24 September 2013 Enjoy Potatoes and Control Calories

Potatoes have a bad rap when it comes to dieting. They blamed for causing weight gain and sabotaging diets. They're also allegedly guilty of raising blood sugar; the so-called Glycemic Index claims that potatoes are worse than Snickers Bars or ice cream. Can a food that has sustained populations for centuries really be that bad?

Potatoes are native to South America, and remain a staple food in some parts of the continent. In 2008, the Year of the Potato, Peru grew the most potatoes in the region, and per person potato consumption was about 176 pounds per year. That's more than 61,000 calories of potatoes per year, or almost 170 per day, the amount in one medium-sized potato.

According to the Idaho Potato Museum, potatoes are grown in 125 countries. India and China are the top potato growing countries. Germans eat twice as many potatoes as Americans, almost 250 pounds per person per year. If potatoes were really responsible for obesity, then you'd expect Germans to be heavier. But in fact, the obesity rate in Germany is much lower than in the USA.

Historically, Ireland has to take the prize for sheer potato consumption. The potato was introduced to Ireland sometime in the 16th century, after Spanish explorers returned from the Americas. Eventually potatoes became the staple food of the poor, with average consumption around 10 lbs per day. Or about 3500 calories per day. Now that's a lot of calories, but remember, these were people who spent the day doing hard physical work, farming by hand, fishing and walking everywhere for transportation.

Aside from calories, what are the other nutritional benefits of potatoes?

  • High vitamin C. A high potato diet would provide a day's intake of vitamin C.
  • Potassium: potatoes have an extremely impressive potassium content. And potassium is one nutrient in short supply in most people's diets.
  • Significant source of iron and B-vitamins
  • Low fat
  • High fiber
  • Very low sodium

Despite the bad rap on calories, potatoes actually are a modest calorie food. On a pound for pound basis, Health Halo whole wheat bread has more than 3 times as many calories as a potato. A small 2-1/2 inch plain potato has around 120 calories.

But who eats a small plain potato? The problem with potatoes is not the potatoes; it's how we prepare them. Potato chips and French fries dominate our potato choices, both of which are high fat and high sodium. Mashed potatoes are always prepared with added fat, and baked potatoes can turn into a calorie nightmare thanks to sour cream, butter and cheese. The other problem with baked potatoes: portion size. Restaurants can create the illusion of value by serving giant baked potatoes. They're inexpensive, easy to prepare and they can fill up half the plate. Even if you just ate the giant plain potato without the high fat toppings, you could be consuming 300 or more calories as a side dish.

Here's another problem with potatoes, although a good problem: they taste great. That makes it all too easy to keep right on eating through that super-sized serving of French fries or that 3/4 lb baked potato or bag of potato chips or pile of mashed potatoes.

So how can you enjoy potatoes but not overdo the calories?

  1. Portion Control: a small-medium potato, with no toppings, is 120-150 calories. That's not so terrible for a side dish. But most restaurants serve giant potatoes. Take Wendy's, the one fast food restaurant featuring baked potatoes. According the website, the potato alone has 270 calories. That's a lot for a side dish, assuming you're also getting a burger and a drink. You could solve the restaurant portion problem by sharing a baked potato. Solve the problem at home by buying smaller potatoes.
  2. Added fat: If you're making mashed potatoes, cut fat calories by leaving out the butter or margarine. Use low fat milk. For sauteed potatoes, use a non-stick pan, or brush just a small amount of oil onto the pan before cooking. For potato salad, experiment with low fat recipes. German potato salad relies on vinegar and even beef broth for flavor, using just a minimum of oil.
  3. High fat potato products: if you can't eat just one French fry or potato chip, don't eat any. At a restaurant, ask for a substitute side dish, or just tell them to leave the giant pile of fries off your plate. At home, if those foods are too tempting for you, don't even buy them.
    If your taste buds are used to the flavor of those salty, high fat potato products, learn to appreciate the clean flavor of a plain potato. Baked or boiled, just slice in half and sprinkle with pepper and a dash of salt. Leftover cooked potatoes make a nice snack just plain. Or cube them up and use in a breakfast burrito. Or add slices to a big vegetable saute, with broccoli, peppers, onions, mushrooms and kale. Or slice them in half, brush with oil and brown on the grill.

There's no reason not to enjoy potatoes. They're delicious, highly nutritious, and they've sustained populations for hundreds of years.

For more information about potatoes check out:
National Potato Council
Idaho Potato Museum
Low fat potato recipes from Eating Well
Low fat potato recipes from Food.com

Donna P. Feldman MS RDN

Nutrition journalist at Radio Nutrition

Co-host: Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

Tags:

Foods & Recipes/Potatoes & French Fries Nutrients/Potassium

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