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Which starches are beneficial? Which should I avoid?

Asked by Mary L. Shaw, Colorado Springs, Colorado

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I love baked potatoes but because of the starch, I don't eat them often. Do you have a list of starches to avoid and which are beneficial in the daily diet?

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Diet and Fitness Expert Dr. Melina Jampolis Physician Nutrition Specialist

Expert answer

Hi Mary. Your question is a good one as lots of people are confused about carbohydrates, especially starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, and how to incorporate them into a healthy diet.

Starch is a type of carbohydrate, also referred to as a complex carbohydrate since it is made up of long chains of sugar molecules.

Starchy foods include peas, corn, potatoes, beans, pasta, rice and grains. Starches are a more concentrated source of carbohydrates and calories than fruits, nonstarchy vegetables and dairy, but many of them are excellent sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. They are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet when chosen correctly and consumed in reasonable portions.

Potatoes do have a higher glycemic index, which means that they raise blood sugar more quickly than other vegetables, but they are also an excellent source of potassium, which is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure, and the skin of a baked potato is a very good source of fiber. So as long as you skip the high-fat toppings such as butter, bacon bits and sour cream, including a baked potato in your diet on occasion is fine.

Beans are one of the healthiest starch options, as they are very good sources of fiber, contain healthy plant-based protein and are packed with nutrients and anti-oxidants. Whole grains such as oatmeal and barley are also top choices because of their ability to help lower cholesterol as part of an overall heart-healthy diet.

The starches that I would highly recommend limiting are refined starches. These are grains that have been processed so that the nutrient and fiber-rich parts are removed (the two outer layers) and only the starchy interior remains.

Even if some of the nutrients are added back to these foods, they are not as healthy as whole grains and should be minimized if your goal is optimal health. According to the American Diabetes Association , the best way to identify healthy grains is to look at the ingredient list and make sure the first ingredient in starchy foods is whole wheat flour, brown rice, rye flour, barley or oats.

If you are interested in learning more about whole grains and labels, check out the nonprofit site Whole Grains Council. To learn more about the glycemic index of foods, visit www.glycemicindex.com.

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