Let me go straight to the point – potatoes alone do not make you obese. Spuds have an undeserved reputation of being the culprit of enormous waistlines and rising cases of diabetes. Yes, a recent study conducted by Harvard University cited that among foodstuffs potatoes and potato chips contributed most to weight gain over a period of 13 years. However, the same study failed to note that, according to the USDA, an average American in the 2000s ate 128 pounds (58 kg) of spuds every year and almost a quarter of it in French fries and potato chips – that amounts to 31 pounds (14 kg) of oil-laden potatoes per person per year. It is additional condiments and fat that make you gain weight. As a staple, potatoes can be eaten without any added fat or grease, safely and almost unrestrictedly. Instead of adding butter or oil, improve the taste of bland potatoes with herbs and spices such as parsley, thyme, rosemary and pepper.
Calories in Potatoes
Potatoes have the lowest calorie counts among staples. A serving of a medium potato (6.2 oz, or 175 grams) has only 170 calories while a serving of white rice (one cup) and wheat (refined flour, 1 cup) has 216 calories and 470 calories, respectively. A cup of mashed potato with margarine has 244 calories, while a serving of scalloped potatoes has at least 216. A serving of McDonald’s large fries (5.4 oz, or 154 grams) will supply you with 500 calories and more than a tablespoon of fat.
Like any foodstuff, potatoes can be fattening if eaten in large amounts. If you ate a pound of steak twice a week, do not expect to be slim and fit after a month; the same can be said if you eat four to five potato dishes a day.
Potatoes and Health
There is some controversy regarding the association of potatoes and cancer. On one hand, fried potatoes and other fried goods contain acrylamide, a substance that increases risk of cancer in animals. On the other hand, no studies have ever found that acrylamide can cause cancer in humans. Furthermore, acrylamide is only present in fried potatoes, and not on baked or boiled potatoes.
One study in Italy found that consuming potatoes increases risks of colorectal cancer by 20% while other studies among the Argentinians, Italians and Swiss did not find such links. The outcome of these studies may be that you should limit potatoes in your diet if you are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer (older than 50, have a family history of this disease, were diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, or have some gene mutations). Other than that, potatoes seem to be a product you should not worry about.
If was found that potatoes consumption is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, but this finding did not separate French fries from fresh potatoes. There are no existing studies showing that fresh potatoes by themselves (if consumed without oils and fats) can have any negative impact on your heart and blood vessels. In fact, the American Heart Association said that fresh potatoes are healthy for the heart. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, high consumption of natural starchy carbohydrates (which are present in potatoes) is protective against ischemic heart disease (the most common cause of heart attack). Please note that this publication is dated by 1972 and definitely did not mean that unlimited consumption of French fries and potato chips is safe.
Like any other carbohydrate-rich food, potatoes can increase risk of diabetes. In a 20-year study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, potatoes (again, including French fries) modestly increase risk of type 2 diabetes in women.
Nutritional Benefits of Potatoes
Potatoes do not contain saturated fat or cholesterol, and it has twice the amount of potassium in bananas. Potatoes with skin have higher nutritional value. Potatoes are rich in important nutrients like vitamin C, B vitamins like folic acid, and iron and dietary fibre. The seldom-seen purple potatoes contain a natural dye that has additional mild anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. The nutrients are concentrated just below the skin so whenever you make mashed potatoes, clean carefully and save the skins, and put them in soups and stews or fry them as a treat.
Frying, oven baking and boiling can destroy many nutrients in potatoes. Baking potatoes in the microwave oven or steaming them reduces nutrients loss and are the healthiest ways to cook spuds.
Nasty Stuff in Potatoes
A naturally occurring toxic compound called alpha-solanine is the only real bad thing in potatoes. Alpha-solanine is present in high levels in potatoes that are showing green hue under the skin, with visible damage or bruises, and with sprouts. Solanine content in potatoes increases when the tubers are exposed to sunlight or when stored in warm places, and tubers damaged during processing or storage. Highest concentrations of solanine in potatoes are found in the skin, areas around the ‘eyes’ and sprouts.
Potatoes with high solanine content taste bitter which is a kind of good thing. Other signs of high solanine levels in potatoes include brownish lines inside the potato and pink discoloration on cut surfaces of potatoes. Do not buy potatoes with any hint of green discoloration, with visible damage or with presence of pests (bugs, weevils, worms etc.). Remove sprouts and eyes on potatoes diligently, and do not consume any other part of potato plant other than the tubers. Solanine does not accumulate in the body, and if poisoned, early and immediate treatment can improve prognosis. There has not been a single case of solanine poisoning in the US from eating potatoes in the last 50 years.
Alpha-solanine content grows when potatoes are warm (room temperature instead of refrigerator) and exposed to the light. Try to store potatoes in a cool dark room, and never eat them if they are green under the skin, bitter, damaged or full of sprouts.
Enjoy your potatoes!