Health nuts tend to diss starchy foods like potatoes, pasta and white rice. But they’re not all bad. Nutritionist Carrie Dennett explains the power of these humble foods.

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On Nutrition

Potatoes, pasta and white rice get a bad rap. Whether it’s “no white at night” or “you might as well be eating straight sugar,” these humble foods take a lot of hits. That’s a shame, because not only are pasta, potatoes and white rice part of traditional diets, including Asian and Mediterranean, but they’re versatile in the kitchen and are far from being “empty calories.” If you enjoy them, they deserve a place at your table.

Yes, I’m a fan of brown rice. I like that it has more fiber, sure, but I also like its more nuanced flavor. But sometimes there’s a particular dish that just pairs better with white rice. And I have patients — often, but not always, of Asian heritage — who just can’t fully embrace brown rice. So what to do?

One reason why pasta, potatoes and white rice get little love from the health conscious is their ranking on the glycemic index (GI), the measure of how much 50 grams of the type of carbohydrate in a particular food increases blood sugar. While the GI can be a useful tool for making food choices that promote healthier blood-sugar levels, there are nuances to it that often get overlooked.

How to lower GI

First, not all types of white rice have the same GI. In general, long-grain rice, like basmati and jasmine, has a lower glycemic index because your body takes longer to digest them and break the carbohydrates down into sugar. Second, what you eat with any carbohydrate-rich food changes how it affects blood sugar. When you create balance in a meal or snack by pairing carb-rich foods with foods rich in protein and healthy fat — like an apple with almonds or pasta with pesto and grilled chicken — you also slow digestion.

Third, when you cook and cool rice, pasta and potatoes before eating them (even if you reheat them first), you reduce their glycemic index. Not to get all science-y, but the starch molecules lock into place in the shape of double helices (the same shape as DNA) that resist digestion in your small intestine. In other words, they become “resistant starch,” which passes intact to your large intestine, making it good food for your gut microbiota.

Feeding the gut

Even though you would probably never pair “starch” and “fiber” in a word-association game, resistant starch behaves much like prebiotic fiber, which is exactly what your beneficial gut microbes like to feed on. That’s good for them, and good for you. When your gut microbes ferment resistant starch, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that appear to be important for human health in numerous ways. They may also increase feelings of satiety (pleasant fullness) after a meal.

If you’re trying to be gut-friendly by increasing fiber, research shows that it’s often easier to increase resistant starch. The best sources of resistant starch are potatoes, pasta, pulses (beans and lentils), less-ripe bananas, and rice and other grains. If you love your whole grains, as I do, for their variety of textures and flavors, you’ll be glad to know that whole grains, and whole grain pasta, contains even more resistant starch than their refined counterparts. Tips for boosting resistant starch, and lowering GI, in potatoes, pasta and white rice:

• Roast potato wedges, cool them and toss some into green salads. Or, cut them into smaller pieces to add, with some vegetables, to scrambled eggs or a frittata.

• Cook extra rice (this works for all grains) and reheat it later to save time. You can even freeze it!

• Pasta salad with lots of vegetables and an olive-oil vinaigrette, paired with grilled chicken or fish.

• Make potato salad a day ahead and toss it with a vinaigrette. This will have a much lower GI than potatoes served fresh from the pot or oven.

Mediterranean Potato Salad

Serves 6-8

This potato salad makes a flavorful, substantial summer side dish. Make it a meal by adding canned tuna or salmon and serving on a bed of greens. You can use coarsely chopped Kalamata olives in place of the capers.

For the salad:

2-pounds red-skinned potatoes

1 tablespoon sea salt

¾ chopped or thinly sliced red onion

1 English cucumber, peeled and sliced into half-moons

1 12-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained

1 15-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained

½ cup capers, drained

For the dressing:

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

½ cup loosely packed fresh Italian parsley leaves, coarsely chopped

¼ cup loosely packed fresh oregano leaves

2-3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

½ teaspoon sea salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Scrub potatoes and cut into 1-inch pieces. Combine with 1 tablespoon salt in a large saucepan and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, continuing to cook just until potato pieces are easily pierced by fork tines or a paring knife. Drain well and refrigerate.

2. Slice or chop red onion and soak in ice water while you prepare the other vegetables. Peel and slice the cucumber, cut the roasted red peppers into smallish pieces (¼-½ inch), and coarsely chop the artichoke hearts. Measure out the capers.

3. Add the dressing ingredients (olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper) to a small food processor or blender and process until the herbs and garlic are finely chopped and the dressing has emulsified. If you have an immersion blender, use it to blend the ingredients in a bowl or Pyrex measuring cup for easier cleanup.

4. Place potatoes in a large bowl. Drain the onions and add to the bowl with the rest of the ingredients, except the dressing. Gently toss to combine. Add the dressing, and gently toss to thoroughly coat. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Refrigerate until ready to serve.