Where I live in the Midwest United States, it is harvest season for potatoes, and I have been having fresh garden-grown potatoes for dinner almost every other day. Potatoes are a staple in my diet, but many people avoid them, believing that they are unhealthy. Potato farmers promote potatoes as healthy, but articles often list potatoes as a food to avoid. So you may be left wondering, “Are potatoes healthy for you?”
I have done some research into the nutrition facts of potatoes, and what I have found may defy your preconceptions. Read on to find out what I have dug up about this much-maligned starchy vegetable.
What is a potato?
The potato is an annual plant and a member of the nightshade family. The edible part of the plant is the tuber, an enlarged underground stem which is modified for starch storage. Potatoes have been domesticated by multiple civilizations and have been a food staple around the world for centuries. They were first cultivated in the Andes mountains in South America and were later introduced to Europe by the Spaniards, then brought back to North America later still (1).
Since that time, potatoes have continued to be one of the most important crops in the world. In the US, they are the most popular vegetable, with 42 billion pounds produced in 2019. Americans most commonly eat potatoes frozen, followed by fresh and as chips (2).
How did potatoes get a bad reputation?
Despite their importance as a food staple, potatoes are often thought of as unhealthy, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that.
Potatoes are a versatile food that can be boiled, mashed, fried, stewed, frozen, or dehydrated. This has helped them to become such an important staple, but it also means that there are many ways to serve them that diminishes their nutritional value. Especially in the U.S., we like potatoes best with dairy products or oil added to make french fries, potato chips, potato salad, mashed potatoes, and hashbrowns. So, potatoes are now associated with these fatty dishes.
Potatoes have also been given a bad reputation because of the low-carb diet trend, which tries to convince us that starchy foods like potatoes are bad for health and weight maintenance. But if you are afraid of eating potatoes because you think they might cause weight gain, there is good new for you! Studies have shown that potatoes can be eaten as part of a weight-loss diet without impeding progress (3). As long as you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight even while eating potatoes on a regular basis. Plus, the carbs in potatoes are healthy starches, which are a great source of energy.
Real nutrition facts about potatoes
Despite the conflicting information you might have seen, potatoes are a very nutritious food which can be a staple in a healthy diet. One medium potato has 110 calories and no fat, sodium, or cholesterol. Potatoes are gluten-free, making them a good substitute for wheat-based products if you have gluten sensitivities. They are full of important nutrients including protein, vitamins C, E and B6, calcium, iron and magnesium. A medium potato with the skin even has more potassium than a banana!
As you might imagine, potatoes are high in carbs, with one medium potato containing 26 grams of carbs. But even the carbs in potatoes are beneficial. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, so they are important for both physical and mental performance. Potatoes are packed with starch, a complex carb which they body breaks down slowly, providing a steady supply of energy without causing spikes in blood sugar. A potato with the skin contains 2g of fiber, which helps regulate blood glucose and blood lipid levels and helps you feel satisfied after a meal (4).
How to maximize the benefits of potatoes
If you have been confused about the health effects of potatoes in the past, hopefully you are now ready to start including them in your diet! There are a few tips you will want to follow to maximize the health benefits without sacrificing taste.
Obviously, it is best to avoid processed potato products such as chips and french fries. Instead, buy fresh potatoes and prepare them at home. There are many ways to cook potatoes, including boiling, baking, grilling, and even microwaving. If you are frying potatoes, use olive oil instead of canola oil, and avoid less healthy toppings such as cheese and sour cream.
Potatoes can be paired with just about anything, but a few ideas for healthy toppings would be herbs, salsa, vegetables, beans, and hummus. Or you can try one of these Vegan Potato Recipes from eatplant-based.com. You will discover that potatoes can be the star of a dish and do not have to be combined with meat to make a satisfying meal. Potatoes are amazingly versatile, so you are sure to find something you will like!
To take advantage of the potassium and fiber in potatoes, eat them with the skins on. Try out different varieties, preparation methods, and dishes, and enjoy the delicious wholesomeness of potatoes.
Start loving the spud
From the crops of ancient civilizations to the large-scale production of today, we have a long history with potaotes. You might have been avoiding potatoes because of misinformation about their nutrition and their association with unhealthy dishes. Or maybe you already enjoy potatoes, but only in their overly processed and nutritionally depleted forms.
Potatoes truly deserve more appreciation for their nutritional content and versatility. Consider taking advantage of these benefits by buying some fresh potatoes and trying out a new potato recipe this week. No matter what your goals, you can make potatoes a part of your healthy diet.
Do you enjoy potatoes as much as I do? If so, what is your favorite way to prepare them? Feel free to share your thoughts below!