The Plight of the Potato

With so much talk about low carb lifestyles, potatoes have received some negative publicity. But is it warranted? The humble tuber has been a dietary staple for thousands of years, and boasts a beneficial nutrient profile, even though it’s a carb-rich food.

The world’s fourth largest food crop following rice, wheat and corn, potatoes were first cultivated by the Incas in Peru 10,000 years ago. Potatoes are adaptable to different growing conditions and are farmed in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. In total, they’re grown in more than 160 countries globally. And because they’re so common, most of us eat a lot of potatoes. And that may be where the problem lies.

As one single food in a varied diet, potatoes are just another vegetable. But when they’re the only vegetable people consume, they’re no longer as healthy. Let’s take a closer look at this nutrient-dense side dish and see how to best fit it into a balanced diet for older adults.

Potato Nutrition Facts

Beneficial Nutrients in Potatoes

One potato has about half your day’s requirement of vitamin C, and is a source of vitamin B6 and fiber (about 2-3 grams). It also provides 544 milligrams (mg) potassium and 27 mg of magnesium; that’s 12% our daily potassium needs and 7% for magnesium. Both of these minerals are important for regulating blood pressure levels, and are part of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet (DASH).

Blood Pressure and Potato Intake

Even though potatoes are high in minerals that help keep blood pressure stable, you still need to monitor the quantity you eat. A study published in the British Medical Journal found that people who ate four or more servings of baked, boiled, mashed or French fry potatoes per week had a higher risk of developing high blood pressure compared to those who ate potatoes once a month.

(Note that this study didn’t show cause and effect — it was simply an association. And the researchers noted that it may have also been the salt and butter that was on the potatoes that accounted for the association.)

Calorie Count in Russet, Yukon Gold and Red Potatoes

Whether you’re cooking up a russet, Yukon gold or red potatoes, the calorie count is similar. One small potato (140 grams) has about 125 calories — and that’s not a lot in a typical 2,000 calorie diet. It’s about the same number of calories in a 1/2 cup of pasta or rice.

But wait. Aren’t potatoes a vegetable? Yes, but because of their high carb content, it makes more sense to count them as a “grain” when building your plate. A side dish of vegetables runs about 20-30 calories, while potatoes deliver 125 calories. If you follow the Eat Well Plate, where half your plate is vegetables, count the potatoes as the 1/4 plate of “grain products” instead.

Preparation Method Matters

The United States Department of Agriculture reports that in 2014 Americans consumed 47 pounds per person of potatoes. (The average Canadian eats almost 30 kg of potatoes each year.) Of the total potatoes consumed, only 50% are cooked from fresh potatoes; the balance is made up of processed forms, such such as frozen and dehydrated potatoes, potato chips and French fries. Once you deep fry a vegetable, it loses nutritional value and gains fat.

Both the portion size and preparation method for potatoes matter. To include potatoes in your diet in a healthy way, stick with a “one potato” serving size, and bake, roast or boil potatoes rather than deep-frying them.

Nutritional Value of Potato Varieties

Nutritional-Value-of-Potato-Varities

Editor’s Note: This chart shows how the calories and fat content changes based on prep method. Note that the fiber and carb content stays the same.

Buying, Storing and Cooking Potatoes

Choose potatoes that are smooth and firm-textured, and avoid ones with bruises. A green hue means they have been exposed to too much light and have built up a chemical called solanine. It gives potatoes a bitter taste, and can cause illness if eaten in large quantities.

Potatoes require darkness. Store them in a cool, well-ventilated spot, such as a cold cellar or cupboard. And don’t refrigerate potatoes. Cold temperatures cause a potato’s starch to convert to sugar, making them discolor when cooked. If you find sprouts (or “eyes”) on your stored potatoes, it’s a sign that they’re trying to grow. Reduce sprouting by keeping potatoes in a cool, dry, dark location. Cut the sprouts away before cooking or eating the potato.

For cooking purposes, there are three main categories of potato: waxy, starchy and all-purpose.

1. Waxy Potatoes

Waxy potatoes are lower in starch and hold their shape well when cooked. They’re perfect for roasting or using in potato salad. Examples of waxy potatoes are new potatoes and fingerlings.

2. Starchy Potatoes

Starchy potatoes are lower in moisture than waxy varieties. They cook up fluffier, so they’re great for mashing and baking. Examples include classic Idaho and Russet potatoes.

3. All-Purpose Potatoes

All-purpose potatoes are a bit waxy and a bit starchy. They’re great to use for just about any potato dish you plan to cook. Yukon Gold are all-purpose potatoes.

Healthy Potato Recipes

For maximum health value, your best bet is to bake, roast or boil your potatoes, rather than deep fry them. Go easy on the salt, butter and oil, and practice portion control. Your overall diet matters more than one particular food so next time you hear someone say that “potatoes are bad for you,” remember that what really matters is how many potatoes you eat, how they’re prepared and what other foods you eat alongside them.

Here are four healthy potato recipes to try:

1. Oven-Roasted Potato Wedges from Canadian Living

Get the recipe

Oven-Roasted-Potato-Wedges

Canadian Living

2. Southwest Breakfast Sheet Pan Bake from Lone Star Nutrition

Get the recipe

Lone-Star-Nutrition_Southwest-Breakfast-Sheet-Pan-Bake

Lone Star Nutrition

3. Aloo Gobi from How to Eat

Get the recipe

How-To-Eat_Aloo-Gobi

How to Eat

4. Roasted Potato and Asparagus Lentil Salad from Oh She Glows

Get the recipe

Oh-She-Glows_Roasted-Potato-and-Asparagus-Lentil-Salad

Oh She Glows

About the Writer

Cara Rosenbloom

Cara is a Toronto-based registered dietitian, writer and recipe developer. She’s the co-author of the best-selling cookbook Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans (Whitecap, 2016) and writes a health column for the the Washington Post.

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