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Food Groups: Grains and Starches

Where should we start when we talk about everyone’s favorite food group? Let’s start with what counts as a grain and/or starch, then on to how they actually are good for you when eaten in moderation.

Grains first: what are they? Wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye, tapioca, and quinoa are all considered grains. Anything made from these (or from cornmeal) is categorized in the grain food group. Foods and ingredients made from grains include flour, bread, pasta, crackers, rice, cereal, couscous, and many more foods.

Grains are grouped into two types. You’ve probably heard of them: whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain all parts of the grain (including the bran, germ, and endosperm). They are generally higher in fiber and B vitamins than refined grains. In fact, replacing refined grains with whole grains is proven to help lower triglyceride levels. When looking for whole grain products, look for “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” on the label. If the label says “whole grain,” “whole wheat,” “wheat,” “multigrain,” “honey wheat,” etc., chances are it contains refined grains, at least in part.  

A quick note about gluten-free diets. Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. If you have celiac disease, avoiding gluten is the only treatment. Those with gluten intolerance find that limiting or eliminating gluten is helpful. However, if you follow a gluten-free diet for long enough, your body will become intolerant to gluten. This means you won’t be able to go back to eating gluten-containing foods again without significant discomfort. If you choose to go forward with a gluten-free diet, be aware that it is not necessarily healthier for you.

Now we’ll discuss starches. Starches include corn starch, potato starch, and starchy vegetables. Starchy vegetables include beans, beets, corn, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and winter (acorn, butternut, and spaghetti) squashes. These foods are perfectly healthy to eat. In fact, many of them are good sources of potassium. However, they do not count as vegetables on your plate. Instead, they should go into the grains and starches quarter of your plate.

Whole grains and starches are good sources of carbohydrate, fiber, and B vitamins. Carbohydrate is a great source of fuel for your body. Fiber helps keep you full, lowers bad cholesterol, makes bowel movements easier to pass, and feeds good gut bacteria. B vitamins are used for all kinds of things in your body, not the least of which is helping you use the energy you obtain from food. Generally, it is a good idea to make grains or starches one quarter of your plate at meals. Try to eat mostly 100% whole grains. You need to eat grains and starches, and your body will thank you for doing so.

For more information on grains, check out the MyPlate website’s grains section: www.choosemyplate.gov/grains.

Lynn Grant R.D., L.D., CDE is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She works at Capital Region Medical Center and provides diabetes education and outpatient nutrition counseling by appointment. She also writes a weekly blog, which you can view at nutritionnotions.wordpress.com.