Potatoes are the world’s comfort food and, over the years, have gotten a pretty bad rap, mainly because they are starchy and relatively high in carbohydrate. But are potatoes unfairly frowned upon and avoided by the health and fitness industry?
A Little History
First, let’s take a look at some notable historical points about potatoes.
- Potatoes originated in South America 4,000-7,000 years ago. Because potatoes were able to thrive at high altitudes, they became a staple food source for natives living in the Andean mountain region.
- Spanish explorers introduced potatoes to Europe in the early 1500s.
- The Spanish used potatoes to treat scurvy, a condition caused by a severe lack of vitamin C.
- Because potatoes were inexpensive to produce, they became a staple crop in Ireland.
- Aside form Ireland, potatoes were slow to be accepted by the rest of the world, but today are one of the most popular foods.
- Pound for pound, Americans consume more potatoes each year than any other vegetable.
Before getting into whether potatoes are healthy or unhealthy, let’s take a look at their nutritional profile.
Objective Data: Nutritional Profile
Nutritional information is obviously going to vary based on the serving size you’re talking about. If you google potato nutritional information you will get all sorts of different numbers. For our purposes here, I’m calling one serving a medium russet potato — about 173 grams, 2.25″-3.25″ in diameter, or about 1 cup.
Bare in mind, most of us probably have a portion larger than that serving size. See the photograph above for comparison. My bet is that your average baked potato is closer to the 220g or 300g size.
Medium Russet Potato, 173g
Total Calories: 169
- Total fat: 0.2 g (1.8 calories / 1% of total calories)
- 0.1 g saturated
- 0.1 g polyunsaturated)
- Total carbohydrate: 37 g (148 calories / 87.6% of total calories)
- 4 g dietary fiber
- 1.9 g sugar
- Total protein: 4.5 g (18 calorie / 10.7 % of total calories)
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 1% daily value / 24 mg
- Potassium: 27% daily value / 952 mg
- Calcium: 3% daily value
- Iron: 10% daily value
- Magnesium: 13% daily value
- Vitamin B6: 30% daily value
- Vitamin C: 64-70% daily value
- Also a good source of manganese, phosphorous, copper, thiamin, niacin, and folate
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- A 1 cup serving of navel orange has 81 calories, 27 g of carbohydrate (14 g of which are sugar), 2 g of protein, and 163% daily value of vitamin C.
- A 1 cup serving of banana has 133 calories, 34 g of carbohydrate (18 g of which are sugar), 1.6 g of protein, 21% daily value of vitamin C, and only 15% daily value of potassium.
- A 1 cup serving of leafy greens has only 7 calories, but also only 14% daily value of vitamin C, 4% daily value of iron, 5% daily value of B6, 4% daily value of potassium, and 6% daily value of magnesium. In other words, to get the same amount of B6, for example, as a potato, you would have to eat 6 cups of leafy greens. 1 cup of leafy greens does, however, have a whopping 56% daily value of vitamin A.
- A 1 cup serving of chicken breast has 231 calories, 0 g of carbohydrate, 43 g of protein, 39% daily value of cholesterol, 40% daily value of B6, but only 10% and 8% daily value of potassium and iron respectively.
In other words, 1 cup of potatoes have a fraction of the sugar in 1 cup of oranges and bananas as well as significantly more potassium. Potatoes have significantly more vitamin C, iron, B6, potassium, and magnesium than leafy green vegetables, but also significantly more calories. Lastly, potatoes have a fraction of the protein in chicken, but less calories, no cholesterol, almost the same amount of vitamin B6, and greater amounts of iron and potassium.
So… are potatoes healthy or unhealthy?
According to the objective data, i.e. nutritional profile, potatoes are moderate in calories, low in fat, high in carbohydrate, and high in various vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, potatoes have NO cholesterol. The moderate amount of fiber and protein in a potato aid in feeling full and satiated. In fact, there’s some evidence that potatoes reduce appetite more than other high carbohydrate foods like pasta. Another study found that consuming 6-8 small purple potatoes, which are high in antioxidants, may help lower blood pressure and risk of heart disease.
So what’s the problem? Problems arise when potatoes are fried and/or consumed with other high-calorie foods like butter, cheese, and sour cream. But when we take away these unhealthy or high-calorie elements, we’re left with one very nutrient dense vegetable that potentially offers many health benefits. Of course, the amount of calories and carbohydrate consumed from potatoes should be calculated into your daily consumption (as all food sources are). But all-in-all potatoes are a healthy source of fiber, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals.
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