Are Potatoes Healthy? Here’s What Registered Dietitians Say
You love them fried, baked, and mashed. But are potatoes good for you? Registered dietitians weigh in on the nutritional value of spuds.
Potatoes have been a staple crop since the Inca people cultivated them around 8,000 BC to 5,000 BC. After Spaniards brought them to Europe in the 1500s, potatoes slowly began making their way around the world. They’ve been a diet staple pretty much ever since.
And yet in these carb-conscious times, many people are afraid to go anywhere near them. Thanks to the keto diet and other low-carb plans, the tuber’s rep keeps plummeting.
The thing is, they’re really healthy depending on how you prepare them. “I’m a potato lover,” says Lisa Young, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim. “The vegetable contains an array of nutrients—including the antioxidant vitamin C, fibre, and potassium. They get a bad rap because they are a starchy carbohydrate, which many people incorrectly think leads to weight gain.”
The veggie’s colour doesn’t help its cause.”It’s a white vegetable, and there is a continued nutrition myth that any white food is bad for you,” says Allison Knott, a New York City board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. “Potatoes in their most natural form have no fat, no added sugar, and are very low in sodium.”
What are the other benefits of taters? Answers ahead.
Potatoes are rich in antioxidants
Potatoes may not be the go-to food when you think of immune-helping vitamin C. But the vegetable happens to be an excellent source of the antioxidant.
And if you’re looking at a red or purple potato, you’ll get even more antioxidants. “Pigmented potatoes, such as purple potatoes, contain anthocyanins, which act as an antioxidant that may fight free radicals and provide anti-inflammatory benefits,” says Kathy Siegel, a nutrition consultant at Triad to Wellness Consulting and author of The 30-Minute Clean Eating Cookbook.
The antioxidants in purple potatoes may also help lower blood pressure. A small study in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that people with high blood pressure who ate purple potatoes daily noticed a drop in blood pressure.
The tubers also boast carotenoids, particularly lutein, adds Jessica Cording, author of The Little Book of Game Changer. “These carotenoids have been noted for their benefit to eye health and cardiovascular health,” she says. White and yellow potatoes both have carotenoids, but the yellow ones have them in higher concentrations. Since carotenoids are fat soluble, they’ll be best absorbed when you eat them as part of a meal that contains fat, she adds. So for instance, add potatoes to a stir-fry with olive oil, veggies, and tofu.
Potatoes offer resistant starch
Not sure what resistant starch is? It’s a fibre that isn’t digested by the body—and provides fuel for good bacteria, acting as a prebiotic.
“Resistant starch is the fibre that isn’t absorbed in the small intestine and travels to the colon intact, where it is fermented by the bacteria in the large intestine,” says Knott. She adds that potatoes are higher in resistant starch after being cooked and then cooled. Resistant starch may benefit blood sugar levels, as well as gut health, according to a February 2020 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Potatoes are filling
One medium potato boasts four grams each of fibre and protein. That combination helps to keep you feeling full longer—so long as you eat the skin. That’s where most of a vegetable’s fibre is located.
Another perk? “Potatoes also happen to be gluten-free, so they’re a suitable and satisfying carb source for people with celiac disease or those on a gluten-free or grain-free diet,” says Cording.
And research published in May 2020 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology shows that potatoes can be fueling for athletes. In the small study, 16 recreationally active people ate potato-based foods and exercised many times over the course of a single day. The potatoes proved as effective as commercially available sports supplement-based meals in helping with both performance and glycogen recovery rates.
They’re packed with nutrients
It’s important to remember that potatoes are a vegetable, something most of us don’t get enough of. Most people aren’t eating the recommended daily amount of fruits or vegetables, says Knott. “This under-consumption results in inadequate intake of many nutrients, including potassium and fibre. Potatoes are a source of both and can be part of a healthy eating pattern.” Potatoes also provide vitamin B6, folate, and many other nutrients.
Limit these ways of eating taters
When it comes to chili cheese fries, loaded potato skins, and sour-cream-smothered baked potatoes, it’s time to talk moderation.
“Potatoes are often prepared with excess saturated fat and sodium, such as with French fries, potato chips, and scalloped potatoes,” says Knott. “They tend to most often make their way to the American’s plate as an inexpensive side dish high in sodium and fat and less frequently as a nutritious, fibre-rich dish.”
If you’re eating a baked potato at a restaurant, limit the high-calorie toppings. Scallions and salsa, for instance, can be delicious substitutes. You can also go for a smaller portion of fries, paired with a roasted vegetable to round out the sides to your meal, says Knott.
And what about glycoalkaloids? These occur naturally in potatoes, says Siegel—and at high levels can be toxic. “When potatoes are exposed to light, the formation of glycoalkaloids can increase significantly,” she says. Always store potatoes in a dark, dry place. “When a potato starts to sprout, it should be tossed to avoid high levels of glycoalkaloids,” says Siegel.
(Related: What Is the Healthiest Salt?)
Healthy ways to enjoy potatoes
When it comes to preparing potatoes in a nutritious way, you have so many options. You can roast or bake them (into “fries,” if you like), or steam them in the microwave. “My favourite way to enjoy potatoes is cut into one-inch cubes tossed with sea salt, cumin, and a drizzle of olive oil roasted in the oven at 425 degrees F for 40 minutes,” says Siegel. “I make extra and enjoy them cooled in salads, too.”
When it comes to baked potatoes, they’re not just a side dish—they can be a full meal. Stuff them with veggies, beans, and cheese, for instance.
Give these healthy dietitian-approved potato recipe a try: Creamy Vegan Mashed Potatoes