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Ask Sam...


Starchy foods

The diet expert at my gym has advised me to reduce the amount of wheat I eat. I like cereals very much, but should I cut down?

If you enjoy eating foods made of wheat or wheat flour (such as bread, pasta and wheat-based breakfast cereals) and you feel fine afterwards, you don't need to stop eating them – wheat intolerance is very unusual.

However, if you are concerned about your health or about how you tolerate certain foods, ask your GP for advice. It's very important to consult your GP before cutting down on any food or food group, because excluding foods from your diet could stop you getting some essential nutrients.

Wheat is a starchy food, and starchy foods are a very important part of a healthy diet. They contain carbohydrate, which gives us energy, as well as fibre and other naturally occurring nutrients. And vitamins and minerals are added to some starchy foods during manufacture. For example, calcium, iron, niacin and thiamin are added to white and brown wheat flour, and these are a valuable source of these nutrients for most people.

So, try to base your meals on starchy foods, as part of a varied and balanced diet that is rich in fruit and veg, and low in fat, sugar and salt.

Is bread good for us?

Bread, especially wholegrain, wholemeal or brown bread, is a healthy choice as part of a balanced diet. Bread is a starchy food, like pasta, potatoes and rice, and these foods should make up about a third of our diet.

Wholegrain, wholemeal and brown bread contains B vitamins, vitamin E, fibre and a wide range of minerals. White bread also contains a range of vitamins and minerals, but it has less fibre than wholegrain, wholemeal or brown bread.

Bread has been a staple food in the UK for centuries. These days, more than 200 varieties of bread are available in this country, with origins from all around the world. These range from ciabatta, pumpernickel, baguette and soda bread, to bagels, flour tortillas, pitta and naan.

There are lots of different tasty ways to eat bread. Try Italian appetisers made from toasted bread such as bruschetta (with olive oil and tomatoes or garlic) or crostini (with a variety of toppings from ham and parmesan to artichoke hearts). Crusty bread is great dunked into soups and casseroles, or make your own pizzas with slices of tomato, mozzarella and pepper with olives and lean ham.

Sandwiches don't have to be boring, especially if you try out different types of bread and fillings. Rye bread and soda bread both taste great with smoked fish and meats, and walnut bread goes especially well with cheese. Or why not try mini-pittas filled with houmous or turkey and salad? Tuna, cottage cheese, Edam and sliced banana are all healthy sandwich fillings. Or spice up lunchboxes with chicken tikka rolled inside chapatti.

Some people avoid bread because they think they're allergic to wheat, or because they think bread is fattening. But it's very important to consult your GP before cutting out any type of food. This is because we all need to eat a balanced diet to stay healthy and by excluding foods you could miss out on a range of nutrients.

What are the benefits of eating rye?

Like other wholegrain cereals, wholegrain rye flour contains B vitamins, vitamin E, fibre and a wide range of minerals.

So rye bread and pumpernickel are healthy choices. Rye crispbreads are also a good option because they tend to be very low in fat.

Rye is an important crop in Scandinavia and central Europe because the climate there is more suitable for growing rye than wheat.

How can I increase the amount of fibre in my diet?

Fibre, or 'roughage', is only found in foods derived from plants, such as cereals, grains, seeds, pulses, fruit and vegetables. It should be easy for you to increase the amount of fibre you eat, by having more of these types of food as part of a healthy balanced diet.

There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. And most foods contain a mixture of both.

It's a good idea to try to eat more fibre because most people in the UK don't have enough fibre in their diets. Insoluble fibre helps prevent constipation, and soluble fibre may help to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood.

Wholegrain varieties of starchy foods, such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, brown rice and wholegrain pasta, are particularly good sources of insoluble fibre.

Brussels sprouts, potatoes, okra, curly kale, cabbage, nori seaweed and carrots are all good sources of fibre, and so are beans and pulses, such as red kidney beans, baked beans, broad beans, butter beans, green beans, chickpeas, green lentils and black-eyed beans. Dried fruit – such as figs, apricots, prunes and dates – are also a good choice. Or try eating pears, apples, cranberries, avocados, pomegranates, blackberries, guavas and kumquats.

Bran is high in fibre, but it doesn't provide the other nutrients that you can get from fibre-rich starchy foods, such as wholemeal bread. And bran can also reduce how much of some nutrients we absorb.

When you have plenty of fibre in your diet, you need to make sure that you drink plenty of fluids – at least six to eight cups a day. It's especially important to have plenty of water if you're constipated because fluids will help to keep things moving! If you get constipated a lot, talk to your GP.

Starchy carbohydrates have been getting a bad press lately. Should I avoid them?

'Low-carbohydrate' diets in particular have had a lot of publicity recently. These diets usually involve cutting out starchy foods altogether. It's a common misconception that starchy foods are fattening – actually they contain less than half the calories of fat. And starchy foods are an essential part of a healthy balanced diet.

Cutting out starchy foods, or any food group, can be bad for your health because you could be missing out on a range of nutrients. This type of diet also tends to be unrealistic and dull, and not palatable enough to be tolerated for a long time.

Low-carbohydrate diets tend to be high in fat, too, and eating a diet that is high in fat (especially saturated fat from foods such as meat, cheese, butter and cakes) could increase your chances of developing coronary heart disease.

High-fat diets are also associated with obesity, which is currently increasing in the UK. People who are obese are more likely to develop conditions such as diabetes and some cancers.

Low-carbohydrate diets also restrict the amount of fruit and veg you eat, but these foods provide lots of different vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre, which are vital for good health.

Eating plenty of fruit and veg can also help to protect us against heart disease and some types of cancer. So, to stay healthy, we should all be trying to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg a day, whether they are fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juiced.

So, rather than avoiding starchy foods, it's better to try and base your meals on them, so they make up about a third of your diet. Starchy foods include bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, oats, noodles, maize, cornmeal, yams and plantains. Remember not to cook or serve starchy foods with too much fat – this is what can make them fattening. And don't forget to eat plenty of fruit and veg too.

If you're concerned about your weight, contact your GP or a dietitian. If you think you need to lose just a little weight, try to eat only as much food as you need, improve the balance of your diet, and get more active.

Why is rice good for us?

Rice is eaten in many countries throughout the world. It's an excellent source of starchy carbohydrate, which we need to give us energy. Rice also contains some protein, which the body needs to grow and repair itself, and some fibre that can help the body get rid of waste products.

Rice is very low in fat and it's also a good source of B vitamins, which release the energy from the food we eat and help the body to work properly.

We should eat starchy foods, such as bread, potatoes and cereals including rice, every day as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

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