Starch is a type of carbohydrate that occurs naturally in grains, root vegetables, green bananas and most types of beans. There are plenty of delicious, healthy foods with no sugar or starch.
Except for animals foods, such as meat, fish, seafood and eggs, most foods contain small amounts of carbs, including sugars and/or starches. However, this doesn't mean they're unhealthy.
All About Starch
High-carb diets are often associated with weight gain, elevated blood sugar, diabetes and other health concerns. However, the link between carbs and obesity is subject to debate, according to a February 2018 review in the BMJ Open.
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Most researchers agree, however, that certain types of carbs, especially simple sugars, can increase body weight. A low-carb diet, on the other hand, can help you slim down and improve your health. This eating pattern has been linked to fat loss, reduced blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels.
A recent study published in the Journal of Hepatology in May 2019 shows that people who switched to a low-carb Mediterranean diet experienced significant reductions in visceral fat mass and liver fat content. The benefits were even greater for those who committed to regular exercise.
As the study authors point out, high liver fat content is a major risk factor for diabetes, metabolic disorders and heart disease. Cutting back on carbs may help reduce body weight, visceral fat mass and liver fat, leading to improved cardiometabolic health.
Not all carbs are created equal, though. The study in the Journal of Hepatology, for example, was based on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which are all high in carbs. Furthermore, a diet rich in carbs can be just as effective as a low-carb diet in terms of weight loss, depending on the types of carbohydrates consumed, per a January 2017 Nutrients study.
Carbs with a low glycemic index (GI), such as leafy greens, nonstarchy vegetables, oat bran and most fruits, have a negligible impact on blood sugar levels and may aid in diabetes management, per the Mayo Clinic.
Starches are not necessarily harmful, but they may contribute to weight gain and increase blood sugar levels when consumed in large amounts. Health organizations worldwide recommend eating whole grains, boiled or baked potatoes, whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta and other high-fiber starchy foods. Dietary fiber slows sugar absorption into the bloodstream and helps prevent insulin spikes.
Foods Without Starch and Sugar
As you see, starches have their place in a healthy diet. However, if you're trying to lose weight, you might benefit from limiting carbs, including sugary and starchy foods. The good news is that you can still enjoy a varied diet and cook your favorite meals. Just remember to substitute sugar and starches with low-carb ingredients.
A no-starch diet may include:
- unprocessed meat
- dairy products
- green vegetables
With a few exceptions, most fruits are starch-free, but they do contain quite a lot of sugar.
Fructose, the sugar in honey and fruits, may contribute to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, oxidative stress and impaired organ function when consumed in excess, according to a March 2017 review featured in Nutrients.
This sugar also increases triglycerides and cholesterol levels, leading to a greater risk of heart disease. The review indicates that it may cause inflammation in the brain and internal organs, including the heart, liver and kidneys.
These side effects, though, are due to high fructose consumption, so if you eat fruits and drink fruit juices in moderation, you have nothing to worry about.
Soft drinks and processed foods, such as energy bars, candy, breakfast cereals, granola, frozen dinners, flavored yogurt and most desserts, contain large amounts of fructose.
Unprocessed Meat and Animal Products
Except for processed meat, all types of meat and poultry are carb-free. The same goes for eggs, milk, cheese, fish and seafood.
Milk and its derivatives contain small amounts of carbs, but not all carbs are starches. Beware, though, that deli meats and processed dairy foods, such as fruit-flavored yogurt, may contain starch.
Pay attention to how you cook these foods. Lean ground beef, for example, has zero carbs. However, if you roll it in flour to make meatballs or meat patties, the carb count will go up. Flour, breadcrumbs, oats and other popular ingredients are high in starch.
Steam, boil, grill or roast meat and fish. Serve them with nonstarchy vegetables like celery, cucumbers, asparagus, spinach, kale, zucchini, artichokes or eggplant. Some veggies, though, may contain small amounts of sugars. Eggplant, for instance, provides 4.8 grams of carbs, including 2.8 grams of sugars and 2.5 grams of fiber per serving (1 cup). If you're on a strict low-carb diet, make a list of "safe" foods to use in your recipes.
If you're trying to lose weight, aim to get at least 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal, as this amount was shown to help people limit their appetite and manage their weight, reports a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in April 2015.
Non-Starchy Fruits and Vegetables
As mentioned earlier, not all carbs are starches. Most fruits are high in carbs and sugars, but this doesn't necessarily mean they contain starch. Plantains, bananas, dates, figs and other high-sugar fruits are typically high in starch, so it's better to avoid them while on a low-carb diet. Opt for low-sugar fruits, such as:
- Avocado: 80 calories and 0.3 grams of sugars per serving
- Strawberries: 47 calories and 7.1 grams of sugars per serving
- Blueberries: 84 calories and 9.9 grams of sugars per serving
- Cantaloupe: 46 calories and 10.5 grams of sugars per serving
- Lemon: 17 calories and 1.4 grams of sugars per serving
- Coconut meat: 283 calories and 4.9 grams of sugars per serving
When it comes to vegetables, you have a lot more options. Most veggies contain little or no sugar and can be easily incorporated into a low-carb diet, per the American Diabetes Association. Some non-starchy veggies include:
- Mustard greens
- Collard greens
- Brussels sprouts
These vegetables, though, may contain carbs and sugars. Tomatoes, for example, provide 27 calories, 5.7 grams of carbs and 3.8 grams of sugars per serving (5.2 ounces). There are 52 calories, 12.2 grams of carbs and 6 grams of sugars in 1 cup of chopped carrots.
Except for meat and other animal products, most foods contain small amounts of sugars or starches. Keep a food journal and write down what you eat at every meal. Your daily carb intake will depend largely on your diet. Ketogenic diets, for instance, limit carbs to 20 to 50 grams per day, while traditional low-carb diets are less restrictive, per Harvard Health Publishing.
What Goes Into a Starch-Free Diet Plan?
On a starch-free or reduced-starch diet, you'll need to give up grains, peas, corn, potatoes, lima beans and all types of legumes, including dried beans and lentils, as all of these foods are significant sources of starch. This means no pasta, rice, oatmeal, bread, cake or cookies.
Starchy foods are broken down into sugars during digestion, which is why some diets recommend limiting or avoiding them. When a lot of sugar is quickly released into the bloodstream, it can cause your body to release a large amount of insulin to bring blood sugar levels back down. This can cause you to feel hungry again and make it harder to lose weight.
When avoiding starchy foods, your diet will consist mainly of nonstarchy vegetables, fruits, lean protein foods, dairy products, nuts and seeds. The fruits and vegetables will help provide you with dietary fiber, which slows down the emptying of the stomach so you feel full for longer.
Potential Benefits of a Starch-Free Diet
A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in November 2003 found that following a starch-free diet high in saturated fat for six weeks resulted in weight loss without adversely affecting cholesterol levels.
Some starchy foods, such as potatoes in any form and refined grains, were associated with weight gain in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011, so eating fewer servings of these foods may help with weight loss.
Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 2010 found that a diet high in protein and low on the glycemic index may be helpful for weight loss. The glycemic index estimates how quickly foods containing carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels after you eat them.
Diets that eliminate all starches can be low on the glycemic index, as long as they also eliminate sugary foods, and may be high in protein depending on what you decide to eat to replace the starchy foods you aren't eating.
Potential Drawbacks of a Starch-Free Diet
Some starchy foods are significant sources of nutrients, so avoiding them may mean you lose some of the potential health benefits associated with these foods. For example, whole grains provide iron, B vitamins, selenium, magnesium and fiber and may help reduce the risk of heart disease and help you manage your weight.
A study published in Public Health Nutrition in December 2011 found that eating at least three servings of whole grains per day was linked to lowering heart disease and type 2 diabetes risk up to 30 percent. Cereal fiber is also associated with weight loss and fat loss, according to a review article published in Nutrients in May 2013.
Beans are also nutritional powerhouses, providing fiber, protein, magnesium, iron, potassium and folate.
- BMJ Open: "Does High-Carbohydrate Intake Lead to Increased Risk of Obesity? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Journal of Hepatology: "The Beneficial Effects of Mediterranean Diet Over Low-Fat Diet May Be Mediated by Decreasing Hepatic Fat Content"
- MDPI: Nutrients: "Impact of High-Carbohydrate Diet on Metabolic Parameters in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes"
- Mayo Clinic: "Glycemic Index Diet: What's Behind the Claims"
- NHS: "Starchy Foods and Carbohydrates"
- Joslin Diabetes Center: "How Does Fiber Affect Blood Glucose Levels?"
- MDPI: Nutrients: "High Dietary Fructose: Direct or Indirect Dangerous Factors Disturbing Tissue and Organ Functions"
- UW Health: "Fructose-Restricted Diet"
- USDA: "Beef, Ground, 70% Lean Meat / 30% Fat, Raw"
- USDA: "Eggplant"
- USDA: "Avocado"
- USDA: "Strawberries"
- USDA: "Blueberries"
- USDA: "Cantaloupe"
- USDA: "Lemon"
- USDA: "Coconut Meat"
- American Diabetes Association: "Non-Starchy Vegetables"
- USDA: "Tomatoes"
- USDA: "Raw Carrots"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Ketogenic Diet: Is the Ultimate Low-Carb Diet Good for You?"