Potatoes have been saddled with a reputation of being “unhealthy,” and it’s unfair. The potato is just a lump of mostly starch (and a surprising amount of vitamin C) that grows in the ground. It’s as down-to-earth as a vegetable can get—literally. Sure, we can fry it in oil and call it a chip, but that’s hardly the potato’s fault. So why do so many of us think of potatoes as incompatible with a healthy diet?
How did we start thinking of potatoes as unhealthy, anyway?
One of the sadder statistics from the USDA’s surveys of our eating habits is that potatoes are the most commonly consumed vegetable in America. That’s not sad because they are potatoes, but rather because so many of us eat them in the form of potato chips and French fries and then don’t eat many other vegetables. A diet devoid of green veggies is a problem because it’s missing green veggies, not because it has potatoes in it.
A variety of observational studies have related potato consumption to increased levels of type 2 diabetes and other health outcomes, but potatoes are more likely to be a marker of an otherwise unhealthy diet (for example, signaling that someone eats a lot of fast food) than a problem in themselves. A recent study from Denmark that separated boiled potatoes from fried found that the former aren’t linked to diabetes risk. And even though potatoes have a high glycemic index on paper, research has shown that they don’t spike blood glucose in the context of a typical meal.
Fries and chips also have a bad reputation, dating from the days when fats and oils were considered the bugbear of healthy eating. They’re fried in fatty oil (or, in the olden days, beef tallow) and thus have been deemed “unhealthy.” When carbs became a trendy thing to avoid, fries and chips were still considered unhealthy—but this time because potatoes are high in carbs.
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Even though the low-carb craze has faded, potatoes are still seen as a poor choice. Or people will eat sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, even though they’re nutritionally not that different. We need to get our understanding straight.
What’s actually in a potato, nutrition wise
What’s so bad about potatoes, anyway? If you take a minute to consider them as a vegetable, separate from their common chip and French-fry preparations, they’re actually pretty good. A large potato (284 calories’ worth) contains:
- 64 grams of carbs—okay, but stay with me here
- 8 grams of protein
- 8 grams of fiber
- less than 1 gram of fat
- 81% of your daily value in vitamin C(!)
- 64% of your daily vitamin B6
- 33% of your daily potassium
These numbers assume you’re keeping the skin on. Potatoes’ flesh still has plenty of the above nutrients, but you’ll get more of them if you include the skin. (I always keep the skin on when I mash or roast potatoes.)
the figures for protein, fat, and vitamins are pretty impressive for a vegetable, and even more so when you think of them as a source of carbs: A potato has more fiber and protein than an equivalent serving of brown rice, and more fiber (but similar protein) compared to quinoa.
So stop lumping potatoes in with white bread or other refined carbohydrate sources. Nutritionally they are more like quinoa, brown rice, or other whole grains.