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A Starch Worth Eating

Posted in: Blogs , English

When I mention the word starch, people often make negative associations like, “Carbohydrates are bad.  They make me fat.  I shouldn’t eat them.”  Your nutritionist is here to tell you that this is one of the most pernicious food myths in our society.  Carbohydrates are essential to our health and starches contribute whole groups of valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  The key to starches is serving size.  Starches include all grains; breads, cereals, pasta, corn, rice; and starchy vegetables like peas and beans (shelled varieties, not green beans), potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squashes.

Do carbs really make us fat?  Let’s examine the baked potato that we typically see served in a restaurant.  When you add sour cream, margarine, cheese and bacon bits you have in a single perceived “serving” about 825 calories – enough for a meal in this one serving.  But where do the calories come from?

To start, the large russet potato itself is actually 3-4 servings of starch.  Share it to get a more appropriate serving size.  But for this analysis, the 4 starches provide 320 calories; 2 tablespoons of sour cream – 90 calories; 2 tablespoons of margarine – 270 calories; 1 strip of crisp crumbled bacon – 45 calories; 1 ounce of cheese – 100 calories.  The sour cream, margarine and bacon are all sources of fat and because fat gives us twice as many calories as carbohydrate, they really add up fast, twice as fast!  The cheddar cheese is equivalent to a high fat meat contributing 45 fat calories.  The total fat calories come to 450 or 55% of this food serving.  So who’s the bad boy here – the starch or the fat?  The potato when not fried contains a wide range of nutrients including potassium, fiber and vitamin C.  It is actually a healthy food when we eat appropriate serving sizes.

A balanced plate includes foods from all food groups.  Visualize your plate as:  one quarter meat, one quarter starch and one half non-starchy vegetables.  With a dairy food and a fruit on the side, you have a perfectly balanced plate.  So the message here is to include healthy starch choices in balance.  And be judicious about how you use fats to flavor them.

While the potato has a place in our healthy meal, there are several seasonal starchy relatives that are a bonanza of nutrients.  Sweet potatoes have more fiber and potassium than white potatoes and a lot more beta-carotene.  Pumpkin also compares favorably with more beta-carotene.

Beta-carotene, a phyto-nutrient is an orange colored plant pigment that is converted to vitamin A in the body. In this conversion, beta-carotene performs many important functions for health.  Current research indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene (not supplements) may reduce our risk for heart disease, certain types of cancer and possibly other chronic conditions associated with aging.

Stews are a good way to eat foods in balance.  This fall in your beef stew, consider substituting sweet potato or pumpkin for the traditional white potato.  They add color and variety and you will greatly increase the nutrient density of the dish.  Remember what we say on Memorial Cooking Innovations, “Healthy eating is as much about what we include as what we avoid.”  Here’s to a healthy autumn season!

Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health.  In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The HC Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon teams up with the celebrated Chef Manuel Marini and produces the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations.  The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 46 cities and online at On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information. 

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