Ask a Nutritionist: Are Potatoes Actually Bad For You?

potatoes

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Somewhere along the line in our carb-fearing world, potatoes got a bad reputation. But why exactly is that? Loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and many other beneficial nutrients, potatoes are a versatile and nutritious part of a healthy diet for most people. However, the problem with potatoes arises when it comes to preparation and serving sizes. Some roasted potatoes with dinner a few times each week will bring you plenty of healthy benefits, whereas adding a side of fries to every meal isn’t the healthiest choice. 

Ahead, four nutritionists settle the age-old question once and for all: Are potatoes healthy?

Meet the Expert

  • Wendy Bazilian is a registered dietician and an American College of Sports Medicine-certified Health and fitness specialist.
  • Tracy Lockwood Beckerman is a registered dietician-nutritionist based in New York City, as well as the author of Better Period Food Solution.
  • Bonnie Roney is a registered dietician specializing in women's health and diet culture.
  • Amanda A. Kostro Miller is a registered dietician specializing in nutrition counseling, weight loss, and medical nutrition therapy.
  • Keith Ayoob is a pediatric nutritionist and a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Are potatoes a vegetable or a grain? 

There’s a lot of confusion around whether potatoes should be classified as a vegetable or a grain, but our experts want you to know that they’re a vegetable. With that being said, they’re composed primarily of carbohydrates, making them more of a starchy vegetable (like corn and peas).

“The potato, though a vegetable, doesn’t look nutritionally, nor physically, like other vegetables we know to be healthy like broccoli,” Bazilian says. So as you’re planning out your meals, it may be helpful to think of them more as a starch or grain than a vegetable. This means for dinner, you may want to have a potato or brown rice, or a potato or pasta, but having both could put you over the recommended intake for starchy carbohydrates.

Are potatoes healthy or not?

Full of nutrients and other healthy benefits, potatoes are one type of food that most healthy people absolutely do not need to avoid, nutritionists say.  "Many people are scared of potatoes, especially for weight loss, and try to avoid them, explains Miller. However, potatoes can be a great addition to a healthy diet. 

Pros of Eating Potatoes

  • Great Source of Vitamins: “Potatoes are a great source of several vitamins and minerals such as potassium, folate, and vitamins C and B6,” says Beckerman. “They are also primarily composed of slow digesting and filling carbs and contain a moderate amount of protein and fiber. Because they are carbohydrates, a small amount of them will help to keep you fuller longer, allowing you to avoid over-eating or snacking throughout the day.”
  • Antioxidant Properties: Potatoes also contain antioxidants that prevent the formation of harmful free radicals in the body, Beckerman says, and they also contain something called resistant starch, which acts somewhat similarly to soluble fiber and can help your body regulate blood sugar, improve digestive health, and help you feel fuller, longer. 
  • Packed With Potassium: Another major potato perk is that they’re loaded with potassium. Many of the potato avoiders among us are unaware that potatoes have more potassium than bananas. From just one medium potato you can 25 percent or more of the recommended daily value of potassium

Cons of Eating Potatoes

  • Moderation Matters: As we mentioned earlier, you’ll want to be mindful to eat potatoes in moderation and make sure they’re prepared in a healthy way. Just as you want to minimize consumption of processed foods in general, the same goes for processed potatoes, says Bazilian.
  • Unhealthy Preparation Can Outweigh Nutritional Value: If French fries are your favorite way to consume potatoes, negative effects of the deep-fryer, grease, and salt on your health are outweighing any benefits.
bowl of sweet potato nachos
 Unsplash/Ella Olsson

Do potatoes contribute to weight gain?

We’ll put this simply for you: eating potatoes a few times a week won't cause weight gain. “Lots of people gain weight without ever touching a potato, because weight gain is a complex process with complex origins,” Ayoob says. “Mostly it's about excess, but that excess can come from so many areas, including excess inactivity.” He points out that potatoes have been a key part of diets in various parts of the world for centuries. “Their presence and value predate the current obesity issue,” he says.

Many people stay away from potatoes because they believe they're too high in carbohydrates, but our experts say this isn’t a reason to steer clear. It’s always helpful to be mindful of the quality and quantity of the foods you eat, but restricting and cutting out entire food groups isn’t necessarily the best route to health.

“Potatoes contribute carbohydrates that can contribute important energy and nutrients,” Bazilian says. “Do we have to watch portions? Yes, just like we do with other foods, and in particular grains, breads, pasta and the like.” 

Carbs have definitely gotten a bad reputation, but Roney points out that carbohydrates are our bodies preferred source of energy. Thus, potatoes can fit in to a healthy, well-balanced diet. 

Carbs get a bad rap, but they're our body's perferred energy source. “I recommend balancing [carbohydrates like potatoes] out with a protein food like chicken breast, and a fat food like avocado to create a well-balanced meal,” Roney says. “This will result in slower digestion and longer lasting energy.” 

Are some types of potatoes healthier than others? 

Potatoes come in all sorts of varieties: Purple Peruvian, Yukon, Russet, Fingerling, Red Gold, and plenty more. But the good news is, you don’t need to worry too much about which type of potato to eat, as most are pretty nutritious. All have different nutrient profiles—for example, a russet potato is high in potassium whereas a sweet potato is loaded with vitamin A, Roney explains.

“The purple or sweet potato varieties will have some more carotene, a compound your body can turn into vitamin A, but there are plenty of other ways to get carotene—think carrots, cantaloupe, red peppers, and anything green and leafy,” says Ayoob. Purple potatoes also contain an antioxidant anthocyanin, which is also found in other fruits and vegetables of a similar color like blueberries, eggplant, and blackberries.

Nutritional differences aside, all potatoes are a healthy food choice for most people. Keep in mind that any whole food potato is almost always a better option than reaching for something processed.

potatoes on a plate with dill
 Getty/Svitlana Pavelko / EyeEm

Potatoes and Their High Glycemic Index

Potatoes have a high glycemic index compared to a lot of other foods because they are filled with starches that break down fairly quickly during digestion and are then converted to sugar, which can lead to a spike in your blood sugar levels. For this reason, Beckerman recommends limiting potato consumption among people with diabetes or other problems with high blood sugar.

If you don't have diabetes or other conditions that affect your blood sugar, combine potatoes with foods that are high in protein and fat as a way to buffer the insulin spike that may arise from eating a large amount of carbohydrate rich foods on their own. “This will slow down digestion, provide longer lasting energy and avoid the quick insulin spike and crash that can happen from eating foods rich in carbohydrates alone,” Roney says.  

The Final Takeaway

When it comes to maintaining a balanced, healthy diet, potatoes definitely fit in. Just be sure to watch how they're prepared (fried, processed, and loaded with toppings aren't your best choices), be mindful of your serving size, and remember that even though potatoes are a vegetable, they're a starchy vegetable and shouldn't be used in meals as a replacement for non-starchy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and beets. Instead, treat potatoes like a grain or pasta and consume them with a healthy serving of protein and non-starchy vegetables. Due to their high glycemic index, limited potato consumption is recommended for those with diabetes or blood sugar issues. As with anything, consult your doctor before introducing, limiting, or eliminating potatoes from your diet.

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