America’s most consumed vegetable? The potato, though mostly in the form of french fries and potato chips. That may be part of the reason for the many misconceptions about whether potatoes are healthy or even if they’re vegetable.
Potatoes are a vegetable, but you’d hardly know. Technically, they are stem tubers and are considered a starchy vegetable. And for that reason, potatoes have been carb-shamed for decades by people following low-carb diets. Because they’re referred to as “starchy” vegetables, they’re separated from those that wear health halos, such as kale, spinach, carrots and broccoli. Those are the veggies you’ll often find on the “free foods” list of weight loss diets.
The poor potato didn’t technically fit in the “eat a rainbow” campaign either, since that promotion didn’t highlight the nutritional benefits of white foods, like mushrooms, cauliflower and onions. It’s true that fruits and veggies wearing a deep hue contain a wealth of nutrients, but that doesn’t mean foods that are white are void of value. White produce provides as much value as colorful vegetables and, in some cases, even more.
So, to answer the question as to whether a potato is a vegetable or just a starchy carb that belongs in the bread group, let’s unpeel some potato facts and see what they really bring to the table.
Are Potatoes Healthy?
Potatoes are nutrient dense and supply nutrients we don’t get enough of, such as potassium and fiber. In fact, they’re a great source of potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and fiber, if you eat the skin.
Other benefits of potatoes include:
- Potatoes rarely cause food allergies. Although a potato allergy is rare, symptoms of a this allergy could range from mild to serious affecting the skin, respiratory system or digestive tract. Symptoms might even appear as a rash on your hands while cutting or peeling potatoes.
- Potatoes are inexpensive. Two medium-sized potatoes (such as russets), which should fit comfortably in your hand, total about one pound. The retail price of potatoes in the U.S. is around $.95 per pound.
- Potatoes are naturally gluten-free. For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, potatoes provide nutrient value without any discomfort. Just be sure to carefully check the ingredient lists of potato recipes since other components of the recipe may not be gluten-free.
- Potatoes help your workout. If you’re looking to boost your pre- or post-workout, potatoes can help muscles perform and recover. A potato has carbs that are easy to digest ,meaning that they provide readily available energy during exercise, and its content potassium is important for muscle contractions.
- Potatoes may improve digestive health. Like oats, beans and legumes, potatoes contain resistant starch, which functions like a soluble fiber. These starches ferment in your large intestine providing fuel for good bacteria. This starch may not only benefit your gut and decreases inflammation, but it has also been shown to reduce constipation, lower cholesterol levels and reduce risks of colon cancer.
One medium russet potato contains:
- More than 45% of your daily vitamin C needs.
- More potassium, 620 mg, than a banana (422 mg).
- 10% of your daily vitamin B6 needs.
- 6% of your daily iron needs.
- 110 calories.
- 2 grams of fiber.
- 3 grams of protein.
Vitamins and minerals in potatoes
All varieties of potatoes are excellent sources of vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that supports a healthy immune system. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron, so putting a potato on your plate as a side dish to meat or poultry will help you derive more iron from those proteins.
Potatoes are a great source of potassium, providing more of this nutrient than a banana. Since we don’t get enough potassium, an electrolyte essential for the proper function of our heart, muscles and nervous system, potassium became a nutrient of concern. Its importance was underscored when potassium was added to the updated Nutrient Facts Panel on food labels. A potassium-rich diet can help decrease blood pressure, protecting the heart and reducing the risk of stroke.
Potatoes also supply us with vitamin B6, which plays an important role in converting food into energy and helps the body metabolize fats and proteins.
Potatoes also contain some iron, which is crucial for transporting oxygen throughout our body.
They also provide calcium, magnesium and a small amount of protein.
Carbs in potatoes
Starch is a type of complex carbohydrate that our body breaks into glucose to use as energy. So while potatoes count toward your daily vegetable intake, they should also be considered part of the carbohydrate portion of your meal. Potatoes can be a great alternative to bread, pasta, rice or grains.
Carbohydrates can cause spikes in blood sugar. But pairing them with protein, fiber and unsaturated fats can slow digestion and lead to a steadier release of glucose into the bloodstream. The American Diabetes Association and other experts say there’s no need for people with diabetes to avoid the veggie entirely. The key is, again, the proper pairing of the starch with a lean protein, fiber and healthy fats.
Also keep the portion size in check, sticking to the equivalent of one medium potato in any given meal.
Potatoes are low in calories. It may not be as low in calories as cauliflower, but one medium (5.3 ounce) skin-on potato provides 110 calories. Although excess poundage often points to a potato, the calories consumed are not from the veggie itself, but perhaps from the company it keeps. A few tablespoons of butter, a cup of sour cream or bacon bits can set you back hundreds of calories. But it’s not the potato that’s the problem.
Fiber in potatoes
Fiber is essential to support digestive health, heart health, diabetes and cancer.
On an equal weight basis, a white potato provides as much fiber other commonly consumed vegetables or fruit. A medium skin-on baked potato provides 3.6 g of fiber. Compare that to the banana, which provides 3.1 grams of fiber.
While potato skin contains about half the total fiber in a potato, most of the other valuable nutrients are found within the potato itself.
Types of Potatoes
While most of us tend to think first of white potatoes, there are more than 200 varieties of potatoes available in the U.S. These varieties fall under seven main types of potatoes:
- Russet: Medium to large in size and typically oval-shaped, Russets have have brown, hearty skin and pale, yellow flesh. Their texture is commonly described as floury and fluffy, making them ideal for mashed potatoes.
- Red. Small to medium in size with thin red skin and white flesh. Because of their waxy texture, red potatoes stay firm throughout the cooking process, making them perfect for potato salads or for adding into soup.
- White: These potatoes are small to medium in size and both their skin and flesh are white. White potatoes hold their shape well after cooking and their skins are very thin, so no need to peel for a potato salad.
- Yellow: Available in all sizes, they have a tan to golden skin and yellow flesh. Their naturally velvety/buttery texture makes them delicious baked, roasted or mashed.
- Blue/purple: Small to medium-size, these potatoes have deep purple, blue or slightly red skin. Their flesh can be blue, purple, pink or white. They have a moist but firm flesh. (Blue and purple Peruvian varieties have higher starch content and a floury texture.)
- Fingerling: Waxy, firm and finger-shaped, these potatoes are great split and oven-roasted.
- Petite: Available in all colors, petites save on prep time because they can be prepared and served whole without slicing or chopping.
While the amount and type of nutrients may vary slightly between potato varieties, the differences are minimal.
What about sweet potatoes, you may be asking? While also a root vegetable, sweet potatoes are actually distantly related to regular potatoes.
What Makes Potatoes Unhealthy?
How potatoes are prepared may be the real reason potatoes get a bad reputation. If you’re eating your potatoes in the form of greasy french fries or chips, or buried under sour cream and butter, then your potato would fall in the unhealthy category. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
How to get the most nutrition from potatoes
Potatoes love to be nude. Choose your potato baked or roasted with a sprinkle of your favorite seasonings. If you choose to jazz up your spud, try adding plain Greek yogurt, mustard, salsa, hummus or horseradish sauce to your tater instead of the typical fat- and calorie-laden types that may be responsible for the bad rap potatoes get.
Although potatoes have their own flavor, they can seamlessly be woven into all sorts of dishes, including soups, stews and sides. Who doesn’t love potato salad at a barbeque, mashed potatoes atop Shepard’s pie or chunks of potato inside a thick vegetable soup?
Potatoes are culturally significant. Whether it’s pierogis, blintzes, latkes, gnocchi, hasselback, baked, mashed or fried, potatoes appear in global dishes, showing off their versatility and ability to be enjoyed in a wide range of recipes.
Healthy Potato Recipes
Here are eight healthy ways to eat potatoes:
You can’t go wrong with a classic baked russet. Instead of opting for the usual high-calorie toppings, try something new, like mustard, salsa, any variety of hummus, low-fat Greek plain yogurt, cottage cheese or an egg. Make it a meal by topping a baked potato with black beans, chopped tomatoes, steamed broccoli and a spoonful of guacamole.
Homemade baked potato wedges, fries or chips are another great way to enjoy baked white or orange potatoes. Simply peel and slice a russet potato into wedges, toss with oil and spices and roast at 400 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes.
Cube any potato variety and toss with olive oil, herbs and spices. Then roast them in the oven at 425 degrees F for 60 minutes or until golden brown, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes. Eat them as is or jazz them up with other veggies, nuts and toppings to make a healthy side dish.
Smooth and creamy, mashed potatoes are the classic comfort food. With a few small tweaks, you can make homemade mashed potatoes into a healthy side dish. Boil potatoes and mash with a little milk, a pat of butter and a few spoonfuls of plain Greek yogurt. The yogurt adds creaminess while cutting down on the saturated fat. You can even add other veggies like spinach to your traditional mashed potato dishes.
Potato pancakes can be great as a side dish or bite-size appetizer. Try including shredded zucchini or eating them for breakfast topped with Greek yogurt and fresh fruit.
5. In a soup
Starchy potatoes add creaminess and texture to many different kinds of soups, from lentil to Italian meatball to classic potato soup.
6. In a skillet
Sliced, shredded or diced potatoes are a simple addition to egg dishes like omelets or frittatas. Mix potatoes alongside a non-starchy vegetable to get a nice balance of carbs and fiber, like in a broccoli, tomato and potato omelet.
7. In a salad
Traditional potato salad is typically heavy on the mayo and light on the veggies, but with a few small changes you can make it a nutritious side dish. Swap out some of the mayo for plain Greek yogurt and add salt-free flavorings like fresh herbs. Boost the fiber and nutrient content by mixing in some non-starchy veggies like green beans and onions in addition to the potatoes. Other additions to consider: apples, capers and celery.
8. As an appetizer
Potato bites are a fun way to get some veggies in during hors d’oeuvre time. Try making potato rounds and topping them with roasted red peppers and avocado.
If you’re following a diet that limits your carb intake or if you have diabetes, you can’t ignore a potato’s carb count, weighing in at around 15 grams per small potato, around the same as a slice of bread. However, potatoes are more than carbs alone. They provide a wealth of nutrients. Perhaps the best way to keep portions of potatoes, along with blood sugar levels, in control, is to pair your potato with protein and other veggies and bring balance to your meal to help you feel full and satisfied.