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Think Carbohydrates and Starches are the Same? Not Quite...

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

By Amber Charles, MSPH, RDN

August 30, 2020

Have you ever been told to, "cut out all #carbs", especially if you are trying to lose weight? Well, you're not alone! And quite frankly, is it even necessary? Read on to learn more.

In the world of nutrition (and arguably "health & wellness"), it is very common for words to be misinterpreted and therefore, misused. Puh-tay-to = puh-tah-to, right? Not exactly! The incorrect interchanging of these words have led to an overwhelming climate of confusion, misdirection and loss of confidence in #nutrition information! One such issue arises with the use of 'carbohydrates' versus 'starches/starchy foods/staples/grains', particularly with those who want to #cutback. Let's cover some basics.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (the other two being fats and proteins) that our bodies need to function optimally. There are three types of carbohydrates: starches (aka complex carbs), fiber (both soluble and insoluble) and simple sugars. Therefore, the word 'carbohydrate' itself is an umbrella term that describes all three, and 'starches' are a type of carbohydrate.

Quick fact: the body needs a minimum of 130g of carbs per day!

All starches are carbohydrates, but all carbohydrates are not starches.

So, why the confusion?

It is possible that the way food groups are represented and (mis-)interpreted lend a hand in this all-too-common misuse of words.

'Starchy' foods form one food group and are referred to as 'staples' in the Caribbean Six Food Groups and 'grains' in the USDA's #myplate. This food group is often identified as the primary source of carbohydrates - but it is really referring to sources of complex carbohydrates (aka starches) - and while this is not wrong, it can overshadow the fact that other food groups also contribute carbohydrates, namely fruits, peas/beans and dairy/dairy products (even 'non-starchy vegetables' contribute small amounts of carbohydrates!).

In addition to providing our bodies with carbohydrates for energy, these other food groups also nourish us with protein, micronutrients (think: iron, folate, calcium, zinc etc.) and phytochemicals and antioxidants that contribute to overall good health and well-being.

So, the next time someone says that you should avoid ALL "carbohydrates"...feel free to give them the side eye (even if you are someone with diabetes!).

Of course, there are some individuals that benefit from low carbohydrate diets, such as persons with epilepsy or seizure disorders (*enter in* the keto and modified Atkins diets), but for a general and balanced diet, there is no need to avoid carbohydrates!

The types and amounts of carbohydrates we consume is a topic for another post, but for now, we have addressed the differences between the words "carbohydrates" and "starches", and identified that starchy foods provide us with a type of carbohydrate, while carbohydrates are found in a variety of foods that have proven benefits for our overall health.


This information is intended for nutrition education purposes only. Always consult with your medical team and Registered Dietitian on a one-on-one basis to determine what is best for you and your health goals.

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