Nature Doesn’t Make Junk Food

Research helps rehabilitate the potato.

The potato may be the Kim Kardashian of the food world: much more popular than respected. The potato is the most heavily consumed vegetable in the American diet, with the average American eating 126 pounds of potatoes a year. Yet ever since the advent of the low-carb diet craze the potato has been maligned as a nutrient-poor, fattening natural junk food. The godfather of that craze, Robert Atkins, went so far as to classify the potato among his top-three “danger foods”.

Research from 2011 suggests that the potato never deserved such ignominy. The latest advance in the scientific rehabilitation of the potato comes out of the University in Scranton in Pennsylvania. A team of researchers led by Joe Vinson studied the effects of adding two purple potatoes a day to the diets of 18 overweight, hypertensive subjects for a period of one month. Although the majority of these subjects took antihypertensive medication, their blood pressure dropped by another 4 percent on average during their month of potato eating. In addition, they gained no weight.

RELATED: Purple Potatoes Linked To Lower Blood Pressure, No Weight Gain

Other studies have found that nutrients contained in potatoes have antioxidant and anti-tumor effects in the human body. The source of all of these healthful properties of the potato appears to be polyphenols, which all varieties of potatoes contain in abundance. Polyphenols are a class of antioxidants also found in wine and tea.

While no one would recommend living on potatoes alone (although it has been done in some places during periods of war and economic depression), the overall nutrition profile of the potato is very good. Obviously, the nutrient that the potato contains in greatest abundance is carbohydrate. Since the potato delivers its carbohydrate without any fat or anything artificial, it’s a very good source of the energy athletes need to maintain high training workloads. Potatoes are also rich in vitamin C, B vitamins, and potassium, while the skins contain large amounts of fiber. There is not a lot of protein in potatoes, but that protein is very high quality, with a biological value above 90.

Now, it’s important to note that the potatoes consumed in the University of Scranton study were not fried or smothered in butter and sour cream but microwaved and eaten plain. While the potato itself is not unhealthy, the way most of us eat most of our potatoes—namely, as french fries and potato chips—most certainly is. Consider this: a plain baked potato delivers a modest 26 calories per ounce, whereas french fries pack more than 92 calories per ounce.

I, for one, am not surprised to see the potato redeemed by contemporary nutrition research. I never bought into the anti-carb slander of the potato, and not only because I have Irish ancestry and love potatoes in all forms of preparation. No, the real reason I never stopped believing in the potato is that I believe in the principle that nature does not create junk food. All foods are healthful in their natural forms. It’s what we do to natural foods—and not just potatoes—that makes them “danger foods”.

The potato is hardly the only food that has been attacked from the perspective of a blinkered nutritional philosophy that blinds adherents to the principle that nature does not create junk food. Nuts have long been avoided by low-fat diet adherents because of their high fat content, despite evidence that regular nut eaters tend to be slimmer than nut avoiders. Eggs were defamed because of their cholesterol content but have lately made a comeback in reputation based on evidence that eating eggs actually lowers cholesterol in the body. Wheat is taking a beating today, from gluten hysterics on one flank and from the Neanderthal diet cult on another, but mark my words: wheat will live to see its name cleared too.

Our modern diet culture is an environment of fads, trends, mixed messages and too much information. If you pay close attention to it you’re likely to be talked into doing silly things such as avoiding fruit because of its high sugar content. You’re better off taking a step back from the marketplace of ever-changing nutrition information and staying focused on a few core principles of healthy eating that never change. Like this one: Nature doesn’t create junk food.

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About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes (VeloPress, 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports.

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