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One Potato, Two Potatoes Three Potatoes, Four?

by Michael R Williams, RD

American consumption of potatoes has steadily increased over the last 50 years to over 140 pounds per year. Likewise, Americans’ waistlines and rates of diabetes have increased. Does this mean that potatoes are to blame? Well, it is not that simple.

In 2006, the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” released the only study to ever show a connection between potato intakes and increased rates of diabetes. This study followed over 84,000 nurses for 20 years leading to the conclusion of a “…modest positive association between the consumption of potatoes and the risk of type 2 diabetes in women.”

Does this close the case on potatoes? Potatoes = bad?

Well, hold the phone. The study measured potato intake as “one baked potato or “one cup mashed potatoes.” Unfortunately this is not an accurate measurement. First, mashed potatoes are loaded with butter (fat), milk (fat) and salt (sodium). Likewise, “one baked potato” also includes the very common restaurant-style “loaded” baked potatoes (high fat and high sodium). The nutritional differences between these potatoes and plain homemade baked potatoes are staggering.

In fact, when you remove the additional non-potato ingredients (high fat cheese, butter, salt, sour cream, etc.), which are all linked to increased risks of diabetes or heart disease, plain baked potatoes are in turn actually quite healthy. For instance, they are rich with potassium (more than bananas!) and are good sources of vitamin C, B6, B9, copper, manganese and dietary fiber. They also have similar levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients that are found in spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts (all foods synonymous with health).

To further examine the health of potatoes, Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, decided to eat a diet of 20 potatoes a day for 60 days straight. Compared to most, he did not cover them in toppings — no cheese, no sour cream, no bacon bits, nothing. At the end of 60 days, Chris lowered his blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol and lost weight, all of which drastically reduced his risk of heart disease and diabetes.

So, Potatoes = good? Well, I’m not likely to recommend that my weight loss patients eat only 20 potatoes a day, but the experiment does highlight potatoes as a healthy and nutritious food.

We all likely know someone that eats a “meat and potatoes” diet. For many reasons, eating this way is unhealthy. Mainly, “meat and potato” diets are absent of other healthy, nutrient-rich, high fiber (non-starchy) vegetables. Instead there is an excessive amount of unhealthy high fat, high saturated fat and high cholesterol foods.

Remember the 84,000 nurses in the 2006 study? Other research with this group found that the majority consumed a very high fat and low fiber diet (i.e. meat and potato diet), which suggests that it may not be just the potatoes behind their health problems.

Potatoes are a great addition to a healthy diet. However they cannot take the place of other non-starchy vegetables. Likewise, covering them in cheese, gravies and butter will increase calories, fat and sodium, which will counteract many of their natural health benefits. So remember your spuds at supper, but hold off on the unhealthy fixings.

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