By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
If there’s ever a food that gets treated unfairly, it’s the lowly potato.
We, as physicians, encourage our patients to reduce or eliminate processed junk food in favor of organic, plant-based, whole foods that come directly from Mother Earth. And the potato meets all these criteria. So why the bad rap?
The answer is a bit complicated, but it all comes down to one word: starch.
Starch is a common carbohydrate in our diet. It is made up of glucose molecules—simple sugars the body uses for energy. Rather than getting digested slowly, starch goes right into the bloodstream. The spike in blood glucose prompts the pancreas to release insulin to help use it up. Whatever glucose doesn’t get burned for energy is then stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. (Glycogen can be pulled for energy as well, when the body needs it.)
The thing is, almost all vegetables have starch. Yes, potatoes have more than most veggies, but when and why did this become so problematic?
Well, the theory is that the quick spike in blood sugar, and the resulting insulin response, causes hunger a lot faster than slower-digesting foods. This can, of course, lead to the slippery slope of overeating…then weight gain…then obesity….then obesity-related conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
The low-carb craze in the 1990s and 2000s vilified starches even more. All of a sudden, the potato, with its high carbohydrate content, was lumped into the same “no-no” category as candy, bread, and other processed junk food. The once-noble spud became synonymous with empty calories and weight gain.
Even today, with the popularity of the low-carb ketogenic diet and even the Paleo diet, a lot of the population still looks down on potatoes.
While they’re not for everyone, the truth is potatoes can absolutely be part of a healthy diet. Here’s why…
Debunking Potato Myths
Do potatoes, with their quick-burning carbs and insulin spikes, really cause hunger and overeating? An Australian study put this theory to the test.
Participants were fed foods from six different categories: fruits, bakery goods, snack foods, carbohydrate-rich foods, protein-rich foods, and breakfast cereals. They rated their satiety (feelings of fullness and satisfaction) every 15 minutes over the next two hours.
Turns out the highest satiety score was produced by potatoes! They kept participants full and didn’t spike hunger, as it’s usually assumed they do.
To be fair, eating too much of any type of high-carb (or high-fat/high-sugar) food could lead to weight gain. If you ate ten big potatoes a day without engaging in any exercise to burn it off, you’d probably gain weight—just as you would if you ate a gallon of ice cream a day. But eaten in moderation and as part of a healthy diet, potatoes do not contribute to overeating.
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Potatoes are Packed with Nutrients
The carb conundrum aside, potatoes are actually rich sources of several vitamins and minerals.
One medium sized potato contains no fat and about half the daily recommended value of vitamin C. It also is a good source of B vitamins (especially thiamine, niacin, pyridoxine), phosphorus, magnesium, and fiber.
Where potatoes really shine nutritionally is their potassium content. Approaching 750 mg potassium per serving, potatoes are, in fact, the very best food source of this mineral. Potassium can help lower blood pressure, which in turn reduces risk of heart attack and stroke, making it a very important mineral for heart health.
Anti-aging, disease-preventing antioxidants can also be found in potatoes, though they’re higher in some varieties than others…which leads me to….
Varieties of Potatoes
You probably know the white potato best. Otherwise known as Russet or Idaho potatoes, these spuds are about the most popular of all the potatoes. You can bake, fry, or mash them and they’re simply delicious.
If you’re looking to get out of your potato comfort zone though (and I highly recommend you do!), look for colored potatoes. Red, yellow, purple, and sweet potatoes are not only versatile (you can bake, roast, steam, boil, fry, and mash them), they’re actually better sources of antioxidants than their white counterparts. Purple potatoes are the best in this regard, with the extra antioxidants coming from the anthocyanins in the purple flesh and skin.
Potato Preparation Is Key
Finally, I think it’s important to note that a lot of the reason potatoes are so frowned upon is because of the way they’re prepared.
Ahem….French fries…potato chips…loaded baked potatoes.
You can make any healthy food completely unhealthy but deep frying in canola oil it or adding a ton of unnecessary empty calories or heavily processed ingredients.
The key to making potatoes a healthy part of your diet is preparing them in a health-enhancing manner. The super-simple recipes below provide some delicious and nutritious ways to cook potatoes. For example, I use olive oil instead of butter or sour cream, because it’s a staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.
A few caveats before enjoying though…
- If you have an autoimmune disease, intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome), or an intolerance to vegetables in the nightshade family, you should consider avoiding potatoes (which belong to this family). Nightshades contain substances called glycoalkaloids, which increase intestinal permeability. It is believed that this can set off an autoimmune reaction.
- If you have diabetes, you may want to watch how often you eat potatoes unless you cook then completely cool them in the fridge. This cooking-then-cooling process turns them into resistant starches. Rather than being digested in the small intestine, resistant starches are fermented in the colon by gut bacteria. These starches end up behaving more like fiber, slowing the glucose/insulin response and increasing satiety. This means no blood sugar spikes, which is especially important for those with diabetes.
And finally, it goes without saying that you should avoid French fries, potato chips, and other unhealthy variations of potatoes. Those are what really give potatoes a poor reputation.
*Note: the recipes below contain links to products sold by Vervana, a fine food company I founded and co-own.
Garlic Mashed Potatoes Recipe
- 2 pounds potatoes (Russet, Yukon, or combination of both)
- 2 Tbsp garlic flavored olive oil
- 1 cup organic milk (or coconut milk if dairy free)
- Natural salt and pepper to taste
Boil a pot of water. Add potatoes. Cook until tender but still firm, about 15 minutes. Drain. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and olive oil until warmed. Using a potato masher or electric beater, mash potatoes. Add the milk mixture and continue mixing until smooth and creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Roasted Rosemary-Garlic Potatoes Recipe
- 2 pounds multicolored potatoes (yellow, red, purple)
- ¼ cup rosemary olive oil
- 4-6 cloves crushed garlic
- Natural salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Wash the potatoes. Cut them in half. In a bowl, toss the potatoes with the rosemary olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic, until fully coated. Place potatoes on a sheet pan. Roast in oven for 45 minutes, or until brown and crisp. Halfway through roasting, flip the potatoes to ensure even browning.
Zesty Sweet Potato Fries Recipe
- 2 pounds sweet potatoes
- 2 Tbsp jalapeño garlic flavored olive oil or garlic flavored olive oil
- Pink Himalayan or sea salt, to taste
- Optional: Mexican Spice Blend, to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Peel and cut the sweet potatoes into sticks about ¼ inch wide. Toss them in your olive oil of choice. Sprinkle them with salt and Mexican Spice Blend (if using), and spread potatoes out evenly over a sheet pan. Bake until brown and crisp on the underside, about 15 minutes. Flip the potatoes and brown the other side, about 10-15 minutes.
You can also make these in an air fryer, which makes them even better! Bake at 380-400 degrees for about 12-15 minutes, flipping the potatoes halfway through.
- Holt S, et al. A Satiety Index of Common Foods. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1995 Sep;49(9):675-90.
- Weaver CM. Potassium and health. Adv Nutr. 2013;4(3):368S-77S. Published 2013 May 1. doi:10.3945/an.112.003533
- Bellumori M, Chasquibol Silva NA, Vilca L, et al. A Study on the Biodiversity of Pigmented Andean Potatoes: Nutritional Profile and Phenolic Composition. Molecules. 2020;25(14):3169. Published 2020 Jul 10. doi:10.3390/molecules25143169
© Stephen Sinatra, MD and Vervana, LLC. All rights reserved.