Get to Know Carbohydrates


Have you ever wondered why most cultural staple foods are starchy foods? In fact, the two most important staple foods across the world are corn and rice. A staple food is a food that is routinely consumed and constitutes a significant proportion of the calorie requirements of a standard diet in a community. Other commonly consumed staple foods are wheat, maze, potatoes, bread, cereals, soybeans, and so on. But I have to mention, other non-starchy foods are used as staple foods as well, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and milk products, fats and oils, none of which are starchy foods. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), only 15 crops provide 90% of the world's food energy intake, with rice, maize, and wheat making up two-thirds of the energy intake. These three are the staples of over 400 million people. We have staple foods largely because they are in abundance, cheap, easy to store, and convenient to prepare.

In this article, we will focus on the most commonly consumed staple foods around the world –carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are one of the major macronutrients. They are converted into glucose (blood sugar) by our body's digestive system. Your cells, tissues, and organs use this sugar as their main energy source.

What if I only eat staple foods?

It is likely that you will still be able to meet your caloric needs, but most plant-based staple foods are low in protein and other micronutrients. This can lead to protein malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. A new study found that a diet both high (>70%) and low (<40%) in carbohydrates were associated with increased mortality.

What if I do not eat staple foods?

Technically, anything you eat routinely and provides a significant proportion of your energy needs would be considered your staple food. Eating staple foods implies that we have a structured diet pattern. If we do not have certain staple foods built in our daily diet pattern, this means that our food composition varies day to day. Some examples of an unstable diet pattern include snacking on empty calories or following fad diets or "yo-yo" dieting. These are not sustainable eating patterns because because you may be susceptible to over- and under-eating. In the worst-case scenario, one might develop an eating disorder from these unstable diet patterns.

How do I choose what staple foods to eat?

According to U.S. Dietary Guidelines, it is recommended that 45-65% of our daily calorie needs come from carbohydrate, 10-30% come from protein, and 25-35% come from fat. Therefore, it makes sense to use plant-based staple foods that are high in carbohydrates as our staple food. A recent study published in the Lancet found that a diet with 50-55% carbohydrate intake is linked to the lowest risk for mortality.

However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Some are healthier choices, while others are not so much.

  • The healthiest sources of carbohydrates (complex carbohydrate): unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans. Complex carbohydrates promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a host of important phytonutrients.

  • Unhealthier sources of carbohydrates (simple or refined carbohydrate): white bread, pastries, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods. These items contain easily digested carbohydrates that may contribute to weight gain, interfere with weight loss, and promote diabetes and heart disease.

Use the MyPlate method to plan your meal

1. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables (focus on fruits, vary your veggies)

2. Go for whole grains – ¼ of your plate

3. Vary your protein routine-¼ of your plate

4. Healthy plant oils – in moderation

5. Drink water instead of sugary drinks

6. Choose low-fat or fat free dairy products

The bottom line

Staple foods are embedded into our cultural background and have been an important source of our caloric and some micronutrient needs. They are part of a healthy eating pattern. By following a balanced eating pattern, we can maximize health benefits and lower the risk of unwanted consequences.

Additional resources

Harvard Healthy Eating plate

10 tips: Use my plate

Interested in learning about weight goal and nutrition needs? Schedule a free body weight and % body fat analysis with our Smart Eater Dietitians at 626-283-5128 or email dietitian@smarteater.net.

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