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We’ve all heard it before.

How bad potatoes are for us.

The poor potato has been beaten and battered in the press and by countless diet ‘gurus’ who never tire of saying that potatoes are really bad for us.

According to the pundits, potatoes are the Number One Enemy—an unhealthy, high glycemic food that piles the pounds on and leads to diabetes.

And in a certain sense, they actually aren’t wrong.

But the problem is not the potato itself! The problem is how we prepare the potatoes…

From fries and chips to buttery mashed potatoes drenched in gravy and baked potatoes loaded “all the way” with butter, sour cream, “bacon” bits, meaty chili, cheese and just about everything else you can think of, the classic American potato more often than not gets completely buried under an avalanche of unhealthy fats and processed junk.

No wonder it’s so easy to believe they’re bad for you!

Introducing the Whole, Delicious and Nutritious Potato

Despite the negative hype, the potato is actually a low-calorie whole food brimming with healthy vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The ‘humble’ potato is:

  • Low in calories: (about 168 calories) and fat (0.2 grams of fat)
  • Loaded with potassium: One large spud potato (complete with skin) contains 1600 milligrams of potassium, almost 45% of the daily recommended amount and 4 times the potassium count of a banana.
  • Packed with fiber: If you eat the skin, a large potato contains 8 grams of dietary fiber or a third (32%) of what you need in a day.
  • Rich in Vitamin C: The skin of the potato alone contains 29 milligrams of Vitamin C, nearly 50% your daily recommended amount.
  • Jam-packed with B6: A single large potato contains 55% of your daily requirement of B6, a vitamin which is crucial for your cardiovascular, digestive, immune, muscular and nervous systems.

Smothered, Smashed, Fried and Fatty

It’s only when you start piling on all the other stuff that the potato loses its nutritional power per calorie…

What starts out as a nutrient-dense source of fiber, most frequently emerges from the kitchen as a calorie-dense fatty mess due to commonly used potato preparation.

For example:

  • Baked potatoes almost always emerge from the kitchen heaped with a variety of fatty toppings. That same healthy and simple russet potato “fully loaded” with classic toppings (butter, sour cream) will have 3 times more calories (505 calories) and 100 times more fat (+21.8 grams). Even worse? A lot of people only eat the ‘inside’ of the potato, leaving the richest, most nutritional part of the potato—the skin—on their plates.
  • Mashed potatoes are typically stripped of their skins, boiled soft and then mixed with milk and butter. One serving has 237 (+69) calories and 8.9 (+8.7) grams of fat. Drown those mashed potatoes in fat-based gravies and the numbers get a lot worse.
  • French Fries – also stripped of their skins – are typically pan-fried or completely submerged in hot oil. A medium serving of fast food French fries packs on 378 (+210) calories and 18.1 (+17.9) grams of fat.
  • Potato Salad, a picnic food that most people consider a healthier option than fries, is one of the fattiest potato dishes you can eat. One serving has 358 (+190) calories and 20.5 (+20.3) grams of fat.

Diabetes: Don’t Blame the Potatoes

Several studies have failed to link the (fresh) potato directly to the sharp increase of diabetes in the United States.

If potatoes are the diabetic smoking gun, why is diabetes on the rise in the U.S. even as Americans eat fewer fresh potatoes? In 1970, the average American consumed 122 pounds of fresh potatoes per year. By 2008, that number had fallen to 117 pounds per person per year. But from 1970 to 2008, the prevalence of diabetes rose an astonishing 215 percent!

Some researchers theorize that people who eat more red meat and more refined grains might indeed eat more potatoes than the rest of the population, but there is no evidence that fresh, undressed potatoes (cooked without oil) have a causative effect on, or are associated with diabetes. What is known is that a diet rich in meats, fatty foods, and stripped carbs substantially increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

And it seems just a little more than coincidental that as fresh potato consumption drops and diabetes grows, Americans are eating nearly twice the amount of high fat frozen potatoes like hash browns, French fries and other processed gratins and mashes.

The Potato: Available to You in a Medley of Rainbow Colors and Sizes

Potatoes come in an intriguing array of colors and sizes. Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, purple potatoes, fingerlings and red potatoes all have different calorie and nutrient counts, so you can’t paint the whole potato garden with a single brush.

Purple and red potatoes are higher in anti-oxidants than their yellow or white cousins. Sweet potatoes (not to be confused with yams) are richer in vitamin A than white potatoes.

The trick – as with all the whole foods we eat – is to mix up colors and nutrient profiles to achieve a healthful diet.

Potatoes are not the enemy. It’s the way we cook and dress them that gives them their unhealthy reputation.

The truth is, you don’t have to abandon your beloved potato. Just buy them whole and bake, boil or steam them and then refrain from dumping all kinds of unhealthy, fatty foods (or oils) on them. The result? A great source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals with virtually no fat and zero cholesterol!

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.