The Health Benefits of Potatoes

Potatoes are nutritionally complex

I am an advocate for holistic wellness. For example, I believe that health should be addressed in many ways: through physical activity, what we eat, and copious amounts of self-care. Well, I have another very firm and outspoken belief. I am an advocate for the benefits of potatoes!

The History of Potatoes

Potatoes were cultivated by the Incans in Peru as many as 10 THOUSAND years ago. After colonization, the Spanish conquistadors brought the tubers back to Europe.

Unfortunately, a lot of Europeans were suspicious of the spud. It looked weird. It tasted weird. Farms fed potatoes to their animals but didn’t eat them themselves.

My favorite historical potato story is about Frederick the Great of Prussia. He knew that potatoes could help his people. But, his people said no.

What did old Freddie do?

He planted (and heavily guarded) a royal field of potatoes. Seeing that there must be some value to potatoes, peasants stole them. And Frederick the Great’s people were fed.

Potatoes are nutritious, protected again grain famine, and produce a lot per crop. They solved many European food problems. Ireland’s population doubled in 60 years due to the new, reliable crop.

Until…

The Irish Potato Famine

The famine began in 1845 and lasted 7 years. One million Irish persons died due to starvation, and another million were forced to leave their country.

While Ireland did produce many crops, many of those crops were sent to England to feed the “wealthier upper classes” while Irish peasants starved. These practices were appealed, but not enough food was given back to the Irish.

The famine itself was caused by potato blight – a mold that destroyed every part of the plant.

There are a few lessons we can learn from this.

  1. The Irish grew much more than one crop. However, most of their additional crops were exported to England. England did not lessen these exports, which contributed to the starvation of a million people.
  2. While they grew multiple crops, the Irish primarily relied on one – the potato. When their staple crop failed, no replacements were available. Therefore, it is evident that relying on one source of food is dangerous, especially if that food is vulnerable to disease. Humans evolved to consume a variety of foods.
  3. On the other hand, potatoes are SO NUTRITIOUS that many Irish peasants could survive off only potatoes for extended periods of time! And that is what we are going to focus on today.

The Nutritional Profile of the Potato

There seems to be a misguided belief that potatoes are not healthy. This idea has never sat right with me, so I decided to dig deep and share the facts.

Disclaimer: While potatoes are delicious and nutritious, some people do have potato allergies. Therefore, if you do have a potato allergy, I am sorry you cannot indulge in this amazing tuber. Also, for those who think potato allergies are weird, DON’T JUDGE. The human body is bizarre, and some bodies simply chose potatoes to target with an immune response. If someone says they have an allergy, believe them, no matter how strange it may seem.

Anyhow, back to my best spud (get it? like best bud).

Baked white potatoes (with the skin) pack a punch. They have large amounts of:

  • Potassium (26% of RDI)
  • Vitamin C (28% of RDI)
  • Vitamin B6 (27% of RDI)
  • Manganese (19% of RDI)
  • Magnesium (12% of RDI)
  • Phosphorous (12% of RDI)
  • 4.3 grams of protein
  • 3.8 grams of fiber

They contain antioxidants (which neutralize harmful free radicals), resistant starch (which helps control blood sugar), and short-chain fatty acids (which help improve gut bacteria)!

Different types of potatoes contain different variations of the above nutrients. Sweet potatoes have slightly less starch. Potatoes with more color are seen as low-glycemic, and better for people with diabetes. Short of cutting out carbohydrates entirely (keto diet, I’m looking at you) there is nobody who can’t eat a potato!

Potatoes: Where We Went Wrong

Now, before we all start our new diet of potato chips and French fries, I have bad news.

Not all potatoes are cooked equally.

In fact, how a potato is cooked is a huge factor behind it’s nutritional value!

Firstly, any cooking method that skins a potato reduces its nutritional value by (roughly) half because most vegetables hold their fiber in their skin. Luckily, most of the Vitamin C and potassium is from the flesh of the potato!

*Is it making anyone else uncomfortable that the terms for a potato tuber involve flesh and skin? Just me? Okay.*

French fries and potato chips are big culprits here. Moreover, mashed potatoes with peeled potatoes can also be something to watch out for.

Moreover, when we fry our potatoes or load them up with sour cream and bacon bits, we add a lot of unhealthy fats. Putting marshmallows on sweet potatoes doesn’t make them any healthier. Additionally, frying starchy foods at high heat create acrylamides. This compound raises the risk of cancer in animals.

The “healthy” way to cook potatoes involves boiling, baking, or steaming. On the other hand, scientists are working hard to find out if acrylamides can be lowered in frying, or if they are actually that bad for humans.

The verdict? While you probably shouldn’t eat French fries with every meal, researchers suggest that the nutritional value outweighs the risk! Furthermore, red palm oil appears to create less dangerous compounds during the frying process!

Potatoes: Best Spuds Forever

Potatoes have a bad reputation, but they don't need to.
Photo by Cleo Stracuzza

Why do I care so much about potatoes? I could give many reasons. Their flavor and versatility mean they are easy to add to any dish. They are filling and affordable. Many people see them as “useless carbs” when in fact, they have a lot of nutritional value. They are relatively easy to grow (if you have space), and container planting makes them more accessible.

Once, I had the awful flu, and I ate an entire pan of scalloped potatoes. The next day I felt great! (That is NOT medical advice). Since then, I have been a firm believer in the healing qualities of potatoes.

Despite their amazing qualities, these tubers are often deemed bad or unhealthy. We already know that something like diet is varied between different people and that eating what makes you happy has many benefits on its own.

I am writing this article to address this bad reputation that spuds have. Yes, eating vegetables is important. Yes, fried foods should probably be cut down. But, there is no evidence that a baked potato is going to make or break your diet.

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9 thoughts on “The Health Benefits of Potatoes

  1. I can’t tell you how happy this post makes me. I am a carb queen and potatoes are everything, amazing to see how nutritious they are !

    1. Hi Zara! I’m glad you agree. It’s so nice to know that potatoes don’t need to be cut out for a healthy diet (not that I would have done that anyways)

  2. I need to print it and show it to everyone I know! Potatoes, as well as rice, are one of my favourite foods and I’m tired of listening to people saying they can only make you fat!

    1. Exactly! As with everything, moderation is key, but at the end of the day, I’d rather have a bag of potatoes with me than a bunch of lettuce if I’m stuck without access to a grocery store.

  3. Wow, this is such good news as I am a huge potato fan. I had no idea how many nutrients they provided. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Potatoes totally rock! You could practically live on them they are so good for you. And you’re right…the way people prepare them is what makes them “bad.” Though I have to say some light sour cream and a sprinkle of bacon bits always make it on my baked potatoes (and I eat all the skin, too)!

    1. Honestly, Kathy, I’m a big believer that everything should be consumed with moderation, including moderation! I also like my loaded baked potatoes, and while you can use greek yogurt instead to make them “healthier” nothing really beats sour cream

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