Are Potatoes Healthy? The Good, Bad, and Bottom Line
A nutrition expert lays out potatoes benefits and risks to your diet.
I have to admit that potatoes are my No. 1 "can't live without" splurge food. As much as I love coffee and wine (both help your microbiome!), I could go through life without them. But potatoes, now that would be tough, because they're just so darn satisfying. The question is, are potatoes nutrition packed or are they a diet no-no? The answer is mixed. Here's the good, the bad and bottom line:
You may have heard about the new research that indicates that potatoes help lower blood pressure. In the study, 18 overweight or obese people with high blood pressure downed six to eight purple potatoes, each about the size of a golf ball (with skins, microwaved without oil) twice daily for a month. The spud eaters' average diastolic blood pressures dropped by 4.3 percent and the systolic pressure decreased by 3.5 percent, and none of the volunteers gained weight. The news isn't too surprising because other studies have identified natural substances in potatoes that act similar to those in blood pressure medications, and potatoes are a great source of potassium, a nutrient known to keep blood pressure under control. The study used purple potatoes, because the pigment that gives them their pretty hue is rich in antioxidants (just like these five versatile superfoods). There's more-besides providing fiber, vitamin C and B vitamins, once you cook and then cool them, potatoes become loaded with resistant starch, a unique kind of carbohydrate that's been shown to naturally rev up your body's fat-burning furnace. Like fiber, you can't digest or absorb resistant starch, so your body ferments it when it reaches the large instestine, which triggers your body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates. A pretty nice bonus!
Despite its accolades, another Harvard study made big headlines earlier this year when the scientists found that potatoes – in any form – were linked to weight gain. Scientists tracked the diet and lifestyle choices of more than 120,000 participants for at least 12 years. They found that over four-year spans, those who ate an extra serving of French fries daily gained an average of 3.4 pounds, those who munched an extra serving of potato chips daily gained an average of 1.7 pounds, and an additional serving of potatoes prepared in any form was linked to an average of 1.3 pounds of extra padding. Hmmm, not so great news.
Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad, especially if like me, potatoes are one of your favorite foods. However, I do think moderation is key. In my book, I did not include potatoes as a key part of the weight loss plan. Instead, I emphasized whole grains (try these 7 whole grains to break out of your rice rut) because of the vast research regarding their importance for both weight control and optimal health. But I do think it's OK to trade your whole grain portion for skin-on potatoes a few times per week. Pick any kind you like: fingerling, sweet potatoes, red potatoes, blue, Yukon Gold, Russet. The trick is to prepare them healthfully and watch your portion size. Stick to about a half-cup (the size of half of a tennis ball) prepared in healthy ways:
-Slice or cube then roast or grill in foil brushed with extra virgin olive oil and season with rosemary
-Microwave or broil and drizzle with pesto, from basil to roasted red pepper, sundried tomato or artichoke
-Cube and saute with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, onions and bell peppers
-Bake and garnish with healthy toppings like plain, nonfat Greek yogurt and fresh or dried herbs, a ladle of vegetarian chili, feta cheese, or chunky marinara sauce
-Cook, chill and toss with a simple balsamic vinaigrette or a mixture of Dijon mustard, roasted garlic, red wine vinegar and paprika
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. She is the author of Slim Down Now.