Pity the poor potato. Spuds have gained a bad reputation among certain members of the health community.
Those who stick to the low-carb, high-protein Paleo diet recommend avoiding them entirely — and perhaps for good reason. High potato consumption can contribute to weight gain and an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, according to research from Harvard University. Still, plenty of nutritionists and dietitians argue potatoes can be a fine part of a balanced diet. Certain groups in the health community are even actively pro-potato: High-carb vegans, for example, encourage eating potatoes in abundance, while research from the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests you can lose weight on a potato-heavy diet.
So, what gives? Here’s some of the starchy truth.
NUTRIENT DENSE OR CALORIE BOMB?
Here’s the bad news: Potatoes are an energy-dense food choice, says dietitian Cara Harbstreet, the owner of Street Smart Nutrition. That means they often pack more calories than other sources of carbs, like non-starchy veggies or whole grains. They’re also high in carbohydrates and high on the glycemic index, the combination of which can cause your blood sugar and insulin levels to spike, then dive, during digestion. This extreme swing in blood sugar levels may make you feel sluggish or hungry not long after eating, which can then cause you to overeat.
In spite of this, there are plenty of reasons — aside from the “yum” factor — to eat potatoes as part of a balanced diet. The skin is a good source of fiber, according to Harbstreet, and spuds are packed with many other vital nutrients.
“One, medium, skin-on potato provides just 110 calories, no fat or sodium and more potassium than a banana,” says Jackie Newgent, a dietitian and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.
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Potatoes can also be an easy way for athletes to refuel after a rigorous workout, adds Harbstreet: “They can serve as a great recovery tool to replenish glycogen stores before training again.”
Despite that nutritional punch, it’s the range of preparation methods that add a layer of potential unhealthiness to potatoes. It’s no shock we lose that healthy edge when we decadently mash potatoes or fry them, but Newgent says we also tend to overindulge when we prep them this way.
“The challenge with potatoes is that they’re often fried and eaten in social settings that distract from mindfulness,” adds Harbstreet. “This may contribute to their association with weight gain.”
ANALYZING THE RESEARCH
On the surface, the research surrounding potatoes doesn’t seem promising. A Harvard University study found potato-rich diets can up your risk of diabetes and heart disease, while an eight-year study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that people who consumed fried potatoes two to three times a week had an increased mortality risk. In addition to these health concerns, potato consumption has also been linked to obesity and hypertension, according to other studies.
But not so fast. Before you condemn potatoes entirely, it’s helpful to have a broader understanding of nutrition research.
“The nature of nutrition research makes it difficult to definitively say that one food or food group is responsible for an increased risk or prevalence of disease,” says Harbstreet. She adds that association or correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation when it comes to potatoes and health concerns.
In fact, many studies show only modest positive associations between potato consumption and an increased risk of health problems. While these numbers may be statistically significant, they’re not always practically relevant, says Harbstreet.
As long as you’re smart about portion sizes and preparation methods, it’s fine to eat potatoes as part of a balanced diet.
“Consuming potatoes in moderation with other foods does not, in my opinion, pose a large risk for most people who are otherwise leading an active lifestyle and consuming a nutritionally adequate diet,” says Harbstreet.
The exception, she says, may be a diabetic population.
“People with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes may [be able] to better control their blood sugar by avoiding starchy vegetables or limiting their intake of carbohydrate-dense foods,” she explains.
Newgent agrees: “I find it’s better advice in the long-term to help someone find healthfully prepared, properly portioned ways to include favorites like potatoes into an overall nutrient-rich eating plan rather than tell someone to avoid a wholesome plant food that they enjoy.”
3 TIPS FOR EATING POTATOES ON A WEIGHT-LOSS PLAN
1. LIMIT YOUR CONSUMPTION OF FRIED POTATOES
Opt for baked, roasted or boiled potatoes in lieu of fried varieties. You can also make basic cooking swaps to up the health factor of your potatoes, says Newgent. For example, mash potatoes with plain unsweetened almond milk instead of cow’s milk — besides fewer carbs, this may factor in as few as 30 calories per serving and contains no saturated fat.
2. BE SMART ABOUT PORTION SIZES
You don’t have to cut out your favorite foods when you’re trying to lose weight. But be mindful of how much you’re eating so you don’t overindulge. For a wholesome, nutritious plate, try combining a starchy vegetable like potatoes with a protein, a serving of non-starchy vegetables and a source of healthy fat.
3. TRY OTHER POTATO VARIETIES
To mix things up, Harbstreet recommends experimenting with yellow, red, purple and blue potatoes in your cooking. Compared to white potatoes, these colorful spuds have a higher concentration of carotenoids and flavonoids, plant pigments that can act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents in the body to help fight against cardiovascular disease.