Starchy foods are often referred to as 'carbs' (although this is actually short for 'carbohydrates', which includes sugars and starch) and include foods like bread, pasta, rice, couscous, potatoes, breakfast cereals, oats and other grains like rye and barley.

In a healthy, balanced diet starchy foods are the main source of energy. When starchy foods are digested, they are broken down into glucose, which is the main fuel for the body, especially for the brain and the muscles. Starchy foods can also provide fibre, which is important for digestive health, and a range of vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, iron, calcium and folate.

The government’s Eatwell Guide recommends that potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates should make up about one third of our diet (for more information click here). However, according to surveys of the food we buy, these make up only about one fifth of the diet, 60% less than recommended.

Aren’t starchy foods fattening?

Starchy foods are not fatterning, per se. Weight gain typically results from eating more calories than your body uses and calories can be from any source - protein, fat, carbohydrate or alcohol. Carbohydrate contains 4kcal per gram compared to fat, which contains 9kcal per gram. However, starchy foods are sometimes combined with high fat ingredients, e.g. butter on bread or creamy sauces with pasta, and this makes them much higher in calories. But, provided starchy foods are not cooked or served with a lot of fat, and portion sizes are moderate they are relatively low in calories.

In the table below there are some examples of dishes containing starchy foods plus high or low fat ingredients. Adding high fat ingredients more than doubles the calorie content for the same portion size. For more information about getting bigger portion sizes for fewer calories, see our feed yourself fuller section.

Dishes containing starchy foods with low fat ingredients

Kcal per 100g

Kcal per 400g portion

Noodles with stir-fried vegetables

60

240

Spaghetti with a low fat Bolognese sauce with plenty of veg

75

300

Dishes containing starchy foods with higher fat ingredients

 

 

Average lasagne

190

760

Standard deap pan meat pizza

210

840

Evidence suggests that eating low fat starchy foods within a calorie controlled diet may actually benefit weight loss, particularly wholegrain and high fibre versions such as potatoes in skins.

Does cutting out starchy foods help you lose weight?

High protein, low carbohydrate diets have long been popular and research has shown that high protein diets can be effective for weight loss, at least in the short term. However, it seems to be the relatively high protein content rather than the lack of carbohydrate that is most important in helping people to lose weight. This is probably because protein helps to keep you feeling full. Also, if you eliminate carbohydrates and replace those calories with fats and higher fat sources of protein this could increase your intake of saturated fat. A high intake of saturated fat may increase your risk of heart disease. If you are trying to lose weight then it is a good idea to include lean, protein-rich foods like lean meats, fish, low fat dairy products and pulses with your main meals. This doesn’t mean that you need to cut out starchy foods but going for high fibre and wholegrain versions is a good idea as higher fibre diets can also be helpful for weight loss.

In the longer term for keeping weight off, studies that have compared calorie-controlled low carbohydrate and low fat diets over at least a year have generally found little difference between them. However, a low carbohydrate diet in the long term is not advised as it may not be nutritionally balanced and could increase your risk of long-term health problems (see below).

Should I be eating low GI carbs?

Glycaemic Index (GI) measures how quickly glucose from carbohydrate-containing foods gets into the bloodstream after eating. The more quickly blood glucose rises after eating, the higher the GI of the food. 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. 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. Also, potato crisps have a medium GI, however a baked potato which has a high GI is healthier than potato crisps which are higher in fat and salt.

Choosing starchy foods with a lower GI regularly is a good idea as these tend to be higher in fibre. Low GI diets can be recommended for people with diabetes as they can help them to keep their blood glucose levels more stable. However, using the glycaemic index can be misleading as GI alone does not determine whether a food is a healthy choice. For example, some potatoes have a relatively high GI but are low fat and provide fibre (especially when eaten with skins) and a range of essential nutrients. Also, as mentioned above, the GI of starchy foods is affected by the other foods they are eaten with and so when potatoes are eaten as part of a meal, the overall GI will often be reduced.

Carbohydrate food Lower GI food Higher GI food
Bread

Wholemeal, wholegrain, granary, oat, rye bread and chapati

White breads
Rice

White, long grain, brown, wild and basmati rice

Instant white and glutinous/sticky white rice

Potatoes

New potatoes with their skins on, sweet potatoes and yam

Baked potatoes, chips and mashed potato

Pasta All pasta and noodles  

Breakfast cereals

Unsweetened muesli, porridge, most unsweetened oat and bran-based cereals

Cornflakes and all sugar coated cereals

Other grains

Couscous, bulgar wheat, barley and quinoa  
Vegetables

Broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage and mushrooms

Beetroot, squashes and parsnips

Fruit

Berries, grapes, apples, cherries, peaches, plums, kiwi fruit, grapefruit and dried fruit

Pineapple and melon

GI alone doesn’t determine whether a food is a healthy choice. This will depend on the balance of the main food groups and the variety in your diet as demonstrated by the Eatwell Guide. High fat foods like chocolate and pastries have a lower GI than rice or pasta but this doesn’t make them healthier!

Do diabetics need to cut out starchy foods?

The general healthy eating advice for people with diabetes is the same as for the rest of the population – i.e. a healthy, balanced diet with meals based on starchy foods, particularly those that are high in fibre or wholegrain. People with type 1 diabetes, and type 2 diabetics using insulin will need to carefully monitor their carbohydrate intake, but they should not cut out carbohydrates or starchy foods from the diet.

It is a good idea for people suffering from diabetes (type 1 or 2) to choose starchy foods with a lower GI as these will release sugar into the blood more slowly, helping to keep blood sugar levels more stable. For more information about GI and diabetes, go to Diabetes UK.

For people with type 2 diabetes who are overweight or obese, weight loss is very important to improve blood glucose control. It will also help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other long-term complications that can affect the eyes, kidneys, nerves and feet.  Weight loss advice for people with type 2 diabetes should emphasise a healthy balanced diet that is based on the Eatwell Guide including high-fibre low glycaemic index sources of carbohydrate such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and pulses; as well as low-fat dairy products and oily fish (see information on weight loss above). Diabetes UK has looked at the role of low carbohydrate diets for people with diabetes and concluded that there may be some benefits in the short term (up to one year) for glucose control and weight loss but that there are potential side effects including low blood sugar, headaches, lack of concentration and constipation. However, they emphasise that there is a lack of research on the safety of low carb diets for type 2 diabetics in the longer term (over one year) and that the best approach for managing type 2 diabetes should always be discussed with a dietitian.

Why all the bad press about starchy foods?

Starchy foods like bread, potatoes and pasta often get a bad press, usually suggesting that they are fattening and often featuring celebrities or others that have ‘cut carbs’ and lost weight. However, the theory that the consumption of starchy foods themselves causes significant weight gain is not supported by science. As mentioned previously, weight gain can result from consuming too many calories from any source – carbohydrate (starches or sugars), protein, fat or alcohol. However, fat contains more than double the calories per gram than carbohydrate or protein, so consuming high fat foods is most likely to cause weight gain. Starchy foods can often be combined with high fat foods and ingredients (e.g. bread and butter, roast potatoes, pasta with creamy sauces) and this may be where the link with weight gain comes from.

Stories in the press also sometimes suggest that the way that starchy carbohydrates are metabolised causes weight gain. The suggestion is that  when we eat carbohydrates, insulin is produced which breaks then down into sugars. However, this process is a normal part of our metabolism, and the body’s way of making sure the fuel from our food is used efficiently. In healthy people, levels of blood sugar and insulin are closely controlled by the body and eating carbohydrates does not mean we will store fat, unless our overall calorie intake is too high.

Recommendations for carbohydrates in the diet are currently under consultation. For more details see our page SACN report on carbohydrates

Last reviewed 26/06/2014. Revised 04/04/2016. Next review due 26/06/2017