The Health Benefits of Potatoes

potatoes of various colors
December 29, 2017
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

I have a confession. I ate a lot of potatoes over the holidays. But you know what? I don’t feel guilty about it. Potatoes have a bad reputation but I’m here to set the record straight. There are a wide variety of potatoes and all are packed with vitamins and minerals. Best of all, they’re not only abundant but super versatile, so you can eat them a variety of ways. So, let me break the stigma of potatoes and show you the best reasons to include them in your diet.

Nutritional Value of Potatoes

Let’s confront that bad reputation of potatoes head on. I’m talking about carbs—26 grams in each medium-sized potato. Carbs aren’t bad if you know how to portion them, but more importantly, how you use them (more on this later).

Potatoes are free of fat, sodium, and cholesterol. A medium sized potato has about 30% of the daily requirement of vitamin C, 15% of potassium, 10% vitamin B6, and 6% of iron. There are about 2 grams of fiber (most of which is in the skins) and 3 grams of protein—not a whole lot of either compared to other types of foods but pretty good for a starch.

That’s a lot of energy and nutrition considering that a medium sized potato has about 100-120 calories. One potato can easily fill you up and provide enough energy to last you for hours, and it does so using 50% to 75% of the calories in an average breakfast or lunch.

Healthiest Potatoes to Eat

Potatoes come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. Believe it or not, all of them generally have the same nutritional content. That said, I bet you are able spot which ones are healthier. In fact, it’s the first thing you see—the color. Potatoes with a darker hue contain pigments called carotenoids and flavonoids, which can help protect you from cancer.

What about sweet potatoes? Well technically, sweet potatoes aren’t even potatoes. They come from the botanical family called Convolvulaceae. All other potatoes come from the Solanaceae. Sweet potatoes contain more manganese and are higher in beta-carotene.

Benefits of Eating Potatoes

But just talking about vitamins and minerals is only scratching the surface. Here are just a few of the many health benefits of potatoes.

Promote Healthy Weight Gain: There are a number of medical reasons why people need to gain weight. It’s common for people with cancer, viral infections, gastroenteritis, parasite infection, depression, bowel diseases, and hyperthyroidism to lose weight to the point where it is adverse to their health. Potatoes can help put weight back on in a healthy way because they are primarily made of carbohydrates, and those carbohydrates are full of vitamins and minerals.

Good for Your Skin: The vitamins and minerals in potatoes (Vitamins C & B6, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, and magnesium) are good for your skin. But potatoes don’t have be eaten for skin benefits. Pulp from crushed potatoes is often used in skin and face packs because it works to remove pimples and skin spots. Potato pulp also provides relief if you apply it to a burn.

Lower Blood Pressure: Potassium is a natural vasodilator, which means it widens your blood vessels. Wider blood vessels allow blood to flow freely, thus lowering blood pressure because there is less constriction. Fiber in potatoes helps lower cholesterol and improves function of insulin in your body, which also helps lower blood pressure. However, if you have high blood pressure as the result of diabetes, avoid eating potatoes because of the carb content of potatoes.

Boost Brain Function: Ever notice your attention, memory and overall brain functioning suffers when you’re hungry? Or worse, when you are “hangry?” The carbs and vitamin B complex in potatoes helps maintain levels of glucose in your brain—helping it fire on all cylinders for longer. I previously mentioned potassium’s ability to widen blood vessels; your brain receives a direct benefit of that. Finally, potatoes are a natural source of iron, which is the main constituent of hemoglobin. The hemoglobin in your red blood cells deliver oxygen to all parts of the body, and your brain vitally needs it.

Helps Treat Kidney Stones: Kidney stones develop when the blood has elevated levels of uric acid. Kidneys are supposed to wash out uric acid, but if there is too much uric acid in your blood for the kidneys to flush out in a timely manner, it can calcify and become kidney stones. A lot of foods can contribute to this—mainly animal proteins but also milk, spinach, and some beans. The magnesium in potatoes works against the accumulation of calcium in your kidneys (as well as other tissues). Turns out that having a meat-and-potatoes dinner isn’t so bad!

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Nightshade Intolerance

Potatoes are classified as a “nightshade”. Other nightshades are tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Research shows that some people with nightshade intolerance can suffer from depression, anxiety, constipation, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, joint pain, headaches, nausea, bloating, flatulence, irritable bowel syndrome, anemia, and poor food absorption.

Foods in the nightshade family contain varying amounts of calcitriol and alkaloids. Potatoes contain the alkaloid solanine which, after being digested, leaves a substance called solanadine stored in the body. Solanadine and other nightshade alkaloids can inhibit neurotransmission and irritate the gastrointestinal system.

If you suffer from any of the above, try eliminating nightshades for a week or two. If your problems clear up, you might have a nightshade intolerance and it’s best to steer clear.

Silver lining: Remember how sweet potatoes aren’t actually potatoes? If you have a nightshade intolerance, you can still eat sweet potatoes with no worries.

Tip to Preserve Nutrients in Potatoes

How you cook potatoes has an effect on their nutritional value. Peeling a potato can reduce as much as two-thirds of its fiber content and a good portion of its mineral content. The skins also help prevent nutrient loss during the cooking process, so by peeling them you are losing benefits of the whole potato and not just the skin. Besides, the skins give the potatoes a crisper texture, which makes them a little more enjoyable to eat.

Avoid frying potatoes. Not just because you are adding a lot of unnecessary fats (especially saturated fat), but also because you are losing as much as 75% of the vitamin C content.

Baking, roasting, and steaming potatoes are the best ways to preserve their health benefits. If you boil potatoes, add potatoes after the water reaches its boiling point to prevent loss of vitamin C. I especially like putting potatoes on the grill in the summer time.

When to Say When (Disadvantages of Potatoes)

Even though potatoes are nutritious and have a multitude of health benefits, you can get too much of a good thing. Potatoes are starchy and full of carbohydrates. Those carbs give potatoes a high glycemic index, which basically means a high sugar content. I know what you’re saying: “Sugar content? Potatoes aren’t sweet!” However, those carbs turn into sugar when you digest them.

So, how much potato you should eat depends on your overall health, activity levels, and metabolism. For example, if you have diabetes or you’re trying to lose weight, you should opt for other starches and vegetables with a lower glycemic index. If you are active and exercise a lot, potatoes are less harmful and can improve your overall performance.

Eaten in moderation—and not fried!—potatoes can be a filling and fulfilling part of your diet. Potatoes are a natural, nutritious, and powerful source of energy. But, eaten to excess, that unused energy can lead to unhealthy weight gain.

So if there is one thing you should not do after eating potatoes, it’s be a couch potato!

References

11 Incredible Benefits of Potatoes.” Organic Facts. Last updated Nov. 21, 2017.

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