Nutritionists Studying Potatoes Have Confirmed Whether They Really Deserve Their Bad Rap

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Unlike a number of other vegetables on the market, potatoes have earned themselves a rather unsavory reputation over the years. Many consumers even consider the humble tater to be unhealthy – although that’s perhaps because chips and fries aren’t exactly diet foods. And conscious of these concerns, three researchers decided to take a closer look at the vegetable’s real impact on our physical wellbeing.

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But despite the bad rap, potatoes are still some of the most popular food products in America. In fact, in 2018 the tasty tuber was the most grown vegetable crop in the country, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AMRC). The AMRC also claimed that the states of Washington and Idaho alone were responsible for over 50 percent of that total.

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Then once the potatoes were harvested that year, the organization estimated, more than 60 percent of them would’ve gone on to become chips, fries and additional food goods. Market sellers and farmers would likely have gotten their hands on the rest of the crop. But there’s something else to consider when looking at the evolution of the potato from dust to dish.

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As we mentioned earlier, potatoes are often consumed in the form of French fries and chips in the U.S., and this may just explain their negative reputation. But can we really assume that all potatoes must be unhealthy simply because fries are fatty? Or is there more to it than that? To help answer this question, three experts from Penn State University decided to conduct an experiment on the vegetable’s properties.

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We’ll return to the aforementioned study a little later, but first, let’s learn a bit more about the crop itself. When it comes to potatoes, there are many different types available on the market right now. In fact, the Potatoes U.S.A. website claims that, overall, around 200 distinct varieties of the vegetable are purchased across the country.

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The 200 variations of potatoes are categorized into seven different groups, which may make your life a bit easier in the supermarket. They’re known as yellow, red, white, fingerling, russet, petite and purple. And, of course, these vegetables can be prepared in a variety of ways within the kitchen – before cooked in the oven, perhaps, or the microwave.

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But outside of the preparation methods we have grown accustomed to here in the United States, the vegetables are utilized in some quite different and interesting ways around the world. To give you an example, residents of India use the humble potato in a range of dishes.

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Potatoes can be found in various curries, for instance, as well as a famous Indian snack called chaat. The vegetable also forms an important ingredient in pulav dishes, which are mainly composed of rice and an amalgam of spices, while stews are known to contain potatoes, too.

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But while the vegetable is clearly versatile, there are a lot of people who have been put off by the potato’s reputation. As we highlighted earlier, these individuals are of the opinion that the potato isn’t healthy. Some also believe that the product isn’t ideal for those who want to watch their weight.

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To help shed some light on those perceptions, NBC News health and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom penned an article for Today in 2016. And in the piece, she looked at why people view potatoes in such a negative way, citing a couple of potential reasons why.

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Fernstrom explained, for one, that “loaded” baked potatoes and chips could harbor harmful salts and fats. She also touched upon the importance of the vegetable’s size, writing, “Even a plain baked potato can have a meal’s worth of calories when it’s supersized to what’s seen in many restaurants and [what is] sold as ‘restaurant size’ in supermarkets.”

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One of the more popular dietary regimens of today also advises people to avoid potatoes in a bid to lose weight. Yes, we’re referring to the keto plan, which involves consuming foods that are high in fat and steering clear of products that are loaded with carbohydrates.

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And as potatoes are packed with carbs, people following the keto plan usually swerve them. But does this eating regime actually have a positive impact on your body? Well, according to one man, the absence of potato in his diet did indeed lead to some worthwhile results.

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In August 2016 the man, who referred to himself as Andy, sent a message to a doctor named Andreas Eenfeldt. But Eenfeldt was no ordinary physician. He actually runs the popular Diet Doctor website, which contains plenty of information about the ketogenic diet and other “low-carb” plans.

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Andy wrote, “In 2013 I was looking through the internet for [a new eating regimen] and stumbled across ketogenic diets. I read lots of studies and participated in the forums online and adopted this lifestyle. I ditched the bread, pasta, rice and potatoes for fatty cuts of meat, butter, cream, cheese and vegetables, and the weight started falling off.”

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Yet while the low-carb, no-potato approach apparently worked for Andy, a group of researchers from Penn State University wanted to see if the vegetable really deserved its unhealthy tag. Together, the team looked into the potato’s bad rap, and in January 2020 they shared their findings.

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Researchers Emily Johnston, Penny Kris-Etherton and Kristina Petersen selected 50 adults in good physical condition to take part in their study, which was set to last for a number of weeks. As for the experiment itself, it required its subjects to firmly integrate potatoes into their diets.

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The participants were also asked to eat equivalent helpings of “refined grains” during the process. And over the course of the experiment, the 50 people were required to switch their usual carb-heavy side dish for 200 calories worth of either potato or a refined grain product.

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Crucially, the researchers hoped to work out whether potatoes were healthier than the refined-grain choice – which could have been pasta, naan, Spanish rice or garlic bread. The potato options on offer, meanwhile, were either baked or steamed versions of the white, yellow and red varieties of the vegetable.

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All of the selections were carefully put together by Penn State’s Metabolic Diet Study Center so that the total amount of saturated fats, salt and sugar could be kept to a minimum. However, a few of the dishes did include additional elements – such as onions, cheese, scallions and breadcrumbs – to help elevate their flavor.

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So, you may be wondering how Johnston, Petersen and Kris-Etherton gauged the ongoing results. In truth, it was a fairly simple process. Before the experiment began, the subjects underwent a couple of different tests to check both the hardness of their arteries and their blood pressure levels.

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The participants had blood tests taken during that period, too. And when looking at the plasma, Johnston and her colleagues from Penn State kept their eyes on the cholesterol levels. Not only that, but they also made a note of the insulin and glucose measurements from each subject.

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The researchers continued to administer the tests and watch over the aforementioned levels once the project got underway. Then, when the experiment concluded, they could see whether or not the potatoes had had an adverse effect on the subjects. And in January 2020 the trio shared their results in the British Journal of Nutrition.

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Given the significance of what Johnston, Kris-Etherton and Petersen discovered, it’s perhaps no surprise that other outlets were quick to pick up on the story. In the weeks that followed, both Today and MSN covered the results in great detail, for instance.

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Specifically, Johnston and her two colleagues found out that the potatoes had provided subjects with more fiber and potassium than the refined grains. And fiber, in particular, is vital when it comes to maintaining healthy blood pressure. But while this information may be seen as a big win for the vegetable, it did shine a light on a troubling issue in the United States.

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You see, high blood pressure is a major problem in the U.S; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 45 percent of the country’s residents battle the condition. The CDC also noted that, in 2017, the affliction was named as a chief cause of the deaths of almost 500,000 Americans. 

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In February 2020 Johnston explained to Today, “We certainly want people to eat more non-starchy vegetables because we know the average American intake is well below recommendations. But starchy vegetables and refined grains do contribute some important nutrition as well; it’s just that we need to make sure we eat them in balance.”

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Johnston’s words on nutrition mirrored what Fernstrom said in her Today post. After listing some of the potential faults with potatoes, Fernstrom had then touched upon their benefits. And according to her, the vegetable is loaded with goodness that will only aid your health in the long run.

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Fernstrom explained that a medium baked potato contains around 160 calories along with good helpings of protein, fiber and vitamin B6 and vitamin C. It’s also packed with iron. In fact, according to the expert, the tasty foodstuff is somewhat of a “nutritional powerhouse.”

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And if you’re now wondering whether you should eat more taters from time to time, then you should consider another intriguing finding from the team at Penn State. They concluded, you see, that potatoes didn’t appear to have a negative impact on the subjects’ glucose measurements.

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Johnston, Petersen and Kris-Etherton similarly confirmed that the participants’ levels of insulin and cholesterol weren’t affected by the potatoes. The group revealed, then, that the vegetable didn’t pose a “cardiometabolic risk” – or, in everyday terms, it wouldn’t raise the likelihood of developing medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.

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Johnston and company even recommended eating a medium-sized potato every day as part of a healthy diet. And in doing so, they put to bed some of the negative connotations that have long been associated with the vegetable. But if you still have reservations about the popular tuber, then there are some other things you should know.

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For instance, were you aware that potatoes are full of antioxidants? To explain more, a dietitian named Ryan Raman dived into the topic on the Healthline website in March 2018. And in his piece, he revealed why these substances really are so important for the human body.

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Raman wrote, for instance, that potatoes contain high concentrations of a number of antioxidant compounds from carotenoids and flavonoids to phenolic acids. All of these are capable of fighting off particles called “free radicals,” which can cause a lot of harm to our bodies. In fact, we can develop a range of issues – from cancer to heart disease – when those fragments begin to build up.

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Raman then explained that a potato’s antioxidants could even prevent colon and liver cancer from developing. According to the dietician, though, the purple variety of the vegetable is more likely to harbor these compounds than their white counterparts – suggesting the more brightly hued taters offer us the greatest health reward.

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And there’s also something else to consider here. As it turns out, you must prepare potatoes in certain ways if you wish to profit from their nutritional value. Yes, while the vegetables won’t lose their goodness if you roast or bake them, that may not be the case if you use an alternative method.

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So, while a boiled potato may not sound that bad for you, cooking the vegetable in this manner, as Today noted, could actually drain it of its potassium. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that frying up a potato is generally pretty unhealthy.

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You shouldn’t ignore the skins, either, as they apparently only enhance some of the nutritional benefits of potatoes during cooking. And to round things off, Fernstrom explained that a suitable serving of potatoes – prepared, preferably, in a healthy manner – should take up approximately a quarter of your dish.

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So, what should we take away from Johnston and her colleagues’ discoveries? Well, while speaking to Today, the researcher emphasized that when incorporating the potato into a well-balanced diet, the ways in which you choose to consume the vegetable are all-important. 

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Johnston said, “Certainly, eating chips or french fries should be discouraged. But there are healthy ways to prepare potatoes, so I do think that lumping them all together is a little bit unfair to the [vegetable]. We don’t want people to fear the potato, but we want to make sure that they eat it in a healthful way and in a controlled portion size.”

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