Understanding the Differences
We’re going to let you in on a little secret: All vegetables are carbohydrate-based.
That’s right: all vegetables include, in some way, shape, or form, carbs. You might be thinking that this is a bit of strange revelation for a site called “Low Fat Low Carb” to make. Bear with us for a moment! Yes, every vegetable you eat has some level of carbohydrate content.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, provided you’re eating the right carbs and veggies.
Starchy and Non-Starchy Vegetables
The vegetables you eat fall into one of two camps. Starchy vegetables are complex carbohydrates, meaning they take longer to break down in your digestive system. They’re also a more reliable, long-term source of energy, as they offer a slow release of energy by way of glucose. However, these vegetables are sometimes double the carb content of their non-starchy counterparts.
- Butternut squash
- Sweet Potatoes
- Sweet Corn
- Spaghetti Squash
So, what, exactly, does this mean for you and your body?
What Do Starches Do?
As we’ve mentioned, starchy veggies are typically high in complex carbohydrates. As a result, it’s common for people to refer to complex carbs as “starches,” and vice versa.
All carbs break down into sugars during the digestive process. Complex carbs take longer to break down, providing a slow release of energy into your system. Simple carbs, meanwhile, might as well be sugar, providing a quick burst of energy that doesn’t last as long.
So how does this happen? How do starches become energy your body can use?
How Your Body Digests Starches
- The moment you take a bite out of a potato or parsnip, enzymes in your saliva go to work as you chew. Your teeth mechanically break down the food as enzymes start a chemical process. The main starch-busting enzyme, amylase, is found in the mouth and small intestine.
- By the time you swallow a bite of a starchy vegetable, it’s had some time being broken down by your mouth. In your stomach, things take a break as acids destroy bacteria that may still be present in your food. Your stomach’s churning action breaks down the food more as further enzymes are added.
- When food enters your small intestine, enzymes, and digestive juices from your pancreas and liver help to digest it further. At this point, your gut starts to absorb digested nutrients into your bloodstream. Starches are no exception.
- As the glucose hits your bloodstream, you get a much-needed boost of energy! Since starchy vegetables are complex carbohydrates, the release of energy is gradual which helps avoid big spikes in your blood sugar levels and keeps your pancreas happy.
Why Starchy Vegetables Are Good (Sometimes)
Starchy vegetables are great for giving you a fantastic energy reserve that your body can use for activity. They may also contain fatty acids and are often high in vitamins and minerals. Their high fiber content (4-6%) also helps your gut and can even lower bad cholesterol.
Potatoes, corn, squash, and other starchy vegetables aren’t really a problem if you’re an active person. Chances are, if you’re constantly running or staying physically active, your body will make full use of the glucose created by starches.
However, for people who are a bit more sedentary, or for diabetics, too many starchy vegetables present a problem.
A starch-heavy diet can cause your pancreas to work overtime trying to regulate glucose in your bloodstream. This can cause a wealth of health problems as time goes on.
Diabetics, who cannot adequately control their blood sugar levels, may struggle with the carbs from starchy vegetables. As such, people with Type II Diabetes should try and fill their plates with non-starchy vegetables. Not only will they be able to better regulate their blood sugar, they’ll get a wealth of other benefits, such as increased fiber, plenty of vitamins and minerals, and lower calorie counts.
What’s the Verdict: Starchy or Non-Starchy?
As with all things dietary, small changes can make a big impact on your health over time. Always consult with your doctor before making significant changes to your diet, especially if you’re diabetic.
That being said, there are pros and cons to each. Starchy vegetables are a great source of complex carbs, nutrients and fiber. But, consuming too many increases your carbohydrate intake and calories to a level that may pose some risks and challenges related to your blood sugar levels and body composition.
Non-starchy vegetables, meanwhile, provide a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are lower in carbohydrates and calories. For example,cooked starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, pack about 15 grams of carbs and 80 calories per 1/2 cup, whereas non-starchy veggies, like broccoli, contain about 5 grams of carbs and 25 calories in an equivalent portion. They are a logical choice for low carb diets.
Going forward, plan your carbohydrates so that you eat a good variety of starchy and non-starchy vegetables. Consider alternating your grains with starchy vegetables to increase the nutrient content of your meals. The more non-starchy vegetables you can eat, the better. Aim for 5 or more servings of non-starchy vegetables daily and 1-2 servings of starchy vegetables daily depending on your goals. The more active you are, the more your body will use the carbohydrates you are ingesting to fuel you and keep you energized.
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