At this time of year, as we approach Columbus Day, I like to talk about some very popular foods — like potatoes, squash, and tomatoes — that only entered the “western diet” after the Spanish first came across them in the Americas in the 1500s.Potatoes don’t get a whole lot of respect from nutritional scientists. And they’re certainly forbidden on the trendy “paleo” and “keto” diets.
However — as is often the case with nutrition — the truth is more complicated than it can appear.
And, as an anthropologist, I tend to look at cultural history first…
People have been eating this crop for thousands of years
Historical evidence shows Incas cultivated these resilient and sustainable crops in the Andes mountains in Peru as far back as 5,000 B.C. But when Spanish explorers began to bring potatoes back to Europe in the 1500s, Europeans only thought of them as animal feed at first. France even banned their cultivation because they thought potatoes spread leprosy and other diseases.
But in the 1770s, Frenchman Antoine-Augustin Parmentier — who is remembered for establishing the first mandatory smallpox vaccination campaign — began a campaign to promote potatoes for human consumption.
Interestingly, this campaign actually stemmed from being captured and imprisoned by the Prussians while serving as an army pharmacist for France during the Seven Years’ War (known in British North America as the French and Indian War of the 1750s). During his time in captivity, Parmentier was fed a strict diet of potatoes and found them to be a great source of nourishment.
After his release, Parmentier got others on board with eating what was once thought to be fit only for animal consumption. And as a result, potatoes served as an excellent, portable source of sustenance for the French armies, especially during the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Which brings me to my next point…just how nutritious is the lowly potato?
Potatoes pack a surprising nutritional punch
A medium-sized, white baked potato with the skin (about 6 ounces) contains 160 calories, including 36 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fiber. Not to mention they’re rich in key vitamins and minerals, such vitamin B6, vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium.
Nutritionally, the potato acts like complex starch. So, you should think of them as being similar to a serving of whole grain pasta, whole grain bread, or whole grain rice — rather than a vegetable.
Keeping this nutritional information in mind, there’s no reason to eliminate potatoes entirely from your diet. Nevertheless, there are a few rules of thumb you should follow when eating them:
1.) Don’t eat fried or processed potatoes
You should always avoid eating fried or processed foods. Instead, bake, roast, or boil them. I prefer roasting them with olive oil, rosemary, parsley, thyme, pepper, and some salt.
2.) Keep the skin on
Always eat potatoes with the skin. You’ll get 25 percent more of the fiber content and much more of the vitamins.
3.) Eat them with a balanced meal
The white flesh of the potato is a complex carb or starch. But you can control the impact on blood sugar by pairing potatoes with a healthy meal that includes plenty of protein. Hence the phrase “meat and potatoes.”
4.) Cool after cooking
Heat in effect increases the carb composition of potatoes. So, after cooking, allow them to cool before eating.
The heating-then-cooling process alters the chemical structure of the carbs, forming a more resistant starch. And this resistant starch acts as a kind of fermentable fiber, which may help lower blood sugar after a meal. (It’s my belief that it acts through a healthy probiotic effect in the GI microbiome.)
To maximize this benefit, I suggest eating potatoes cold as in a delicious potato salad. Or, simply cook them, let them cool, and then eat them.
5.) Choose red, purple, and yellow potatoes
If you have options when it comes to potatoes, I urge you to opt for red, purple, or yellow potatoes over white. These colorful varieties contain healthy plant compounds such as anthocyanins, carotenoids, and flavonoids. (I’ve written about these plant pigments many times. And even helped discover some of them!)
6.) Opt for sweet potatoes once in a while too!
Sweet potatoes aren’t technically potatoes. Plus, they’re slightly lower in calories and carbs, with about 25 to 50 percent more fiber.
They also provide enough carotenoids to supply more than five times the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A. And unlike with synthetic vitamin A supplements, you can’t “overdose” on these natural forms.
For an added benefit, opt for purple sweet potatoes which contain the highest levels of those colorful anthocyanins I mentioned above. Plus, anthocyanins are associated with heart and liver health benefits. Sounds doubly delicious!
Whether they’re orange or purple, there’s one thing to avoid. Don’t add marshmallows or sugars to your sweet potatoes. They’re sweet enough without them…and far healthier.
7.) Add some full-fat dairy
Go ahead and add some healthy, grass-fed butter or full-fat sour cream to your potato. (Remember, a new study found that men and women who eat full-fat dairy lower their heart attack and stroke risk. I’ll give you more details in the upcoming December issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter.) I also recommend sprinkling your potatoes with some fresh chives and organic bacon bits.
So when it comes to a healthy diet, don’t pass on the potato. As long as you portion and prepare them correctly, they can make a hearty addition to your meals.
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