Starch is the most common carbohydrate in the human diet | #24CarrotDiet

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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18 thoughts on “Healthy Living Help: What is Starch and What Role Does it Play in Your Body?”

    1. I don’t think I’d last long on the Paleo or Keto diets, either! Cutting out many healthy foods or skewing the diet so it has very high amounts of certain macros while almost none of others, it’s just not practical or desirable for me!

  1. I love carbs and could also never give them up. I eat pasta most nights as that is my favourite food but I also make sure that I do not eat after 6:30 PM so that they would have time to break down. Everything in moderation is also the key.

  2. I tried to give up on carbs once and failed miserably. I watched a documentary where they were talking about carbs and confirmed, after some tests, that there was no difference between having your carbs at night and during the day in regards to for weight loss. Yet that’s what is preached all over. Thanks for the very informative post!

    1. That’s interesting, Christine! I knew that researchers had compared high carb and low carb diets (no difference there, either!) but hadn’t heard about them looking into when you eat your carbs. Thanks for mentioning it!

  3. OMGG YESS FINALLY!! Love this post carbs is so misconstrued and stepping away from it does us more bad than good in my opinion! Keep up the amazing info 😀

    1. My way of looking at food has always been that if we keep eating the foods our grandparents used to eat, in moderation, we should be OK. But it’s best to eat whole fruits and vegetables as often as possible, to respect portion size, and to make other foods from scratch whenever we can. We run into trouble today by eating too many processed foods, eating too much at one sitting and then eating again before our bodies have really become hungry, and by eating too narrow a range of foods in too large a portion.

  4. I love carbs and could never ever give them up! I’ve seen so many people over the years give up carbs or say carbs are bad, but just like you mentioned that you’ll just gain the weight back once you go back to your normal eating habits. Lots of people lately on my FB have been going on the Keto Diet to lose weight, but I just don’t think it’s super substainable, you know? We need carbs.

    1. There is a long history of using the Keto diet for people who have either diabetes or epilepsy. But it’s not necessarily sustainable (or even necessary) for the rest of the population. The idea of going a while between meals in order to allow hormones other than insulin (e.g. growth hormone) to do their job does have a basis in science, however. Nutritional ketosis does have its benefits, especially for weight loss.

      That said, trying to cut carbs out of our diets completely is removing an important fuel source that our bodies – and most especially, our brains – need to function. And when scientists looked at low carb vs high carb diets, they discovered that neither one was more effective than the other when it comes to promoting weight loss. So there’s no need to cut out the carbs, as long as we eat a variety of foods, in moderation!

  5. This is a very informative post! Many people I know cut back on carbs to lose weight, but I can’t ever seem to do it since I love (white) pasta way too much! I agree that a healthy balanced diet is key – reducing carbs would also mean reducing the health benefits that come along with it and that’s never a good thing as I’m not one to take supplements either (why do that when you can get it from food?). Weight loss is very subjective, sometimes you never know if you’ve just gained/lost water weight, have hormones acting up, or you just may be bloated that day.

  6. I have really been trying to make better food decisions and your blog has been very helpful on understanding some of my food choices! I have been tracking my macros lately and have really seen that you do need carbs – which was shocking bc like you said it your post I had read that people are always saying carbs are bad! But obviously at a healthy balance! I love my carbs!
    Ashley Stephenson recently posted…Currently | February 2018My Profile

    1. Wow Ashley, I’m so glad that my posts are helping you with your nutrition journey! That is so rewarding for me to hear, and it encourages me to keep on blogging 🙂

      You know, a lot of us think that “carbs” means just starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes, or processed foods made with white flour (bread, crackers, cookies, etc.) But a stalk of celery or a carrot are actually carbs too! They just have lower calorie counts than many other foods and provide less sugar than other carbs do. That means we can eat a lot more of them (and therefore benefit from their micronutrients, like vitamin A) without overeating.

  7. Such an informative piece of writing. Craving Carbs is one of the worst challenges I’ve ever faced. It makes me want to rip hair out of my head. I usually eat sweet corns in that time. But, the craving for carbs is horrible. :'(

    1. Corn is a very nutrient-dense food. One cup of sweet yellow corn supplies 606 calories, which is enough for an entire meal! So it’s important to eat it sparingly. But I should mention that the density isn’t just about calories: corn supplies roughly half the fiber, magnesium, and vitamin B6 you need for a whole day. It also provides 25% of your daily iron and a whopping 32% of protein. That’s more protein than kidney beans, which nobody will tell you are unhealthy!

      Just remember that you need to eat a variety of foods that contain various macronutrients – carbs, proteins, and fats. And that calorie-dense foods like corn aren’t the only way to get your carbs and feel satisfied. Did you know that potatoes are more satisfying than carbs like crackers, cookies, and even Mars bars? They also beat out cheese, yogurt, healthy cereals like All Bran, and even beef! Next time you’re craving carbs, try a potato instead. If you check out the linked post, you can learn all about the potato’s nutritional benefits 🙂

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