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Potatoes: Once and For All, Are America's Favorite Vegetables Good for You or Not?

Potatoes are one of the top crops grown throughout the world, and they're certainly a favorite right here in the United States. In fact, potatoes are America's favorite vegetable, and they are harvested somewhere in the United States during every single month of the year.

Potato consumption in the United States increased 30 percent from 1977 to 1995.

Americans love potatoes. We each eat about 126 pounds of them every year -- a hefty amount when you consider that we only eat 30 pounds of lettuce and 4.5 pounds of broccoli in the same time-span. Interestingly, though, despite their popularity there is an ongoing debate as to whether they are good for you or not.

Potatoes are "As Bad as Sugar"

At the heart of the argument against potatoes is their high level of carbohydrates. They were avoided like the plague during the very recent low-carb craze, with Atkins' dieters and others swearing they were one of the worst foods you could eat.

Harvard's head nutritionist, Walter Willett, M.D., agreed. "White potatoes are like white sugar and white bread," he said. Not only do they cause a spike in blood sugar, but they can raise levels of harmful triglycerides and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. Willett maintains that this increases the risk of heart attack, particularly in people with insulin resistance.

Two Harvard studies also found that eating a lot of potatoes increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Further, while most vegetables reduce the risk of cancer, potatoes do not appear to have this effect.

Willett says that potatoes should be treated like candy and desserts and eaten only sparingly.

Most Potatoes Eaten are Fried

Eating a plain baked potato is one thing. It is in this form, or, perhaps, roasted, mashed, boiled or steamed, that a case for a healthy potato can be made.

When potatoes come in their processed form -- French fries, potatoes chips, tater tots, hash brown patties -- no one claims they are good for you. But it is in this processed form that the majority of potatoes are consumed. In fact, from 1977 to 1995 Americans increased their potato consumption by 30 percent -- mostly in the form of French fries and potato chips.

What is so unhealthy about fried potato chips and French fries?

  • They contain artery-clogging trans fats.

  • They contain acrylamide, a cancer-causing substance. While the EPA safe limit for acrylamide in drinking water is 0.5 parts per billion (ppb), a small order of fries contains 400 ppb!

  • They are cooked in vegetables oils that may be rancid, thereby producing large amounts of free radicals in the body.

A Heart-Healthy, Antioxidant-Rich Comfort Food

Potential health benefits only come from fresh or minimally processed potatoes ... not from French fries or potato chips.

Many believe that potatoes have gotten a bad rap -- that they're actually quite healthy (as long as they're not fried or processed).

Potatoes are a good source of:

  • Vitamin C

  • Vitamin B6

  • Copper

  • Potassium

  • Manganese

  • Dietary fiber

Further, potatoes contain a variety of antioxidants, including:

  • Carotenoids

  • Flavonoids

  • Caffeic acid

  • Unique tuber storage proteins, including patatin, which help fight free radicals

It has also been discovered that potatoes contain newly identified compounds that lower blood pressure called "kukoamines." The compounds, discovered by UK scientists at the Institute for Food Research (IFR), were previously only thought to exist in Lycium chinense, an exotic herbal plant.

"Potatoes have been cultivated for thousands of years, and we thought traditional crops were pretty well understood," said IFR food scientist Dr. Fred Mellon, "but this surprise finding shows that even the most familiar of foods might conceal a hoard of health-promoting chemicals."

How to Best Bake a Potato

It certainly looks like the potato will continue to be a mainstay of the American diet for some time. To best bake a potato, so as to retain the maximum number of nutrients, we recommend the following recipe:

  • Scrub the potato under cold running water using a vegetable brush.

  • Remove any eyes or deep bruises with a paring knife.

  • Leave the peel on -- it contains a load of healthy fiber.

  • Pierce the potato several times on either side. This will allow steam to escape and keep the potato from bursting.

  • Do not wrap the potato in foil; some believe that aluminum foil may transfer toxins to food. Also, the foil will trap moisture, causing the potato to be steamed rather than baked.

  • Place potatoes in a 400°F oven.

  • Bake for 45-60 minutes. Potatoes are done when they give slightly after squeezing.

Recommended Reading

Fiber: Everything You Need to Know, Including the Best Fiber Sources, to Fight Heart Disease, Obesity, Diabetes and More

If You are Nuts About Health, Try the Top 6 Healthiest Nuts


The Potato Debate

Harvard Magazine: The Way We Eat Now

The World's Healthiest Foods

Whole Health MD: Potatoes

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