Potatoes: Friend or Foe? 5 Anti-Potato Myths Debunked

You’re probably on the fence about whether potatoes are good or bad for you. With such claims as “potatoes are too high in carbohydrate” or “potatoes have a high glycemic index,” it’s downright confusing whether they are worth keeping in your diet or not.

In this post, I’ll address the most common potato myths and demonstrate why potatoes are not only good for you, but extremely good for you.

Myth #1: Potatoes Will Make You Fat

Whomever made up this riddle was pretty clever. My guess is that it was the anti-carbohydrate folks, who decided that potatoes are high in carbohydrates and therefore bad for you. They spread propaganda like, “potatoes will stick to your ribs,” and made people all around the world believe that potatoes will in fact stick to your ribs.

The truth is that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that potatoes will make you fat.

Potatoes themselves will not make you fat, it’s the high-calorie foods that we eat with them that will make you fat. Think of what most people put on a baked potato. They are usually coated with creamy, savory and fatty foods like the following:

  • Butter
  • Sour cream
  • Gravy
  • Cheese
  • Oily beans

So the poor tuber itself is not to blame, it’s the fatty stuff that we serve on them or next to them that make them dangerous.

Myth #2: All Potatoes are Nightshade Vegetables

Nightshades. Sounds scary, right?

Nightshade vegetables are a class of vegetable that are high in their alkaloid content. Some people have a sensitivity to alkaloid compounds, resulting in a host of frustrating health conditions, including (but not limited to):

  • Arthritis-like symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Nausea

Some people believe nightshade vegetables are harmful because they’re confusing them with “deadly nightshade.” When consumed in large amounts, deadly nightshade may cause convulsions or even death (1).

But deadly nightshades have nothing to do with potatoes.

But even regular nightshades such as potatoes contain toxic alkaloids, right? Wrong.

Many alternative medicine websites claim that nightshade vegetables contain a toxic alkaloid compound called solanine. Solanine is a defense mechanism in SOME Solanaceae plants, where those plants use the solanine to protect against natural threats such as insects.

You’ll see this effect when the potato has green spots (which also happens when it’s exposed to light during growth). That’s why you grow your potatoes in shady areas or buy potatoes without green spots. Simple solution.

More importantly, not all potatoes are in the nightshade family. Only white, red, yellow and blue-skinned potatoes are nightshades. Sweet potatoes and yams are not nightshades, therefore you do not need to worry about unwanted health threats.

Myth #3: Potatoes Are High in Carbohydrates and Will Spike Your Blood Glucose

You’ve heard it before. “Carbs are bad for you,” “carbs will make you fat,” and “carbs are high in sugar,” and “carbs are converted to fat.”

If you believe any of these statements, then it’s not your fault. Since the advent of the Atkins diet, America has been fed a host of anti-carb propaganda, and it makes my head spin. Let’s establish a few things first:

  • Carbohydrates are a fuel for your all tissues in your body
  • Your brain runs off of glucose for 99.99% of your life
  • Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in your muscles, for use during exercise
  • Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in your liver, to provide your brain with a drip-feed of glucose 24 hours a day
  • Carbohydrates are converted into fat, but at a terribly slow and inefficient pace in the human body (2)

Take a look at the nutrition facts label shown here for a medium white potato (3):

nutrition-facts

You may notice a few things:

  • A single medium white potato contains about 150 calories
  • A single medium white potato contains about 40 grams of carbohydrate
  • A single medium white potato contains about 5 grams of protein
  • A single medium white potato contains almost no fat

Many people with diabetes will pass up white potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams because they are high in carbohydrates, fearing that they will skyrocket blood glucose. Instead the opt for low-carbohydrate options, often eating foods that contain a large amount of protein or fat.

If you remember only one thing from this article, remember this:

Carbohydrates will only spike your blood glucose in a high-fat environment. When fat intake is minimized at a given meal as well as in your overall diet, carbohydrates do not spike your blood glucose anymore.

 

Myth #4: Potatoes are Bad Because They are High on the Glycemic Index Scale

The glycemic index and glycemic load were invented to measure how fast and how much a food converts to glucose in your body.

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a measure of how quickly a food converts to glucose.

 

This is fine for foods that you eat as standalone snacks, such as apples, oranges and bananas. But for the potato? Potatoes are rarely eaten by themselves. They are usually part of a meal. This is where the glycemic load comes in.

Glycemic Load (GL) is a measure of how much a food converts to glucose.

It turns out that the GI and GL are affected by several factors; most notably food preparation (4).

We all know that baking, boiling, and roasting foods such as potatoes is much healthier than frying. And deep frying is the worst. Aside from the added fat, deep frying potatoes can lead to the formation of acrylamides, which are known human carcinogens (5–7).

But why is this? Does it affect the glycemic score? Most definitely. And this is one of the key reasons why the glycemic score is flawed at it’s core. Most people don’t take into account the total glycemic load once the food is prepared, rendering the glycemic score effectively useless.

This chart compares the glycemic score of white potatoes to sweet potatoes, compared with lentils and bananas (high GI foods):

Potatoes-Glycemic-Chart

Myth #5: Potatoes Contain Starch and Starch is Bad for You

As with potatoes, many plants produce starch and use it to store carbohydrate for energy. We call these starchy vegetables, and are often associated with terms like complex carbohydrate, fiber-rich, slow absorbing, or low GI foods.

In order to digest the starch in potatoes, our bodies have to break down this starch and release it as free glucose. This process takes time and a significant amount of digestive energy.

Fiber is a key player that helps slow the rate at which starch is broken down into glucose. But not all that starch gets converted to glucose. A medium sized spud contains about 79% water and 4 grams of fiber, which is enough to significantly slow the process and reduce the rate at which glucose enters your blood.

Fiber from whole, unprocessed foods helps aid in satiation, especially when combined with water. That’s why you get full when eating high fibrous foods; the fiber literally expands with water. This is also why it’s hard to overeat these harmless spuds, but it’s easy to veg out on their evil twins: chips, fries, and tater tots.

Foods that are high in starch like potatoes, squash and corn are actually very healthy for you and provide a long-lasting drip-release of glucose into your bloodstream to provide a constant energy supply for body tissues.

Don’t be fooled into believing that starchy foods are bad for you and that they should be avoided. Eat starch-rich foods plentifully and prepare for sustained energy and fantastic blood glucose.

Myth #6: Potatoes Are Low in Micronutrients

If you’ve read my blog on Food as Instructions you are probably familiar with the whole foods acronym: WAV-FM. If you haven’t read it yet, stop what you are doing right now and go read it: it will blow your mind.

To recap, WAV-FM is an acronym that is used to describe whole foods that are high in:

  • Water
  • Antioxidants
  • Vitamins
  • Fiber
  • Minerals

The only way to get all of these nutrients is from whole, unprocessed foods. We’ve already touched on the water and fiber components of potatoes, making them a nutritious thunder god. But what about their antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral content.

Potatoes have a large vitamin and mineral content. They contain vitamins A, C and E, and these vitamins protect against aging, aid in skin repair, maintain optimal liver health, and flood your blood with essential antioxidant compounds.

Antioxidants are potent chemicals in plants that help control oxidative damage (hence anti-oxidants) in the body. They also help regulate your immune system, protect you against viruses and reduce inflammation in tissues all throughout your body.

To understand this more, consider the following analogy:

Antioxidants protect plants from ultraviolet radiation from the sun in the same way that melanin protects our skin from the sun. In both plants and animals, pigments are colors. And colors are antioxidants. That’s exactly why your mom told you to eat the rainbow.

 

Most of the antioxidants in a potato are found in the skin, so eat the potato skin whenever you have the option. Your tissues will love you for it.

Take Home Message

Eaten in the whole, unprocessed form, potatoes are highly nutritious foods with a boatload of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to assist with utilizing its nutrients to aid in your health. Because of the sustained energy release from the slow absorbing carbohydrates, potatoes are a good choice for your diet and an even better choice for your post workout carbohydrate-rich meal.

Potatoes: Friend or Foe?

Friend. Best Friend.
Eat potatoes liberally, and away from fatty foods.
I recommend eating potatoes as often as daily.

Potatoes-Friend-Best-Friend

References

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  1. 4 myths about nightshade vegetables | besthealthmag.ca [Internet]. [cited 2015 Nov 30]. Available from: http://www.besthealthmag.ca/best-eats/nutrition/4-myths-about-nightshade-vegetables
  2. Hellerstein MK. No common energy currency: de novo lipogenesis as the road less traveled. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Dec 1;74(6):707–8.
  3. Nutrition Facts and Analysis for Potato, baked, flesh and skin, without salt [Internet]. [cited 2015 Nov 30]. Available from: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2770/2
  4. Sweet vs. regular potatoes: Which potatoes are really healthier? [Internet]. Precision Nutrition. [cited 2015 Nov 30]. Available from: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/regular-vs-sweet-potatoes
  5. Lim PK, Jinap S, Sanny M, Tan CP, Khatib A. The influence of deep frying using various vegetable oils on acrylamide formation in sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas L. Lam) chips. J Food Sci. 2014 Jan;79(1):T115–21.
  6. Palazoğlu TK, Savran D, Gökmen V. Effect of cooking method (baking compared with frying) on acrylamide level of potato chips. J Food Sci. 2010 Feb;75(1):E25–9.
  7. Truong V-D, Pascua YT, Reynolds R, Thompson RL, Palazoğlu TK, Mogol BA, et al. Processing treatments for mitigating acrylamide formation in sweetpotato French fries. J Agric Food Chem. 2014 Jan 8;62(1):310–6.

Contributing author: Caralyn Roberts has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1989, and has been applying a plant-based low-fat diet for more than 6 months with incredible results. Caralyn is a graduate of the Type 1 Training Club and has more than 20 years of experience as an avid researcher in the health and fitness industry.

About The Author

Cyrus Khambatta

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 22, I have spent over a decade learning the fundamentals of nutrition at the doctorate level. My goal is to share my knowledge of practical nutrition and fitness with people with prediabetes, type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is an OPPORTUNITY to attain excellent health. Reversing the effects of insulin resistance can be a fun and enjoyable process if the right system is in place. That's why I've spent over 10 years developing a rock solid system that can minimize blood glucose variability and insulin resistance.

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