Starchy foods and carbohydrates
Starchy foods are our main source of carbohydrate and play an important role in a healthy diet.
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, and eat potatoes with their skins on for more fibre.
We should eat some starchy foods every day as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
During cooking, aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when baking, toasting, roasting or frying starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread.
Find out why you should cook starchy foods this way.
This page also has health benefits and storage advice for:
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.
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 a range of compounds found in the cell walls of vegetables, fruits, pulses and cereal grains.
Fibre that cannot be digested helps other food and waste products move through the gut more easily.
Potato skins, 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're 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, carrots, 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.
- Opt for wholegrain cereals, or mix some in with your favourite healthy breakfast cereals.
- Plain porridge with fruit is perfect as a warming winter breakfast.
- Whole oats with fruit and low-fat, lower-sugar 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.
- Instead of having chips or frying potatoes, try making oven baked potato wedges.
- 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
Nutrition information, presentation and storage advice for common starchy foods.
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 vitamin C in small amounts, 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 as these can contain toxins that can be harmful.
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're concerned that 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 are made from grains. Wholegrain cereals 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 and tapioca also count as healthy cereal products.
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
- bulgur wheat
As well as carbohydrates, rice and grains (particularly brown and wholegrain versions) can contain:
- 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 shouldn't be reheated more than once – it should be discarded. Don't reheat rice unless it's been chilled down safely and kept in the fridge until you reheat it.
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 help 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's created when many foods, particularly starchy foods like potatoes and bread, are cooked for long periods at high temperatures, such as when baking, frying, grilling, toasting and roasting.
There's evidence to show acrylamide can cause cancer.
The Food Standards Agency has the following tips to reduce your risk of acrylamide at home:
- Go for gold: aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when baking, toasting, roasting or frying starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread.
- Check the pack: follow the cooking instructions carefully when frying or oven-heating packaged food products such as chips, roast potatoes and parsnips. The on-pack instructions are designed to cook the product correctly. This ensures you aren't cooking starchy foods for too long or at temperatures that are too high.
- Eat a varied and balanced diet: while we can't completely avoid risks like acrylamide in food, this will help reduce your risk of cancer. This includes basing meals on starchy carbohydrates and getting your 5 A Day. Avoid frying or roasting potatoes and root vegetables. Instead, boil or steam them as this will both reduce your risk of acrylamide and cut down on fat.
- Don't keep raw potatoes in the fridge: storing raw potatoes in the fridge can increase overall acrylamide levels. Raw potatoes should ideally be stored in a dark, cool place at temperatures over 6C.
For more information, see the Food Standards Agency website.
Read more about preparing and cooking food safely.
Page last reviewed: 31 March 2017
Next review due: 31 March 2020