Are potatoes healthy? At first you might think the answer is a crispy little “no.” For a vegetable, potatoes seem to have garnered a bad reputation. Perhaps it’s the vegetable’s inherent beige-ness or the fact that we mash, stuff, and fry them to oblivion, which has contributed to the potato not being held in the same regard as the leafy greens of the world. But could we have it wrong?
Potatoes aren’t as healthy as a cup of spinach, but they do have important health benefits. Potatoes contain a variety of vitamins and are highly effective in mitigating hunger.
Turns out there are many nutrition misconceptions about the potato, for which anti-carbohydrate fad diets might be to blame. The high carbohydrate count in potatoes was used to market the Atkins Diet (which studies have since found to be nutritionally unbalanced). Founder Robert Atkins believed that white flour, sugar, and potato had brought about the obesity crisis in America. The humble spud never quite recovered from this smear campaign, and still hasn’t received the nutritional kudos it’s due.
Of course, how you prepare potatoes matters. French fries are the most popular fast-food item of all time; McDonald’s buys more than 3.4 billion pounds of U.S. potatoes each year. The high starch content makes potatoes the perfect base for snacks high in sodium and trans fats, like fries, chips, tater tots, and hash browns. But there are also plenty of reasons for why western civilizations have long been sustained by this vegetable.
Here’s what you need to know about whether potatoes are healthy and how to work them into your diet.
Potato nutrition facts
Potatoes are rich in carbohydrates, with each medium-sized potato containing around 33 grams. That is high but it shouldn’t put you off. According to Nour Zibdeh, M.S., RDN, CLT, a functional dietitian who specializes in digestive disorders, it’s about striking a balance. “Carbohydrates—and potatoes—get a bad rep,” she says. “However, wholesome carbohydrates can fit into a balanced diet in moderation, especially when paired with physical activity.”
In particular, “the protein and fiber content of potatoes help to balance the starch,” Zibdeh says. “Potatoes are also great for people who need to avoid grains for medical reasons like celiac disease and gluten sensitivities.”
Though potatoes don’t have the deep colors of leafy greens or the audible crunch of vegetables like carrots and peppers, potatoes do still contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. A medium-sized potato contains 27 milligrams of vitamin C and 48 milligrams of magnesium in its skin. Potatoes also contain B vitamins: riboflavin, thiamin, and folate. The vegetable is one of the most effective low-cost sources of potassium—containing even more potassium than bananas.
Health benefits of potatoes
Potassium is the main mineral found in potatoes. Dietary studies have consistently shown that Americans are not meeting their potassium requirements, and insufficient potassium intake can lead to an increase in blood pressure. Potassium is critical as it helps to ease tension in the blood vessel walls. Potatoes are considered to be one of the top sources of potassium in the U.S., with one medium-sized potato containing about 610 milligrams of potassium (13% of the daily requirement).
Potatoes are also a source of vitamin C. Medium red potatoes provide approximately 36% of your daily recommended intake. Vitamin C helps to strengthen the immune system by supporting cellular function and can also help regenerate skin cells.
Another health benefit of including potatoes in your diet is their satiety factor. Potatoes will keep you feeling full for longer and help to prevent overeating. A study testing how various foods satisfy hunger found that potatoes were the most effective.
Types of potatoes
We’ve all got our potato preferences. Perhaps you’re a fan of sweet potatoes because they add a pop of color to your plate. Perhaps you fancy fingerlings because they’re damn cute. But which one packs the most nutritional punch?
White potatoes are one of the most common types of potato, mainly used for mashing and roasting. These are a good source of nutrients, plus they contain high amounts of resistant starch, which helps to feed healthy gut bacteria.
When it comes to comparing white potatoes and sweet potatoes, “people are under the impression that sweet potatoes are healthier because they are orange,” says New York–based nutritionist Shana Minei Spence, M.S., RDN, CDN. “We have heard that ‘white foods’ are bad, which is not true.” The main differences between the two are the vitamin and mineral content—white potatoes have slightly higher potassium than sweet potatoes, and sweet potatoes have more vitamin A, but one is not necessarily healthier than the other. “Both are comparable as far as calories, carbs, fat, magnesium, and fiber,” says Spence.
Another type of potato is the russet potato. These larger, oval-shaped varieties are distinctive, with tougher skin, making them perfect to chop into rustic, homemade fries. These contain a higher amount of fiber than regular white potatoes.
Purple potatoes are rich in vitamin C and can be used to add vibrant color to gnocchi or to transform a festive mash. These colorful vegetables have been linked to suppressing colon cancer cells. A study found that purple potatoes contained higher levels of antioxidant activity and were more “potent” in suppressing the proliferation of colon cancer cells than white and yellow potato varieties.
The bottom line? You don’t need to be too particular about the types of potatoes you consume, according to Spence: “I want people not to be scared of eating foods they enjoy. If you prefer regular french fries to sweet potato fries, eat the regular ones. The vitamins will be different, but you can get those in in other foods.”
How to make potatoes healthier—and more delicious
Zibdeh, who also wrote a cookbook of low-carbohydrate whole food recipes, loves potatoes in a herby salad. “Instead of mayonnaise, make a dressing from extra-virgin olive oil, raw apple cider vinegar, sea salt, pepper, and herbs: oregano, basil, rosemary, or chives,” she says. “Add chopped celery, red or orange bell peppers, or grated carrots for more nutrients and color.”
A little-known fact is that by heating and then cooling potatoes, the amount of resistant starch is increased. “Resistant starch is a prebiotic fiber,” says Zibdeh. “It resists digestion. We can’t digest and absorb it, but beneficial bacteria in our gut can. When they ferment it, they produce compounds that feed the lining of our gut. Cooling is the process that allows resistant starch to develop.” So whip up that delicious potato salad for a dose of prebiotic fiber.
Another simple, healthy way to cook potatoes is to roast them using a handful of herbs and small amounts of oil. A slow roast is a great way to bring out the depth of flavors and to crisp them right up. “Baked potatoes are a great side dish or complete meal depending on what you put in them,” says Spence. “One of my favorites is stuffing potatoes with black beans, cheese, and broccoli.” She also recommends leaving the potato skins on to increase your fiber intake.
When it comes to other ways to make your potato dishes healthier, Spence says it varies for each person: “‘Healthy’ is very much individualized, but cheese and sour cream are going to have higher levels of fat. That’s why I like to think of other ingredients to put in.”