Healthy Living Help: What is Starch and What Role Does it Play in Your Body?

What is Starch?

Starch is a complex carbohydrate made from a chain of glucose molecules. It is the most common carb in the human diet. You’ll find it in many of the world’s staple foods, including rice, wheat, maize (corn), and potatoes. Most of the starch in your diet comes from eating grains and cereal products, legumes, seeds, nuts, and some vegetables. You probably already know that the potato is a starchy vegetable. Other examples of starchy vegetables are root vegetables and tubers like parsnips and cassava, green peas, and pumpkins and winter squash.

Starchy foods are an important source of energy for your body. Most of your body’s cells feed on glucose, in addition to amino acids and fats. But your brain, most especially, needs the glucose that comes from starch and other carbohydrates. The brain uses one half of all the sugar in your body. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Your blood sugar helps to maintain the healthy functioning of nerve cells. Glucose also feeds the production of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of your brain. Neurotransmitters help one neuron (nerve cell) to communicate with another, or with a muscle or gland cell. If you don’t have enough glucose in your body, it can be hard to focus. Low glucose levels are linked to deficits in attention and cognitive function.

Corn is more than 70% starch by weight | #24CarrotDiet
Corn is sometimes classified as a cereal and sometimes as a starchy vegetable

 

Nutrients in Starchy Foods

As we learned above, starch comes mainly from grains and cereals, from legumes, seeds and nuts, and from starchy vegetables. Starchy foods provide other nutrients too. They often contain B vitamins, including folate. They also provide minerals like calcium and iron. And they can often be a good source of fiber, another important carbohydrate.

We all know fiber as the stuff that keeps us regular. But dietary fiber also plays an important role in making us feel full when we eat. This is why eating a high fiber, low calorie soup before a meal can help you eat less and lose weight. Both soluble and insoluble fiber help to promote heart health. And the insoluble fiber also feeds your gut bacteria, which we now know can improve your immune system and help prevent everything from cancer to the common cold.

Diet Trends and Carbohydrates

A 19th Century Low Carb Diet

Diet trends change every few years, and it seems that the people who lead the trends have a fondness for blaming ill health on specific foods. In the Civil War era, Dr. James Salisbury was aware that some foods, particularly legumes and starchy vegetables, ferment in the gut. But he blamed this process for all manner of disease, including tuberculosis, which we now know to be a bacterial infection.

Salisbury recommended a diet that consisted mostly of meat, as he believed that fruits, vegetables, and bread products caused too much gut fermentation and led to disease. Salisbury steak was introduced as a health food. Salisbury’s recommended diet was two parts meat for every one part of fruits and vegetables, and an even smaller amount of bread and grain products. Several other low carb diets were championed by nutrition gurus around the early to mid-19th century.

A High Carb Diet for Weight Loss and Health

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, on the other hand, was raised a Seventh-day Adventist and believed in a vegetarian diet. Kellogg was as much businessman as he was doctor, and patented many processes, recipes, and devices. Among his inventions are granola, corn flakes and other breakfast cereals, a method for making peanut butter, and soy-based imitation meats.

Kellogg opened his infamous sanatorium around the same time that Salisbury was recommending his heavily meat-based diet. More than a hundred years later, little has changed when it comes to diet trends. The public is still bombarded with conflicting diet theories. Many of these centre around claims that carbohydrates are either the cause of our growing weight problem, or the cure for it. One school of though recommends a low carb diet, while another simultaneously recommends a high carb diet for weight loss.

 

Carbohydrates and Weight Loss

A few years back, we started hearing that we should cut back on carbs like white rice and pasta. Not long after, experts began to expand their advice. I remember a doctor about five years ago, telling my husband to completely stop eating everything white. Nutrition gurus rejected carbohydrates, and most especially starch, in much the same way that Salisbury had more than a hundred years earlier. But was this any different from Kellogg promoting a high carb diet, or nutrition experts in the late 20th century telling us to cut back on fats?

Despite all the claims for and against a diet based mainly on one type of food, the current thinking is that a balanced diet is best. The recommended diet in Canada, the United States, and Britain is one that emphasizes whole vegetables and whole grains. Meat, dairy products, and even fats all have their place in a healthy diet. But there are always going to be people who recommend cutting out carbs, rejecting all meat, dairy and eggs, or avoiding starchy foods.

Why Low Carb Diets Don’t Work in the Long Run

You’ve probably asked yourself, “Will cutting carbs help me lose weight?” Unless you’ve been eating an unhealthy amount of carbs, the answer is probably no. Christina Stiehl of Eat This, Not That! lists seven reasons why cutting out carbs isn’t the answer. Among them are the loss of fiber from your diet, and the fact that a low carb diet can leave you with a lack of energy that can actually result in you being less active.

The lack of energy is the result of lower blood sugar levels. But the loss of B vitamins that usually come along with starchy foods is also a factor. B vitamins provide energy for your body and mind. They also help in the production of neurotransmitters that keep your brain working. Eating enough carbohydrates to supply your needs is much healthier than taking supplements.

Craving Carbs

Another side effect of cutting out carbs is that you’ll start to crave them. Carbohydrates in general and starch in particular are necessary to your health. Your body is actually designed to make you crave carbs when your blood sugar starts to drop too low. And when these cravings come at an inopportune moment, you’re more likely to snack on highly processed carbs. You’re also more likely to end up eating a high-calorie fast food meal that’s low on nutrients but loaded with sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats.

Some fast food meals contain more than a day’s worth of meat. And even the salads sometimes supply enough calories for a whole day! You aren’t going to lose weight eating like this! Even if you do manage to lose a good bit of weight when you first start a low carb diet, it’s probably from water loss. And no carb diets or diets that severely restrict your carbohydrate intake simply aren’t sustainable. You’ll end up gaining weight from the decrease in physical activity because you have no energy. Or you’ll just gain the weight back once you stop the diet and go back to eating the way you normally would.

Resistant Starch

We’ve established that carbs are a necessary part of our diet. But what about starchy foods? Well, it turns out that all this gut fermentation that Salisbury was so distressed about is actually a good thing. Remember we discussed that foods higher in starch also tend to be high in fiber? Well, some kinds of fiber are prebiotic, meaning they feed your gut bacteria. And we’ve also learned that some of the starch from our foods does the same thing. We call this kind of starch, resistant starch. And we now know that eating resistant starch can make you healthy.

Resistant starch is linked to improved digestion and may help to lower your risk of colorectal cancer. Eating resistant starch also improves your body’s insulin sensitivity, which may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic disorder and obesity, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Resistant starch is also associated with something called the “second meal effect.” When you eat resistant starch early in the day, it will help you to avoid insulin spikes at the initial meal. Then later in the day, it can also lower the insulin spike at the next meal too. Not only that, but eating foods that contain resistant starch can also help you feel more full, which aids in weight loss.

Potato Starch for Gut Health

Despite the fact that many diet gurus and even doctors have been telling us to avoid white potatoes, they are actually pretty healthy. If you look up potato nutritional info, you’ll learn that this tuber supplies a lot of healthy nutrients, including a large amount of vitamin C and fiber that makes you feel full.

We’ve also learned that when potatoes are cooked and then cooled, a good amount of resistant starch is formed. You can also buy a supplement like Bob’s Red Mill potato starch. Adding potato starch to other foods can be an effective way to ensure you are getting enough resistant starch in your diet. The jury is still out on whether supplementation is worth it. But if you aren’t getting enough starch in your diet, it is an option you might want to consider.

The bottom line is that starch is good for you. It’s the most abundant carbohydrate in the human diet, and it provides both physical energy and brain food that your body needs. Foods rich in starch also tend to be rich in fiber and B vitamins. Both the fiber and the resistant starch that ferments in your gut are particularly healthy – and helpful for weight loss. Eating resistant starch can help you feel full, so you’ll eat less. It also helps to improve insulin sensitivity and prevents unhealthy insulin spikes.

Include whole grains, root vegetables and other starchy vegetables, and nuts, seeds, and legumes in your diet to ensure you’re getting enough starch. If you can’t eat some of these foods for whatever reason, consider supplementing your diet by adding potato starch to other foods. But in general, try to just eat healthy foods that contain starch.

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Starchy foods supply important nutrients | #24CarrotDiet |
Starchy foods supply glucose (brain food,) vitamins & minerals, and fiber
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Original content © 2018 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
Rotmos graphic created in Canva using a licensed image from Flickr user Craig Dugas (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Public domain images by Pixabay user PDPics

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