The potato has become quite controversial. There are camps that say it is definitely a dangerfood, and then there are those that are campaigning to keep spuds in schools. I recently wrote an article for The Greatist, and this is where my research took me.
The potato may not win any beauty contests, but depending on how it’s dressed up, the potato can be a good source of vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, these starchy spuds can cause blood sugar to soar, some say even more than eating than pure sugar.
Potatoes may be a good way to survive a famine, but their high glycemic load sends them to the danger zone.
The glycemic load refers to the effect a food has on blood sugar levels, as carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (simple sugar) and absorbed into the blood to fuel the body. Foods with a high glycemic load cause a fast absorption of sugars into the bloodstream, whereas a low glycemic load has a slower rate of absorption.
The carbohydrates in potatoes are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar. And this invasion of too much sugar sends the body into damage control mode, by releasing extra insulin from the pancreas to try and keep the sugar situation under control. Insulin is like the messenger telling the cells to take in the glucose, and as the pancreas takes the “better safe than sorry” approach, it usually sends out too much insulin. But wait, there’s more to the message. The cells need to know what to do with all the extra glucose, so the excess insulin signals fat cells to store it as fat.
Potatoes are not the sole winner of the high glycemic load contest. Many other carbohydrate foods share the title, and while carbohydrates give the body energy, when foods with a high glycemic load are eaten in excess, not only does the pancreas get a little tired of sending out all that extra insulin, the cells don’t respond like they used to.
So the pancreas has to send out even more insulin to get the cells to do their job and take in the extra glucose. It gets to be a vicious cycle of excess carbs leading to excess insulin, and finally the body starts resisting the insulin all together, which can lead to serious health conditions like type II diabetes, coronary disease, obesity, and certain types of cancer.
Potato fans may say that the spudly nutrients are well worth the spike in blood sugar. Potatoes are low in calories and sodium, a good source of potassium, which can help muscles function and lower blood pressure, iron which is important for blood oxygen, and copper which is key for nerve function and energy metabolism. And let’s not forget the peel which is rich in Vitamin C, important for the growth and repair of tissues in all parts of the body.
It’s possible that the devil may be in the details like the oil, butter, and salt, not in the potato, as long as it is cooked and prepared in a healthy way. And with the many variety of potatoes, some will be have a lower glycemic load.
But potatoes become even more menacing when they are prepared in unhealthy ways, like fried, baked and loaded, or mashed and gravyed. Not only will a loaded baked potato or an order of fries wreak havoc on blood glucose, but each can have over 500 calories.
The saving grace for the potato may lie in the cooking methods, as it may reduce the glycemic load with boiling potatoes being at the top of the list, and it gets even better if they are left to cool or reheated later on.
So if the potato is going to remain part of the family, it may be time to boil the little spuds, and eat them as leftovers loaded with something like Greek yogurt, low fat cheese, or salsa— and skip the fries and gravy entirely.