Starchy foods in a healthy diet
In this article, you can find information on the role of starchy foods in a healthy diet. The article looks at:
If you are looking for some key points on starchy foods in a healthy diet, see our Quick facts.
If you are looking for more detailed information including the digestion and absorption of starches in food, the evidence on starchy foods and health and low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss and management of type 2 diabetes why not read our page on the science of starchy foods
Starchy foods, sometimes called ‘carbs’ are foods that are rich in starch which is a type of carbohydrate. This food group includes a variety of types of food such as:
- grains like rice, bulgur wheat, oats, barley and rye
- products made from grains like breakfast cereals, and from flour like bread and bread products (including rolls, pitta, focaccia, chapatis, bagels, baguette, ciabatta, pizza base, roti and tortillas) as well as pasta, noodles and couscous
- potatoes and potato products (including baked, boiled and mashed potatoes, oven chips and potato gnocchi)
- yams, cassava and plantain. Other root vegetables like sweet potatoes, parsnips and turnips are starch rich but count as part of the fruit and vegetables food group within the Eatwell Guide. As they are more often eaten as vegetables rather than as the main starchy staple.
Starchy foods or carbs sometimes get a bad press and there may be a worry that they are fattening. However, starchy foods can be part of a healthy, balanced diet. What is important is the types of starchy foods we eat – sometimes called ‘carbohydrate quality’. For a healthier diet, we should choose more wholegrains and higher fibre foods, such as wholemeal breads, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, oats and other wholegrain breakfast cereals and potatoes with skins. This does not mean we can never eat the refined ‘white’ versions like white bread, pasta or rice, but it’s best to choose wholegrain versions most of the time.
Starchy foods are a key food group in healthy eating guidelines around the world and in the UK, starchy foods are one of the main food groups of the Eatwell Guide. Traditionally, starchy foods have been a staple of diets worldwide, for example, wheat in Europe, rice in Asia, maize in south America and cassava in Africa. It is recommended that starchy foods should make up about a third of the foods we eat.
In practice this could mean having a wholegrain breakfast cereal for breakfast, a sandwich made with wholegrain bread or baked potato for lunch and a wholewheat pasta or brown rice dish for dinner. Starchy foods like rye crispbreads or oatcakes can also be healthy snacks. It is best not to add to much saturated fat (like having creamy sauces on pasta or using a lot of butter or coconut oil when cooking) or salt at table or in cooking to starchy foods.
Starchy foods are an important source of fibre as well as vitamins and minerals, including:
- B vitamins – for example thiamin (vitamin B1), which helps the body use the energy from the carbohydrates we eat and well as supporting the heart and nervous system
- iron – important for normal brain function, the immune system and for the red blood cells that transport oxygen around the body
- calcium – to help keep bones and teeth healthy
- folate – needed to make healthy red blood cells and for the nervous system
In the starchy foods group, wholegrains are a key source of fibre. Studies have found that fibre from wholegrains or ‘cereal fibre’ seems to be important for health, linked with reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer and inflammation.
Fibre from wholegrains is also important as it can provide food for ‘good bacteria’ in the gut. Find out more by reading our page on fibre.
More refined types of starchy food such as white bread, pasta, rice and potato products do not have to excluded from the diet but there is some evidence that they are less good for our health. So, it is a good idea to swap ‘white’ versions of starchy foods like bread, pasta or rice for wholegrains versions to improve the quality of carbohydrates we eat and to try and choose wholegrains more often.
The table below shows how much more fibre we can get from choosing wholegrains and potatoes with skins. On average, fibre intake in the UK is below the recommended level of 30g per day for adults (with average intakes of around 20g/day).
Food (portion size, as eaten)
Fibre content per portion
Food (portion size, as eaten)
Fibre content per portion
Corn flakes (40g)
Bran flakes (40g)
White toast (80g)
Wholemeal toast (80g)
White spaghetti (180g)
Wholewheat spaghetti (180g)
White rice (180g)
Brown rice (180g)
Mashed potato (180g)
Baked potato with skin (180g)
When we eat starchy foods, our digestive system breaks the starch they contain down to glucose. The glucose is absorbed into the blood and insulin, the important hormone that regulates our blood sugar, is released and helps the glucose in our blood to enter our cells to use for energy or to store. This helps to keep glucose levels in the blood stable and ensure we have a steady supply of glucose in the body. In people with healthy blood glucose control, blood sugar is kept in a normal range In diabetes, when the body cannot make enough or any insulin or cannot effectively use the insulin it makes, this system does not work.
Different starchy foods increase our blood sugar levels at different speeds. The different speeds can be ranked by the glycaemic index (GI).
More information about GI is shown in the box below.
The glycaemic index (GI)
The glycaemic index (GI) of a food is a measure of how quickly glucose is released into the blood after eating. Some starchy or sugary foods will be digested more quickly than others and will cause a quicker and higher rise in blood glucose levels and are called high GI foods. Low GI foods, such as porridge, beans and lentils, breakdown slowly during digestion and therefore release glucose slowly into the blood.
Many different things can affect the GI of a food – protein, fibre and fat will all lower the GI. The cooking method and level of processing also play a role.
Foods with low GI are not necessarily healthier – for example crisps may have a lower GI than a baked potato as they are higher in fat. Chocolate cake and ice cream also have medium GI, so the concept of a balanced diet is still important.
In addition, when foods are combined in a meal or snack then this will change the GI overall. For example, a baked potato eaten on its own has a relatively high GI but if eaten with tuna or cheese the GI of the meal will be reduced. It’s important to think about the overall meal as opposed to a single food.
Some research has shown that choosing low GI foods as part of a balanced diet can help to control blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Some healthier dietary choices like wholegrains, fruit, beans, lentils and vegetables are generally low in GI, high in fibre and provide important vitamins and minerals to the diet.
There are many kinds of breads including wheat-based breads (such as white, wholemeal, sourdough, baguettes, bagels, flatbreads, chapattis and rotis) and rye bread.
We eat less bread in the UK than we used to - in the 1960s we were buying around 1300g of bread per person per week and by 2018 that had gone down to 527g per person per week. Looking at our dietary surveys though it still makes a key contribution to our intakes of essential nutrients. On average we get around a fifth our fibre, and over 15% of our iron and calcium intakes from bread. It is a good idea to choose wholegrain or wholemeal breads as these provide more fibre. If you or your family do not like wholemeal bread you could try versions that are 50:50 (made with half wholemeal and half white flour).
Breakfast cereals can be made of a variety of different grains including wheat, corn, rice, oats and barley. Many breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals and so can make an important contribution to our intakes of micronutrients, and this is particularly the case in children. It is best to go for wholegrain cereals including porridge oats and to check labels to choose those that are lower in sugar.
Pasta, rice and grains
Pasta and rice are popular in the UK and there are also a wide range grain varieties you can try including bulgur wheat, quinoa, freekeh, barley and spelt. Choose wholegrains such as wholemeal pasta or brown rice regularly as these provide more fibre, vitamins and minerals than white versions. Why not try a new wholegrain or one you have not had for a while? You could look for recipes for inspiration.
Potatoes and other starchy vegetables
Potatoes are a source of potassium and thiamine (vitamin B1) and in the UK they also contribute to our vitamin C intakes. Eating potatoes with skins, for example, a baked potato or boiled new potatoes adds extra fibre, so keep skins on potatoes where you can. Chips, that are typically deep fried and have added salt, are less of a healthy choice so try boiled, baked or roasted (with only small amounts of fats or oils).
Other starchy vegetables like cassava, yam and plantain are part of diets in the UK. These foods provide starchy carbohydrate and different vitamins and minerals depending on the type and where they are grown. Sweet potatoes are counted as part of the fruit and vegetables food group.
Although there are no government guidelines on portion sizes, the British Nutrition Foundation provides information on portion sizes to help get the right balance of foods for a healthy diet. This was developed with guidance from a panel of expert scientists and based on recommendations from other countries and on the portion sizes we currently consume in the UK. From this information to get the right balance of foods for a healthy diet, we could eat about 3-4 portions of starchy foods a day. Some examples of handy portion sizes for adults for different starchy foods are shown below. To find out more about portion sizes read our page ‘Get portion wise!’.
- Two handfuls of dried pasta shapes or rice (75g)
- A bunch of spaghetti the size of a £1 coin, measured using your finger and thumb (75g)
- The amount of cooked pasta or rice that would fit in two hands cupped together (180g)
- A baked potato about the size of your fist (220g)
- About three handfuls of breakfast cereal (40g)
- For snacks, suggested portion sizes are two oatcakes or about three handfuls of plain popcorn
Low carbohydrate or ‘low-carb’ diets are often talked about for weight loss, especially for people with type 2 diabetes. There are lots of different types of low-carb diet and there is no definition of exactly how much carbohydrate you can have on a low-carb diet. Some diets may restrict carbohydrate to less than 45% of our daily calories (this is only a little less than we eat on average) but very low ketogenic or ‘keto’ diets often mean eating less than 10% of calories from carbohydrate. Whatever the type, low-carb diets recommend restricting starchy foods like bread, rice and pasta.
We know that for most people with type 2 diabetes, managing their weight is key to managing their condition. There is evidence that in people living with type 2 diabetes and with overweight or obesity, in the short-term (up to about 6 months) lower carb diets can be effective in helping some people lose weight and that they may help people with type 2 diabetes to manage their blood sugar. But studies have not found that lower carb diets are better than other diets (such as low-fat diets) in the long-term – different types of diet suit different people and the key is being able to stick with it.
On very low-carb or ‘keto’ diets you generally cannot include any starchy foods. This may be an issue for health in the longer term as this makes it difficult to eat enough fibre, especially as beans, lentils and some fruits and vegetables also tend to be restricted. If you are thinking about trying a low-carb diet, learn more by reading these pages from Diabetes UK.
Last reviewed June 2021. Next review due June 2024.
For more information about the science of starchy foods read our page The science of starchy foods
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