The Truth about Starchy Vegetables

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Starchy vegetables have made it onto many dieters’ blacklists lately. Let’s have a look at why and whether this is justified.

All vegetables have at least a small amount of carbohydrates. So-called “starchy” vegetables typically contain about 3 times the amount of non-starchy vegetables and therefore about 3 times the number of calories. Some examples of common starchy vegetables include beans, corn, green peas, parsnips, plantains, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, squash and pumpkin.

So does this mean you should stay away from starchy vegetables? It’s true that high-carbohydrate foods can contribute to weight gain and high blood sugar, but both starchy and non-starchy vegetables are also good sources of energy, nutrients, antioxidants and fiber.

Fiber is one of the best things about vegetables, from a nutritionist’s point of view. Fiber is simply an indigestible fiber found in fruit, vegetables, seeds and grains. More fiber in a vegetable lowers the digestible carbs (i.e. net carbs) and resulting blood sugar spike. Fiber can also make you feel full longer, and some types of fiber (prebiotic fiber, which is fermentable and soluble) provide food for the good bacteria in the large intestine.

I can’t write an article on starchy vegetables without talking about potatoes. White potatoes have a bad rap because they have a high glycemic load, but they’re also a good source of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, B6, folate and potassium. Sweet potatoes are just a little healthier than white potatoes. They have a lower glycemic load, more fiber, and more vitamins, especially Vitamin A.

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Have you heard of resistant starch?

Resistant starch is found in some starchy foods and functions as a fermentable soluble fiber, lowering the number of digestible carbs. It is found naturally in some legumes, seeds, grains and some starchy foods, but can actually be formed when some starchy foods such as potatoes and rice are cooked then cooled. The cooling turns some of the digestive starch into “digestion resistant” starch. So cooking then cooling your potatoes will lower the digestible carbs! Hooray for leftovers!

Overall, as with most things, balance is key. Starchy vegetables definitely have health benefits, but there are times when it is effective to limit them or be selective about which ones you eat. If you have diabetes, for example, you need a moderate level of carbohydrates, but choosing lower glycemic load, higher resistant starch and higher fiber carbs are helpful for blood sugar control. If you are trying to lose weight, limiting starchy vegetables can be very helpful, once you have been through the process of limiting the less healthy processed sugars, grains and starches.

DSC01005Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.

Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at DearLea@tastefulpantry.com

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