An Athlete’s Ode to the Potato
Plain old spuds are the original superfood. We should all be eating more of them.
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I spent the first few years of my life in Idaho and have always eaten potatoes—white, usually baked, sometimes mashed or sautéed with eggs. This alone doesn’t make me unique—potatoes are the largest vegetable crop in the United States—but the rate at which I eat the root vegetable might make me a standout. I consume them four nights a week and will proudly tell you that a baked russet potato with sour cream is my favorite food. Especially the oversized variety you find accompanied by fatty slabs of prime rib served in Western saloons or smoky casino diners in small gambling towns. (The two best baked potatoes in the country, for what it’s worth, are found at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum, Idaho, and the Virgin River Hotel and Casino River Café in Mesquite, Nevada.)
I believe you can largely forget about exotic, exorbitant eats like goji berries, chia seeds, and coconut oil. The humble spud is the real superfood.
A Danish physician named Mikkel Hindhede proved you could survive on potatoes alone in the early 1900s, when he had three laborers eat nothing but spuds with a dollop of margarine for 309 days. Five doctors examined the men afterward and determined they were all in excellent health. One participant was described as “a strong, solid, athletic-looking figure, all of whose muscles are well-developed, and without excess fat.” Hindhede’s work gave scientific legitimacy to what other cultures had long known and some continue to practice, like the Incans thousands of years earlier, Irish farmers in the 1800s, and the modern-day Andean peoples—the Aymara—who experience ten times fewer incidences of prediabetes compared to Americans, according to a study in the journal Nutrition.
“Potatoes are a surprisingly nutritionally complete food,” says Stephan Guyenet, a potato-enamored nutrition researcher and consultant who directed me to much of this research. A medium potato contains 161 calories, 4.3 grams of protein, close to 36.6 grams of carbs, and nearly every vitamin and mineral your body needs, according to the USDA. They have more than double the potassium of a medium banana and a quarter the vitamin C of an orange. “Importantly, they have complete protein, a distribution of essential amino acids that’s similar to animal proteins,” says Guyenet. Eating potatoes alone will, in fact, deliver your recommended dietary allowance of the macro.
Their calorie and nutrient density is why, unlike other vegetables, potatoes can be a staple food. Eating only white potatoes, however, isn’t optimal in the long run, because they lack two vitamins: A and B12. That’s why most spud-dependent cultures eat them with a bit of greens or carrots and a small amount of animal products, like butter, an egg, or meat.
A medium potato contains 161 calories, 4.3 grams of protein, close to 36.6 grams of carbs, and nearly every vitamin and mineral your body needs.
Potatoes have long been associated with fullness, and scientific data backs up that observation. A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the satiety index—a measure of how full a food makes you feel—of different foods and discovered that plain potatoes reign supreme. They registered 50 percent more filling than their nearest competitor, fish, and seven times more filling than croissants, which ranked dead last.
That property, combined with their relatively low-calorie concentration, makes potatoes an ideal weight-loss food. You’ll feel fuller on fewer calories, making you less likely to overeat, says Guyenet. You also might save money if you start eating more potatoes: They’re the cheapest vegetable.
If you’ve heard that potatoes are unhealthy, keep in mind the problem isn’t the potatoes. The problem is us and what we do with them. We cut them into little sticks or paper-thin wafers, then bathe them in 365-degree oil (50 percent of America’s potatoes go to fries, chips, and other potato products). We boil them, then mash them with butter and cream. We bake them, then slather them with more butter, sour cream, and—depending on how far south you find yourself—cheese and fatty barbecued meats.
“If you look at nonindustrial agricultural societies around the world who are lean and don’t have metabolic or cardiovascular disease, they don’t fry or pump up their carbs with fats,” says Guyenet. “Most of their plate is a plain starch—whether it’s potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes, or cassava—and the rest is a smaller quantity of something more exciting, like a meat with sauce and vegetables.”
If you’re worried about all those carbs, don’t be. The weight of scientific evidence suggests that carbs don’t make you fat. Overeating them does. And that, as the satiety index researchers in Australia found, is hard to do with plain old potatoes.
In fact, because of their high carb content, minerals, and amino acid profile, potatoes make for a hell of an endurance food. Professional ultrannuer Nickademus Hollon says he likes to run with a plastic bag of salty mashed potatoes. When he needs mid-run fuel, Hollon will bite a corner from the bag and squeeze the gooey spuds into his mouth. They’re packed with naturally occurring electrolytes and certainly beat sour-apple-flavored sugar sludge.
Growing up, I’d always heard of basic, unexciting men referred to as “a meat and potatoes kind of guy.” But the more I learn about and eat potatoes, the more I’m OK with that designation. Because if I just throw some greens or carrots into the mix, I’ll be perfect.