Why you should give potatoes and pasta a break

Health nuts tend to diss starchy foods like potatoes, pasta and white rice. But they’re not all bad. Nutritionist Carrie Dennett explains the power of these humble foods.

On Nutrition

Potatoes, pasta and white rice get a bad rap. Whether it’s “no white at night” or “you might as well be eating straight sugar,” these humble foods take a lot of hits. That’s a shame, because not only are pasta, potatoes and white rice part of traditional diets, including Asian and Mediterranean, but they’re versatile in the kitchen and are far from being “empty calories.” If you enjoy them, they deserve a place at your table.

Yes, I’m a fan of brown rice. I like that it has more fiber, sure, but I also like its more nuanced flavor. But sometimes there’s a particular dish that just pairs better with white rice. And I have patients — often, but not always, of Asian heritage — who just can’t fully embrace brown rice. So what to do?

One reason why pasta, potatoes and white rice get little love from the health conscious is their ranking on the glycemic index (GI), the measure of how much 50 grams of the type of carbohydrate in a particular food increases blood sugar. While the GI can be a useful tool for making food choices that promote healthier blood-sugar levels, there are nuances to it that often get overlooked.

How to lower GI

First, not all types of white rice have the same GI. In general, long-grain rice, like basmati and jasmine, has a lower glycemic index because your body takes longer to digest them and break the carbohydrates down into sugar. Second, what you eat with any carbohydrate-rich food changes how it affects blood sugar. When you create balance in a meal or snack by pairing carb-rich foods with foods rich in protein and healthy fat — like an apple with almonds or pasta with pesto and grilled chicken — you also slow digestion.

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Third, when you cook and cool rice, pasta and potatoes before eating them (even if you reheat them first), you reduce their glycemic index. Not to get all science-y, but the starch molecules lock into place in the shape of double helices (the same shape as DNA) that resist digestion in your small intestine. In other words, they become “resistant starch,” which passes intact to your large intestine, making it good food for your gut microbiota.

Feeding the gut

Even though you would probably never pair…

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