According to statistics published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), less than 10 percent of adults meet the daily recommended intake of vegetables. Even the most recent 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) stresses the importance of consuming more—not less—produce to reap the benefits they provide for total health. This can include improvements to heart-health, gut-health, blood pressure, inflammation levels and more! Plus, you may have heard the advice to add variety by “eating the rainbow” when it comes to your fruit and veggie choices.
Pictured recipe: Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
But, what happens if that rainbow of produce is in the form of starchy vegetables? We’re talking about peas and corn and other favorites like winter squash, sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin and the beloved potato. And, what happens if you have diabetes and you’ve been told to watch your carb intakes? Can you still eat these produce picks?
Before your mind goes into overdrive, rest assured we’ve got you covered in this article. We’ve talked to registered dietitians and a certified diabetes educator to get the facts on what you need to know when including starchy vegetables in your diet.
How Carbohydrates Affect Those With Diabetes
Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source to provide energy for your body. When carbohydrates are consumed, they enter the bloodstream and raise blood sugar levels. In response, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin that helps cells utilize the blood sugar and turn it into energy.
In individuals with diabetes, the pancreas either doesn’t produce insulin (type 1) or the cells are unable to utilize the insulin effectively to help manage blood sugars (type 2), resulting in elevated blood sugar levels. Over time, consistently high blood sugar levels can lead to complications, including vision and hearing loss, heart disease, nerve damage, kidney failure and even depression.
However, not all carbohydrates are digested the same way. For instance, simple carbs (think: your refined grains like white pasta and bread products) are absorbed more quickly in the bloodstream because they lack the other nutrients like fiber that their complex carbohydrate counterparts contain. Starchy vegetables are considered a complex carbohydrate in this case because they all contain fiber. According to registered dietitian Elise Compston, RD, LD, recipe developer for The Balanced Blood Sugar Society, “Starchy vegetables contain fiber, which is a nondigestible carbohydrate. Fiber is unable to be broken down for energy and benefits blood sugar levels by slowing the rate of digestion. In this way, the fiber found in starchy vegetables can actually help prevent spikes from occurring, especially when paired with other blood sugar balancing foods like protein, fat, and fibrous non-starchy vegetables.”
Nutrient Composition of Starchy Vegetables
There are a wide variety of starchy vegetables that can and should find a place in your menu if you enjoy them. For instance, registered dietitian nutritionist Maya Feller, M.S., RD, CDN of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition and author of Eating from Our Roots, shares, “People should choose options that are accessible, affordable, desirable and culturally relevant. Many starchy vegetables such as cassava, plantain, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and yams are filled with resistant starch, vitamins, minerals and fiber.” While this list is not exhaustive, it’s a good reminder that you can enjoy your favorite foods while aligning with your nutrition goals.
Here is the nutrition information for one serving (about 1/2 cup) of popular starchy vegetables, according to the USDA Nutrient Database:
|Jerusalem Artichoke, 1/2 cup||Butternut Squash, 1/2 cup||Corn, 1/2 cup||Peas, 1/2 cup||Potato, 1/2 cup||Yams, 1/2 cup|
As you can see, each starchy vegetable in this list contains dietary fiber, some protein and a host of other micronutrients including vitamin A, potassium, selenium and others. But, they also pack more carbohydrates and calories than their non-starchy vegetable counterparts. When you have diabetes, you need to be mindful about the amount of carbs you’re eating per meal, even when they come from better-for-you sources like these starchy vegetables. So, what’s the best way to eat them? Let’s see what the experts say.
Can You Eat Starchy Vegetables If You Have Diabetes?
The short answer: yes, you can. But, with a few things to keep in mind. Certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian Melissa Joy Dobbins, M.S., RDN, CDCES, host of the Sound Bites Podcast, shares, “While many people with diabetes think they need to avoid starchy vegetables, the truth is that they can indeed enjoy these foods in their daily diet. The amount depends on each person’s individual diet, preferences and blood glucose (AKA blood sugar) goals.”
With this in mind, nutrition experts unanimously agree it comes down to focusing on portion size, how you prepare them and monitoring the impact they have on your individual blood sugar levels. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. Dobbins notes, “Most people can include one serving per meal or snack as part of their total carbohydrate intake. As with any carbohydrate food, it’s best to eat them along with foods containing protein and/or unsaturated fats as these macronutrients will help slow the digestion of carbohydrates and result in more stable blood sugar levels. Since most people are not meeting recommended intakes for vegetables, it’s helpful to encourage people to include higher-fiber starchy vegetables as part of a healthy diet.”
Read Next: Can People with Diabetes Eat Potatoes?
Tips to Include Starchy Vegetables in a Healthy Diabetes-Appropriate Diet
With less than 9 out of 10 Americans not consuming enough vegetables on a regular basis, it’s important to encourage consumption of a variety of produce picks, starchy vegetables included, to reap their nutritional benefits. A recent 2023 study published in Circulation even found that prescribing fruits and vegetables may actually help lower glycated hemoglobin (also known as hemoglobin A1C, or the measure of blood coated with sugar over a period of time.)
Compston suggests focusing on flipping the script to an additive mindset when thinking about including them in a diabetes-appropriate diet. She shares, “Learning to incorporate these foods as part of a healthy, balanced diet sets us up for sustainable health management that nourishes both body and soul.”
Here are Feller and Compston tips for adding starchy vegetables into your diabetes-friendly diet:
- Pair starchy vegetables with a blood sugar-balancing friend at mealtimes to keep spikes at bay. Opt for combos that include a protein and/or fat with your starchy veggies to help stabilize blood sugar levels and reduce risk of spikes and crashes.
- Be mindful of the sources of fat on your plate, choosing more heart-healthy unsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, oils, avocados, fish and more.
- Tread lightly on added salts and lean into flavors from garlic, onion, herbs and spices which add antioxidants to your meal that support whole-body health.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Do starchy vegetables raise your blood sugar?
Starchy vegetables, like any carbohydrate containing food, will affect blood sugar levels if you have diabetes. That said, the response will be highly individualized and based on the vegetable itself, how it was prepared and what other foods were consumed with it. Feller shares, “The increase in blood sugars can range from negligible to significant based on a number of variables. People living with diabetes get to know their bodies’ individual response to carbohydrate-containing foods and make choices to minimize significant and unwanted elevations in blood sugars.”
2. What kind of starchy vegetables can someone with diabetes eat?
Starchy vegetables come in many different forms, but all can have a seat at your table. Each produce pick offers a variety of different nutrients, which is why Compston advises to mix up your produce picks each week to broaden your nutrient intake and brighten up your menu. Make choices based on what’s available, within your budget and culturally relevant for you.
3. How many starchy vegetables should someone with diabetes eat in a day?
The MyPlate method to plan your menu is a great rule-of-thumb to utilize as you create your plate. Compston explains, “While this can vary by individual, a good rule of thumb is to designate roughly one quarter of your plate for starchy vegetables or grains. Then, fill another quarter of your plate up with a protein and the remaining half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables. This will ensure your body receives the right balance of nutrients to provide lasting energy and satisfaction needed to fuel the day.”
The Bottom Line
Following a diabetes-friendly diet does not mean you have to give up the foods you may have come to know and love, especially starchy vegetables. In fact, research is finding that eating more produce may actually help improve your blood sugar levels. Focus on incorporating higher-fiber starchy vegetables alongside a source of protein and unsaturated fat to help slow digestion and the impact the carbs have on your blood sugars. Get creative in your kitchen and experiment with new starchy vegetables and explore how they individually impact your individual blood sugar levels.
Read Next: 7-Day Meal Plan for Diabetes