recommend anyone interested in their health read "Good Calories Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes.

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User363614 said on 01 November 2011

“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.”
I’m appalled. This statement is deliberately misleading. The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare stated in 2008 that low-carb high-fat diets were compatible with scientific evidence and best practice for weight reduction, as this video shows http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSeSTq-N4U4.
High glycaemic foods however are demonstrated to contribute to chronic diseases such as insulin resistance, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer. You can get plenty of vitamins, minerals and fibre from healthful fruit and vegetables without resorting to such a high proportion of starchy foods. Grouping these foods together to elevate their importance appears to be scaremongering to maintain the status quo of ‘healthy eating’ guidelines.

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applebypd said on 24 August 2011

When is the NHS going to read the research on the link between refined carbohydrates and obesity.

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User363614 said on 13 August 2011

Why do starchy carbs "play an important role in a healthy diet", when our species evolved without them?

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