I never get tired saying that potatoes are one my favorite vegetables: I cook them at home a few times a week, plus I’ve featured a number of recipes with potatoes on this blog. White potatoes were a big part of my menu while I was training for a marathon last November, and later during my running streak that lasted from Thanksgiving till New Year’s Day. So whenever I hear someone declaring that a white potato is a starch-laden vegetable with hardly any nutritional benefits that will make us all fat and devoid of energy, I shake my head with disappointment at yet another expert who didn’t do their basic homework.
Carbohydrates have gotten a lot of bad rap lately. New low-carb diets keep popping up every day with claims of turning us into slender, energetic machines if only we stop consuming all carbs altogether. And yet our society is growing fatter and unhealthier year by year… What’s going on?
A Lesson in History
Have you ever wondered if departing from the traditions of our ancestors might have made us much more sick as a society today? A lot of great nations of the ancient times relied on starchy foods in their everyday diet:
- – Mayans and Aztecs (Central America) – corn;
- – Incas (South America) – white and sweet potatoes;
- – Asian nations – rice, legumes, wheat, rye;
- – Africa – millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes;
- – Middle East – wheat, oats, legumes.
These plant foods were staples in diets of people who performed lots of daily physical labor and traveled long distances by foot. Julius Caesar’s legions preferred to eat starch-based meals when they went out to war and even complained if they were fed too much meat (source). With all of the carbohydrates they were consuming, these ancient nations were still healthier and more slender than we are today as a society.
If we look at the traditional diet of the rural populations of Russia, Poland, and Ireland in the 18-19th century, we see that potatoes were an important staple food of people who performed grueling physical labor every day.
John McDougall, one of the proponents of a starch-based diet, often brings up a study performed in 1925: a 25-year old man and a 28-year old woman were supposed to eat little more than white potatoes for 6 months, 3 times a day (a few fruits, coffee and tea, and some pure fat were added later in the study). The couple was very active physically, especially the man who participated in a number of sports. Interestingly, by the time the study ended, both the man and the woman were found “…in good health on a diet in which nitrogen [protein] was practically solely derived from the potato.” And later: “The digestion was excellent throughout the experiment and both subjects felt very well. They did not tire of the uniform potato diet and there was no craving for change.” (Source)
So if potatoes (and other starchy plant-based foods) have successfully fed us humans for so long, how come they get so much bad rap now?
A Lesson in Chemistry and Nutrition
It’s true that white potatoes consist almost exclusively of starch, fiber and water. While fiber and water fill us up without affecting our waistlines, potato starch is often considered fattening. However, it’s not so bad after all: the type of starch found in potatoes consists of long chains of glucose that are much longer than the chains found in sugar. Long glucose chains are broken down slowly in our intestines, so the glucose is absorbed into our blood at a slower, more constant rate than sugar does. This slow absorption doesn’t cause an insulin spike (insulin is a hormone that induces glucose to be stored as fat). Therefore, glucose from potato starch doesn’t get transformed into fat as readily as glucose from sugary foods. The presence of fiber in potatoes also slows down glucose absorption in our bodies.
As a result, potatoes supply us with energy without sudden spikes and later crashes. Besides, they keep us fuller and more satisfied for longer.
Now that we’ve determined that potatoes are a great gut stuffer, let’s take a look at their nutritional profile.
One medium white potato contains:
- – 26 g carbohydrates (2 g fiber, 1 g sugar);
- – 3 g protein (thinking that’s not much? See my post on optimal protein amounts in human diet);
- – 0 g fat (!);
- – more potassium (620 mg) than a banana (450 mg);
- – vitamin C (45% of recommended daily value);
- – vitamin B6 (10% DV), needed for protein and carbohydrate metabolism;
- – iron (6% DV), needed for a number of functions in the body, most importantly in hemoglobin production. (Source)
This is all well and good, you might say, but how come we’ve thought of white potatoes as fattening for so long?
The answer is simple: we’ve become too dependent on our taste buds.
We forgot the simple pleasure of a baked or steamed potato. They seem way too plain to us, we have to add lots of butter/fat/bacon/you name it on top. Or better yet, we get excited with the idea of deep frying potatoes and sprinkling them with lots of salt or MSG-containing seasonings. The humble plain potato has lost its appeal to our jacked-up taste buds – it simply has become a fat/junk delivery device for our stomachs. No wonder we are now fatter and unhealthier as a society while blaming white potatoes!
Great news: our taste buds can be recalibrated. Getting back to basics is not as hard as it seems, especially if we realize the benefits. Carbohydrates are not evil as long as they come from whole, unrefined sources (steamed potatoes in, chips and cake out). A diet rich in whole, minimally processed plant-based foods can do wonders for our health! And it’s not all bland and boring as some may think, just check out these recipes with potatoes on my blog – all of them require little to no oil:
Eggplant Rollups with Black Bean-Potato Stuffing – the most popular recipe on Vegan Runner Eats!
To see more recipes with potatoes on my blog, click here – or use the world wide web for more inspiration!
A number of talented doctors and researchers have been talking about the benefits of whole food, plant-based diet for years – just look up the works of T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., Neal Barnard, Michael Greger, John McDougall. The latter is especially passionate about starch-based diets – click here to see his article about treating diabetes with a low-fat, high-starch dietary approach.
I hope this article has convinced you that potatoes are not as scary as the media often presents them!
Question of the day: What’s your favorite potato dish?