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Can we stop saying that potatoes are bad for us?

Photo: nelea33 (Shutterstock)

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Potatoes have been given a reputation for being ‘unhealthy’ and it’s unfair. The potato is just a lump of starch (and a surprising amount of vitamin C) that grows in the soil. It’s as simple as it gets for a vegetable, literally. Sure, we can fry it in oil and call it a potato chip, but it’s certainly not the potato’s fault. So why do so many of us think potatoes are incompatible with a healthy diet?

How did we start thinking of potatoes as unhealthy, anyway?

One of the saddest statistics from USDA surveys of our eating habits is that potatoes are the most commonly consumed vegetable in America. It’s not sad because they’re potatoes, but rather because many of us eat them in the form of french fries and chips and then don’t eat many other vegetables. A diet lacking green vegetables is a problem because it lacks green vegetables, not because it contains potatoes.

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Several observational studies have linked potato consumption with increased levels of type 2 diabetes and other health outcomes, but potatoes are more likely to be an indicator of an otherwise unhealthy diet (for example, signaling that someone eats a lot of fast food) than a problem in itself. A recent Danish study that separated boiled potatoes from fried potatoes found that the former I’m not linked to the risk of diabetes. And while on paper potatoes have a high glycemic index, research has shown that they don’t raise blood sugar in the context of a typical meal.

French fries also have a bad reputation, dating back to the days when fats and oils were considered the bogeyman of healthy eating. They are fried in fatty oil (or, in the past, beef suet) and thus have been considered “unhealthy”. When carbs became a trendy thing to avoid, french fries were still considered unhealthy, but this time because potatoes are high in carbohydrates.

Even though the low-carb craze has faded, potatoes are still seen as a poor choice. Or people will eat sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, even though they’re not that different nutritionally. We need to clarify our understanding.

What’s actually in a potato, nutritionally speaking

What’s wrong with potatoes, anyway? If you take a minute to think of them as a vegetable, separate from their common potato chip and potato chip preparations, they’re actually pretty good. One large potato (284 calories) contains:

  • 64 grams of carbs: That’s okay, but stick with me here

  • 8 grams of protein

  • 8 grams of fiber

  • less than 1 gram of fat

  • 81% of your Daily Value in Vitamin C (!)

  • 64% of your daily B vitamin6

  • 33% of daily potassium

These numbers assume you’re keeping the skin. Potato flesh still has many of the above nutrients, but you’ll get more if you include the peel. (I always keep the skin on when mashing or roasting potatoes.)

the protein, fat and vitamin figures are quite impressive for a vegetable, and even more so when you consider them a carbohydrate source: a potato has more fiber and protein than an equivalent serving of brown rice, and more fiber (but protein similar) than quinoa.

So stop bulking potatoes with white bread or other sources of refined carbohydrates. Nutritionally they are more similar to quinoa, brown rice or other whole grains.

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