Are Spuds Your Buds…or Duds?

Renée Naturally Qualified Naturopath, Nutritionist & Western Medical Herbalist

Many would vouch that potatoes are the ultimate comfort food. Baked, fried, boiled, mashed, sliced or diced, they’re also the ultimate in convenience in terms of a staple carbohydrate that is versatile and cheap. But ultimately…are spuds actually good for us? They’ve been famed commodities in famine times and then dropped like, well, hot potatoes, during low-carbohydrate diet crazes. I’m not one to rule a food categorically ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but the jury is still out as to if spuds should be a ‘sometimes’ food or part of our staple diet.

At the heart of the argument against potatoes is their high level of carbohydrates. Many people avoided them like the plague during the very recent low-carb craze, with Atkins’ dieters and others ruling that they were one of the worst foods you could eat for weight gain and associated complaints. Potatoes have a bad reputation, in part, because they are high in starchy carbohydrates and low in protein, meaning that they have a high glycemic index (GI). GI is a measure of how rapidly carbohydrates in foods cause blood sugar to rise. As a result, their popular (many would say over) consumption has been linked to the increased risk of people developing type 2 diabetes. Studies have also shown that while most vegetables reduce the risk of cancer (bring on the Brussel sprouts and broccoli!), potatoes don’t appear to have this effect.

Potatoes are classified nutritionally as a starchy food. That’s because the main nutrient in potatoes is starch (carbohydrate). Also, when eaten as part of a meal, potatoes are generally used in place of other sources of starch, such as bread, pasta or rice. Potatoes are technically a vegetable but interestingly, are not included as part of the 5+ a day worldwide campaign to encourage people to eat at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day to maintain optimum health. 

However, in the humble potatoes defense, I think that some of the mates that spuds hang out with might just be tarnishing their reputation and giving them a bad name. Butter, Sour Cream, Full-Fat Milk, Cream Cheese, Hydrogenated Oil, Gravy…these guys are all on the wrong side of the health tracks, yet spuds are often found associating with them. Tsk tsk!  

Of course, potatoes do have commendable virtues such as that they are low in fat, low in calories, and contain adequate levels of dietary fibre, potassium and other minerals and vitamins including Vitamin C. Again, these health goodies aren’t in levels as significant as in other fruits and vegetables, but they are still there! For this reason, I would recommend potatoes over other starchy additions to meals like white rice, white pasta and processed bread. This is because during processing, the above foods have basically been stripped of their nutritional value. Potatoes are also an affordable staple, and can be a cheap base/bulker for other healthy foods to accompany. 

If you eat potatoes, make them an occasional accompaniment to your diet, rather than a daily staple food. Keep portion sizes low and don’t count potatoes towards your daily vegetable intake. Some other helpful potato tips to keep spuds as buds include the following;

  • Bake potatoes with the skin on to maximise the benefits of their fibre content
  • Don’t eat the potato skin if it has a green tinge. That’s chlorophyll, a sign that the potato has been exposed to too much light after harvest. It also indicates that solanine (a naturally occurring toxin) may be present in increased amounts, especially in the skin. The skin will taste more bitter than usual if it has the toxin on it. Consuming large amounts of solanine may cause cramps and diarrhea. To avoid solanine, don’t buy potatoes that have green skin and be sure to store them in a dark place in your pantry or kitchen.

Top tips on toppings:

  • Healthy toppings for a baked potato include organic plain yogurt, salsa verde, hummus & flaxseed oil and chives; or try chopped almonds, lemon juice and herbs (yum!).
  • Mix mashed potatoes with yogurt and a dash of olive oil instead of butter, full-fat milk or margarine. 
  • When potatoes come in their processed form (eg. French fries, crisps, hash brown patties) there really isn’t any need to beat around the bush…they’re just not good for us!

So as to if spuds are your buds or duds? I don’t rule them out in my diet, as they certainly have their place, but I generally choose other vegetables and grains (eg. brown rice) to fill the starch quota on my plate. Oh, and the main duds are those associate mates of the spuds that can be easily replaced with healthier sidekicks!

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