The potato was once celebrated. The powerful Inca civilization was the first to cultivate potatoes around 8,000 BC to 5,000 B.C. Although potatoes were being produced along the coast of northern Spain by the end of the sixteenth century, it took nearly four decades for the potato to spread to the rest of Europe. With their introduction into agriculture, potatoes changed the course of history. Throughout Europe, the most important new food was the humble potato, which had major advantages over other foods. The potato was easy to grow in poor soil, yielded two to four times more calories per acre compared to grains, had a lower rate of spoilage, satisfied hunger and nutrient needs, and was inexpensive.
Tragically, in the 1840s, an outbreak of potato blight swept through Europe destroying the potato crop in many countries. This was particularly hard on the Irish, whose working class depended on potatoes as their main food staple. Over the course of the famine, almost one million people died from starvation or disease, and another million were forced to emigrate out of Ireland.
With such an important place in history, it’s disappointing that today many people “fear” the potato as “fattening” and as a cause of major health issues. So how does the potato compare to bread, rice, or other starchy grains?
Contrary to what most people believe, potatoes are relatively low in calories—just 130 to 140 in a medium (five ounce) potato. That’s more calories per ounce than non-starchy vegetables, but fewer calories than bread and rice. However, top a spud with two tablespoons of butter and three tablespoons of sour cream and you have an additional 415 calories and 30 grams of fat. A five ounce serving of French fries has about 435 calories, and ounce for ounce, potato chips have more than five times the calories as a plain baked potato.
Loaded with Nutrients
Potatoes are a great source of potassium, vitamin C, and magnesium; and if you eat the skin, vitamin B6 and fiber along with other beneficial plant compounds. The more colorful the potato, the higher the antioxidants. Think purple and red.
Aside from the myth that potatoes are high in calories, the potato’s maligned reputation is usually related to it being classified as a high glycemic index (GI) food, meaning that it’s carbohydrate content is quickly broken down and absorbed, causing blood sugar and insulin levels to rise. In theory, this could increase fat storage and the risk of obesity and diabetes.
While it’s true that potatoes eaten plain are a high glycemic food, that doesn’t mean that they’re unhealthy. Not many of us eat a potato all by itself as a meal. The fact is that when you eat a potato along with foods that contain protein, fat or fiber, the mix of different foods lowers the overall glycemic index, causing nutrients to be absorbed more gradually. The result? Blood sugar and insulin levels don’t spike, but rise more slowly.
Other factors that impact blood sugar levels come into play as well, like serving size, how a food is prepared, and length of time between meals. And just because a food has a lower glycemic load doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. If you top a potato with cheese, sour cream and bacon – it will have a lower glycemic index – but that doesn’t make it healthy, right?
So what does the research tell us about the potato? A Harvard study grabbed the attention of the media when it linked potato consumption with being overweight, and pointed to an increase in blood glucose levels as the reason. Weight gain was related to all types of potatoes when compared to other food groups (meat, processed meat, sugary beverages, desserts and dairy products). However, weight gain from boiled, baked, or mashed potatoes at (0.57 lb) was only a fraction compared to potato chips (1.69 lbs) and French fries (3.35 lbs). One may also want to consider that from a lifestyle perspective, chips and fries are usually eaten alongside other high fat foods such as burgers and hot dogs, and washed down with soda.
Along with weight gain, a few studies have also implicated a relationship between potato consumption and type 2 diabetes. For example, data from the Nurses’ Health Study, published in 2006, linked potato intake to the risk of type 2 diabetes in obese women—especially when potatoes were eaten in place of whole grains. Since then, other epidemiological studies have not verified a connection between potatoes and weight gain or any diseases, and no clinical studies have shown a connection. It’s important to recognize that people vary in their response to carbohydrates. Accordingly, research suggests that potato consumption may be more problematic in overweight and/or sedentary people, who are more likely to have insulin resistance.
Still, the American Diabetes Association and other experts say there’s no need for people with diabetes to avoid spuds altogether. It comes down to many factors as mentioned earlier, including how they’re cooked, the portion eaten, and what they’re paired with. And not all varieties have a high GI. Russet potatoes do, for example, but red potatoes rank as a moderate GI food.
Good News for Potato Lovers
Those of you that are potato lovers (like me) – will be happy to know that potatoes may actually help with weight control. Researchers showed that whether potato-eating dieters were assigned to a high glycemic or low glycemic index meal plan, they lost similar amounts of weight. Interestingly, people in the “control” group who were simply told to eat five to seven servings of potatoes per week but weren’t necessarily trying to lose weight, lost weight anyway. The researchers speculated that since potatoes tend to fill you up, you may eat less overall. Potatoes also contain proteinase inhibitors, which may suppress appetite. Spoiler alert: there’s a weight-loss supplement that contains a potato extract, which is claimed to act as an appetite suppressant, but there’s no evidence it works. More research is needed.
Potatoes are loaded with potassium that is known to reduce blood pressure. They also contain plant substances called kukoa-mines that act like blood pressure lowering medications! It’s not surprising then that a recent study found that 18 overweight or obese people with high blood pressure who ate six to eight small purple potatoes (with skins) twice daily for a month reduced diastolic blood pressure by 4.3%, and systolic pressure by 3.5%. Sidebar: None of the participants gained weight.
Potatoes can be part of a healthy diet that’s rich in lean protein, healthy fat, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Mix it up! There are more than 4,000 varieties of native potatoes (mostly found in the Andes) that come in many sizes and shapes. The key is to control portion size (one small or half a medium spud) and to prepare them in healthy ways:
Ways to Prepare Potatoes
-Slice/cube and brush with extra virgin olive oil and season with rosemary. Roast or grill in foil.
-Slice/cube and brush with extra virgin olive oil and season with basil, roasted red pepper, sundried tomato or artichoke. Roast or grill in foil.
-Bake and garnish with healthy toppings like fresh or dried herbs, vegetarian chili, feta cheese, or salsa.
-Cube and boil to cook. Toss with Dijon mustard or balsamic vinaigrette when potatoes are still warm. Chill and serve as a summer side dish with lean protein.
Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes
- 4 large sweet potatoes
- 2 Tbsps. butter
- 2 Tbsps. brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/3 cup Sun-Maid Natural Raisins
- 1/3 cup toasted chopped pecans *
Heat oven to 350°F.
Scrub and pierce potato skins in several places with a fork.
Place on cookie sheet. Bake 50-60 mins. or until soft when squeezed. Remove from oven.
Meanwhile, in medium microwavable bowl, mix butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and raisins.
Microwave on high 30-60 seconds or until butter is melted. Mix well.
Cut baked potatoes in half lengthwise. Carefully scoop out flesh, leaving skins intact. Add flesh to raisin mixture. Mix well, mashing potatoes. Spoon back into potato skins. Place on large cookie sheet. Top with pecans.
Bake 10 mins. or until thoroughly heated.
* To toast pecans, place in pie plate or shallow baking pan. Bake at 350°F for 5-8 mins. or until golden brown and fragrant, stirring once.
Total time: 90 minutes; Yields 8 servings
Nutrients per serving:
Calories 150, Fat 6g (Sat. Fat 2g), Cholesterol 10mg, Protein 2g, Carbohydrate 22g, Sodium 35 mg, Fiber 3g, Sugars 6g