A food that was crucial to human evolution is now routinely disparaged for being high in carbs. But are potatoes really bad for you?
If you’ve heard anything about potatoes recently, it probably wasn’t about how healthy they are. They’re shunned by those on low-carb diets, either by choice or for medical reasons, and the Paleo community has disparaged them for years.
The most important question, though, is whether potatoes are a good idea for you. And you might be surprised once you see the facts.
“They’re nearly nutritionally complete,” says Stephan Guyenet, Ph.D., author of The Hungry Brain, noting that several populations have thrived on diets consisting of potatoes and little else. That includes civilizations in the Andes, where potatoes were first cultivated between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago, and in pre-famine Ireland during the early 19th century, where the people were remarkably healthy and fertile despite crushing poverty.
A medium potato has just 161 calories, and provides more potassium than you get in a banana and more vitamin C than you find in an apple, a peach, or a cup of blueberries. You’ll also get a variety of phytonutrients—plant compounds that offer important health benefits.
A lot of us assume that foods with a high glycemic index are inherently bad for all of us, even if we don’t have diabetes or prediabetes. But Guyenet says that’s not true. “Blood glucose and insulin are supposed to spike when we eat a mixed meal,” he explains. “That’s part of the body’s normal response to food.”
If you have diabetes or prediabetes, talk to your doctor about a healthy eating plan to help you manage blood sugar. Potatoes can be part of a healthy diet, according to the American Diabetes Association, but you’ll want to stick to healthy preparations and portions.
Interestingly, potatoes are also highly satiating. That is, they help you feel full faster and stay full longer between meals. So while the energy from a potato is readily available to you—that’s why your blood sugar spikes—it’ll be a while before you feel hungry again.
That’s just one of the reasons why potatoes are a good choice for someone who’s focused on weight control. Another is their low energy density; because they’re almost 80 percent water, they make your stomach feel full with relatively few total calories.
Finally, potatoes are a good source of energy to fuel exercise or recover from it. Potato smoothie, anyone?