What Are the Bad Starches?

Your body needs starches, or carbohydrates, to create energy, but it’s important to choose the right kind of carbohydrates. Some starches provide many health benefits, such as fiber, vitamins and minerals; but some merely fill your tummy without supplying any nutrients at all. Knowing the difference can help you make healthier choices for yourself and your family.

General Information

According to the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, foods made of carbohydrates also are known as starches, and these foods alter your sugar levels more than any other type of food. “Bad,” or unhealthy starches, also are known as refined or processed foods. The NIH calls these types of starches “empty calories” because they provide calories but lack vitamins, minerals and fiber. Eating too many of these types of foods can lead to obesity. These refined and processed foods are quickly digested into simple sugars and absorbed into the bloodstream, leading to a rise in blood sugar that quickly subsides.

Refined Foods

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Refined foods, such as white bread, regular pasta, white rice and anything made with white or all-purpose flour, have gone through a process to remove the bran and germ of the whole grain, leaving the starchy endosperm. Unfortunately, the bran and germ are the most nutritious parts of the grain, containing fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Some forms of these refined foods, such as certain breads and cereals, have been enriched with B vitamins and other nutrients to replace some of the health benefits removed with the bran and germ.

Sugary Foods

Cookies, cakes, candy and other sweets make up another type of “bad” starch. Like refined foods, these foods provide empty calories, meaning they fill you up, but they have little or no nutritional value. They are usually made from refined white flour and contain lots of sugar, both of which are unhealthy. In addition to causing obesity, eating too much sugar can cause dental problems.

Healthier Options

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that at least half of the starches you eat each day come from whole grains, such as whole grain breads and pastas, brown rice and oatmeal. Look for the words “whole grain” in the ingredients list of the foods you buy. Enriched refined foods are a better choice than refined foods, but only a fraction of the nutrients are added back to them; so they still don’t provide the same health benefits as whole grains. Instead of processed baked goods, look for ones that are sugar-free and made with whole grain flour. Use fresh fruit to satisfy a sweet tooth since many fruits contain sugar but are also loaded with fiber, vitamins and antioxidants.