Are Potatoes Healthy? Here's What a Nutritionist Says
Potatoes are one of the most beloved foods in the US, and there are countless ways to enjoy them. But you may be wondering if they're healthy. Potatoes sometimes get a bad rap for being starch bombs, but they're actually incredibly good for you. Here's a primer on potato health benefits, as well as the best ways to prepare the vegetable to maximize its nutritional value.
Potatoes are nutrient-rich
One medium baked Russet potato with the skin has 129 calories, 4.6 grams of protein, no fat, and 37 grams of carbohydrate with about 4 grams as fiber. The veggie is also loaded with nutrients, including over 30% of the daily value for immune-supporting vitamin C. Plus, it has nearly a third of the daily target for potassium, a mineral that supports nerve, muscle, and heart function, as well as healthy blood pressure. Potatoes also provide B vitamins, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, and manganese. Spuds are also rich in antioxidants, including phenols, carotenoids, flavonoids, and anthocyanin compounds, which are found in both the skin and flesh of the potato.
But really, potatoes of all varieties are healthful, particularly when consumed with the skin. To expose your body to a broader spectrum of antioxidants, include potatoes of all colors, since each pigment is associated with different protective compounds.
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Potatoes support exercise performance
The carbohydrates and nutrients potatoes provide make them an excellent source of fuel prior to or during exercise. A small 2019 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at the impact of potato purée vs. a commercial carbohydrate gel during prolonged cycling. Researchers found that both foods resulted in equal performance outcomes. If you're looking for a whole food option to power your workout, consider nibbling on a handful of fingerling potatoes or a small to medium baked potato about 30 minutes before your sweat session.
Potatoes may help with weight control
In addition to their fiber, potatoes also supply resistant starch, a unique kind of carbohydrate that's been shown to naturally up the body's fat-burning furnace. Like fiber, you can't digest or absorb resistant starch, and when it reaches the large intestine, it gets fermented, which triggers the body to burn fat. Cooked, cooled potatoes naturally form more resistant starch, so to boost the content, allow your potatoes to cool to room temp before you dive in. You can also add leftover, refrigerated potatoes to garden salads or transform them into potato salad, dressed in mustard vinaigrette.
In addition to fat-burning resistant starch, potatoes may offer another benefit linked to weight control. Research shows that potatoes tend to be more satiating than other starchy carbs, such as pasta and rice. In one study, volunteers ate fewer calories when potatoes were consumed as part of a meal, even though there were no limits on portion size. In addition, the potato eaters did not compensate by eating more calories later in the day.
Potatoes don't negatively impact blood sugar
Research published in the journal Clinical Nutrition in 2020 looked at the impact of potatoes vs. rice as part of a mixed dinner on post-meal and overnight blood sugar regulation in people with type 2 diabetes. The potatoes were boiled, roasted, or boiled and cooled. Each meal contained 50% carbohydrate, 30% fat, and 20% protein. Blood samples were collected from the volunteers before, immediately after, and then every 30 minutes for a couple hours. The participants also wore a continuous glucose monitor as a way to assess glucose levels during sleep. The study found no significant differences between the potatoes and rice or between the potato preparation. The researchers concluded that potatoes are suitable for people with diabetes when consumed as part of a balanced meal and do not disrupt blood glucose regulation.
How you cook your potatoes matters
It probably goes without saying that frying anything, including potatoes, isn't the most nutritious cooking method. But beyond that, you may be wondering if, nutrition-wise, it's best to boil or bake your taters. A 2020 study looked at the impact of cooking methods on the contents of potato starch, vitamin C, minerals, and antioxidants. In general, the researchers found a higher retention of nutrients in potatoes cooked with "dry" methods, such as microwaving or grilling, compared with "wet" methods, including boiling or steaming. Also, when potatoes are boiled, leaving the skin on preserves more nutrients, as it prevents minerals from leaching out into the water. The study also confirmed that cooling potatoes after cooking upped the resistant starch content.
Nutritious ways to enjoy potatoes
Potatoes are incredibly versatile. Enjoy them at breakfast as part of a veggie scramble made with eggs or chickpeas, or slice them as the base for a baked frittata. Add cooked, chilled potatoes of all kinds (fingerling, red-skinned, purple-fleshed, and sweet potatoes) to salads or as a side dish or pre-workout snack. At dinner, stuff baked potatoes with oven-roasted or sautéed veggies and lean protein, or incorporate them into veggie chili, soup, or stew. You can even include potatoes in sweet recipes like smoothies, potato energy balls, and desserts, including potato cake and chocolate truffles. In short, potatoes are a nutrient-rich, naturally gluten-free source of energizing, satiating whole food carbs with potential health and performance benefits. Enjoy them, and feel good about it.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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