We are all familiar with the pillars of the human diet, also referred to as macronutrients, which are fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Yet, how much do we know about each individual macronutrient? While all three are essential for optimal health, today I want to focus in on a particular form of carbohydrate called starch.

Starch has both negative and positive connotations in the health arena depending on what dieting school of thought you practice or which research paper you’ve recently read or even what region of the world you live in. The diversity of food-based studies and beliefs have lent to a flurry of controversy around starch and whether it is good or bad for the human body. This is due to the fact that starch is essentially a sugar and recent studies have illuminated the negative health effects of sugar.

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As an avid health enthusiast, I’m just as interested in this debate as the next person. Therefore, I’ve decided to take a deeper dive to discover a bit more knowledge and information. What is starch? Where do you find it? What are the purported health benefits and negative health effects?

Let’s get educated on starch!

What is Sugar-Based Starch?

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First off, let’s clear up what starch is.

Starch is a naturally occurring polysaccharide — complex carbohydrates —produced by green plants. In plants, starches provide a reserve food supply, yet in human’s starches are broken down into sugar molecules that are meant to provide energy. In their whole form, starches are a healthy component of a balanced diet. This includes vegetable derived starches such as legumes, root veggies, and whole grains. Unfortunately, when starches are processed it literally “drains the health right out of them.” These unhealthy starches are found in processed food items such as “salty snacks, sweet treats, sugary breakfast cereals, and other easy-to-grab foods that offer lots of calories but little nutrition.” You’ll oftentimes hear people refer to these as “empty calorie” foods.

Starch is found in various plant-based foods including the “roots of tapioca plant; the tuber of the potato; the stem pith of sago; and the seeds of corn, wheat, and rice” and is also used in brewing operations and baked goods as a thickening agent. Outside of the food realm, this chemical creation is used in paper manufacturing, “corrugated paperboard, paper bags and boxes, and gummed paper and tape.”

Health Benefits of Starch

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The benefits gained from starch all depend on the type of starch you’re consuming. As mentioned above, there is a huge difference between healthy starches and unhealthy starches. Luckily, it’s easy to deduce the difference when you’re at the grocery store. If it’s processed, it most likely has more sugar and less nutritional value. If it’s raw, then it’s a better option. Healthy starches are “low in fat and contain high levels of folate, potassium, iron, magnesium and other beneficial nutrients.”

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Improved Gut Health

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When it comes to your gut, it’s all about the fiber. Luckily, researchers have recently found that a certain type of starch actually turns into the fiber through an intricate process in the intestine.

A recent study by the British Nutrition Foundation focused on a specific form of starch called resistant starch. Resistant starch received its name due to that fact that it’s resistant to digestion, meaning that it “passes through your digestive tract unchanged.” Per the study, resistant starch was found to be fermented in the large intestine. Through this fermentation process, resistant starches are turned into short-chain fatty acids before mutating into a form of fiber that is used by the colon for energy. How does this improve your gut health? The researchers in the study say that an increase in colonic fatty acids may help “prevent the development of abnormal cells in the gut.”

Increased Antioxidant Consumption

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By now, you most likely are familiar with the term antioxidant. Antioxidants are molecules that help neutralize free radicals keeping the balance between these two molecules. When free radicals outnumber the number of antioxidants in the human body, oxidative stress occurs wherein “important molecules in the body can become severely damaged,” which, in some cases, may lead to cell death. Naturally starch-filled vegetables — such as potatoes and squash — also happen to be naturally packed with antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and beta-cryptoxanthin.

Boosted Brain Health

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Even though research is still in its infancy, the positive effects of the vitamin B family are hard to ignore. Veggies that are high in starch are also generally great sources of vitamin B-6 and folate. Studies suggest that B-vitamins “promote positive moods by helping your brain produce brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin, and a guard against memory loss.” 

Negative Health Effects of Starch

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As is the same with health benefits of starch, negative health effects from starches generally come from unhealthy forms of starch. Processed starches are generally unhealthy in large portions. These include many everyday items such as breakfast cereals, muffins and croissants, French fries, pizza dough, tortillas, potato chips, pretzels, and even rice cakes. Yet, consuming healthy forms of starch — such as lentils, oatmeal, beans, and couscous — in large quantities can lead to health issues.

Increased Blood Sugar Levels

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When it comes to blood sugar levels, most of the focus is predominantly on added sugars and sugary treats, yet starch can have the same effect. Starch is essentially a long molecule of glucose broken down in the human body into sugar. Eating large amounts of foods on a regular basis that are high in starch can “create large variations in your blood sugar levels, making them rise quickly and then drop.”

Unhealthy Weight Gain

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Unfortunately, one of the many publicized negative effects of starch also happens to be one that is upheld by scientific research. When overconsumption of starch occurs — more than your body needs for essential survival purposes — the “excess starch and sugar are easily converted to fat, especially when accompanied with the high insulin levels that result from increasing blood sugar levels,” mentioned above. Weight gain begins to take place when this “extra starch” is squirreled away by your body for an emergency that generally never takes place.

Lower Quality Nutrients

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Processed starches are unfortunately incredibly low in nutrient value. As mentioned above, these types of starches are generally referred to as “empty calories” and include many popular snack food items and pre-packaged foods on the grocery store shelf. By ingesting these types of starches, you’re simply getting all the negatives (high sugar and caloric intake) without balancing it out with any positive nutritional benefits.

Healthy Plant-Based Starches

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We’ve discovered that starches are not all bad, yet it’s all about the source of those starches. Processed starch-rich foods are stripped of their nutrients, making them a poor option. So, what are the good options? Here are a few starch-heavy, plant-based, nutrient-rich food options to help you weave your way through the complex starch world!

Winter Squash

Baked Sugar Pumpkin With Mushrooms/One Green Planet

While winter squash might be high in the quantity of starch, this particular vegetable happens to be low on the glycemic index. These squash also happen to be highly nutritious and incredibly tasty! For instance, one cup of cooked butternut squash has only four grams of sugar, but packs in 4.5 grams of protein, 78 milligrams of omega fatty acids, and varying amounts of vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, and selenium. Winter squash includes a broad range of squash varieties including the popularly used butternut, acorn, delicata, kabocha, and pumpkin. Try out a few of these winter squash recipes for those cold winter days: Baked Sugar Pumpkin With Mushrooms, Maple Cinnamon Glazed Roasted Delicata Squash, or these Kabocha Croquettes.

Oats

Banana Split Oatmeal with Roasted Almonds/One Green Planet

No matter how you want to use them, oats are a great nutritionally-rich starch to depend on. Oats provide portions of dietary fiber, protein, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamins E and K, folate and choline, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, zinc, and selenium. Cooked oats are a great way to begin the day — such as this Banana Split Oatmeal with Roasted Almonds or this Roasted Cauliflower and Coconut Overnight Porridge Pots — or to bake with — such as this Pineapple Raspberry Crisp or these Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Sandwiches.

Millet

Springtime Millet and Mushroom Stuffed Yellow Zucchini/One Green Planet

Millet is a beautiful, healthy grain. It’s naturally gluten-free and rich in nutrients including magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese. This grain has also been associated with many health benefits including protecting the heart, decreased risk of diabetes, and preventing gallstones. Plus, millet is an incredibly diverse staple for many plant-based eaters, especially for those that have to avoid gluten for either medical or dietary reasons. Try out a few of these easy to make, daily millet recipes: Almond Millet Kheer, Oil-Free Breakfast Casserole With Hash Brown Crust, or this Springtime Millet and Mushroom Stuffed Yellow Zucchini.

Bananas

Banana Bread Energy Bar/One Green Planet

While many are familiar with the sugar content of fruit, you probably don’t necessarily know where it comes from. Many fruits start out high in starch and, as they ripen, that starch is converted into sugar. Yep, fruit sugar is mostly derived from starches. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to avoid fruit, in fact, we all need a little fruit for a balanced healthy diet. It’s all about balance! Focus on fiber-rich fruit such as berries or potassium-rich fruit like bananas. Try a few of these banana-based dessert recipes: Banana Bread Energy Bar, Cherry and Banana Sponge Cake, Currant and Berry Tart With Date Caramel, or these Caramelized Plantains With Coconut Cream.

Want to experiment with your new healthy starch recommendations? We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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