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In Defense of the Potato

Do potatoes really make us fat, or is there more to the story?

Most of the people I talk to about nutrition each day are afraid of eating carbs - any carbs, even wholesome high carb foods like carrots, melons, fruits and potatoes. They think that carbs are responsible for making us fatter, so if we rid our diet of them we'll be thinner.

"The potato has an undeserved bad reputation that has led many health conscious people to ban them from their diet,” says Dr. Joe Vinson. His research, released this week, shows purple potatoes decrease blood pressure but he believes red- and white-skinned varieties have similar effects.

The reason we are getting fat is that we eat more, especially grains, meats and fats. According to estimates from the USDA Economic Research Service, we eat about 500 calories per day more than we did in the 1970s, and only 40 of those extra calories are from fruits and vegetables, including potatoes. About 300 calories are from other high carb foods (grains) and 240 from meats and fats (only 76 extra calories are from sugar).

According to the United Nations, per-person carb consumption in the U.S. is much lower than in poorer countries of Asia, Africa and South America. If carbs are making us fat, why are those countries not seeing the same rise in obesity rates? Could it be lower total calories and increased activity?.

To talk about weight gain without talking about activity is missing half the point. Carbohydrates are metabolized in a sedentary person a lot differently than in an active person. If a couch potato and an athlete go out together for a pasta dinner, the athlete's body says "Oh good, carbs. I just used a bunch of these in my last workout, and I know I'm going to use a bunch more soon, so I'd better put these in carb storage."

But the couch potato's body says, "Carbs? I haven't used carbs in years, I'd better put these in fat storage." The active person has larger carb storage capabilities, and because those carbs are used regularly the hormone and enzyme system required to deal with them are highly active.

The potato is much maligned for its high Glycemic Index - or the speed with which it raises your blood sugar. But that only presents a problem if you eat a plain potato by itself. Eating foods in combinations that add fat and protein slows down the digestive process and completely changes the glycemic properties of the foods. A Snickers bar has a lower glycemic index than a potato because it contains fat and protein. The glycemic index of a whole meal must be taken into account.

That brings up the other complaint about potatoes - we don't eat them plain, we typically fry them, or serve them with butter, sour cream, cheese, or some other fats. A recent study pointed out that those eating the most potatoes were the heaviest, but didn't say how those potatoes were served. We've taken a simple wholesome food and made it into a calorie delivery system. Are chili cheese fries still considered potatoes?

Potatoes are cheap, high in fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and contain dozens beneficial phytonutrients – on par with broccoli and spinach. Cooking in the microwave will preserve the most nutrients. They are great in stews and soups that offer a hearty combination of carbs, protein and fat. If you think they're too dry to eat without lots of butter, try eating them in the same forkful with your spinach or other veggies. Wholesome natural foods, simply prepared and eaten in moderation are almost never bad for you. 

So eat your potatoes. 

chris September 07, 2011 at 06:37 PM
Great article, thanks. It is sad how confused people get over what and what not to eat. Eat whole foods, including potatoes, and skip the processed packaged stuff. My ancestors did pretty well for themselves with the potato as a staple.
John Ferguson September 07, 2011 at 06:39 PM
If eating potatoes is wrong, I don't want to be right..
Patty Maher September 08, 2011 at 03:45 AM
Amen, John! Amen!
John Feiner September 09, 2011 at 03:51 AM
Certainly there is evidence that the potato is a major part of the obesity epidemic: Mozaffarian et al. Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. N Engl J Med (2011) vol. 364 (25) pp. 2392-404 The link an reference to Mr. Vinson research goes to a web page that does not reference his article. The cited changes in blood pressure in a study with only 18 people are not likely to be statistically significant. While avoiding frying is a great idea, the evidence against excessive carbs is fairly strong.
Bob Ratto September 09, 2011 at 04:31 AM
The key word being "excessive". Potatoes are not bad for you, period. Excessively, probably.

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