Are Potatoes Healthy?
This starchy vegetable is one of the most versatile kitchen staples around. Here's how it fits into a healthy diet.
People are always saying that potatoes don't count as a vegetable. They're higher in carbohydrates than most other vegetables, and are often subject to less-nutritious cooking methods like deep-frying. But, banishing them from the vegetable kingdom isn't really fair, nor is it correct. Technically speaking, potatoes are a vegetable. Nutritionally speaking, they boast several benefits and can absolutely be a part of a healthy eating pattern.
If you're confused about whether or not potatoes are healthy, or just aren't sure how to incorporate them into your cooking routine, here's what you need to know.
If each potato came with a nutrition label, here's what it would say:
For 1 medium potato (6 oz.):
- 160 calories
- 0 g fat
- 37 g carbohydrate
- 4 g fiber
- 2 g sugars
- 4 g protein
- 17 mg sodium
- 0.6 mg vitamin B6
- 926 mg potassium
- 17 mg vitamin C
Potatoes are high in complex carbohydrates and fiber.
Pictured recipe: Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Buttermilk
Hopefully, you know by now that carbs are our body's primary source of energy, and that there's no reason to fear them. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting anywhere from 45-65% of your daily calories from carbs.
"Potatoes are a complex carb," says Amy Gorin, M.S., RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. Complex carbs (starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes) are a little bit more structurally, well, complex than simple carbs (sugar, processed grains), which means they break down more slowly in your body and give you steady energy. (Learn more about complex carbohydrates, including how to get more in your diet.)
Potatoes are also fiber-rich. "Fiber is beneficial not only for helping to keep you satiated for longer but also for helping your cholesterol levels," Gorin says. A medium potato contains 4 grams of fiber, nearly 20% of the 25 grams recommended daily for adult women. One thing to note: "A lot of the beneficial part of the potato—ahem, fiber!—is in the skin," Gorin says. So, be sure to eat all parts of the spud for maximum benefits.
Read more: 10 Foods with More Fiber Than an Apple
Potatoes boast several important vitamins and minerals.
The real power of fruits and vegetables is found in the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) they contain. While these nutrients aren't what give us energy, they're what keep our body's cells and systems working properly. And, potatoes contain significant amounts of several micronutrients.
"Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin B6," says Gorin. "Vitamin B6 helps your body convert noncarbohydrate sources into a usable form of energy." It also plays a role in the production of red blood cells and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that send signals from one part of the body to another). Vitamin B6 is an essential nutrient—your body can't produce it, so you need to get it from food. One medium potato delivers about 0.5 milligrams of vitamin B6, more than one-third of the recommended daily intake for adults (1.3 mg).
Potatoes are also a standout when it comes to vitamin C. A medium potato contains 17 milligrams, a good portion of the recommended 65 to 90 mg per day. And, while vitamin C isn't the cold-curing miracle we used to think it was, it is a powerful antioxidant. Adequate intake might reduce your risk of certain cancers, especially those in your mouth and digestive tract.
And, although bananas usually get all the credit when it comes to potassium, potatoes are actually a much better source. A medium potato contains 926 mg potassium, which contributes significantly to the 3,500-4,700 milligrams recommended daily for adults. "[Potassium is] an electrolyte that helps to counteract the effects of sodium," Gorin says. In other words, it helps fight high blood pressure, which in turn can reduce your risk of several chronic diseases.
Potatoes contain resistant starch, which can improve gut health.
As its name suggests, resistant starch resists digestion in the small intestine, and instead is broken down in the large intestine where it fuels good bacteria and promotes a healthy microbiome. Research on resistant starch is still emerging, so there's no official recommendation for how much we should eat every day. But Guy Crosby, Ph.D., a resistant-starch researcher and adjunct professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recommends about 10 grams per day, and says that most of us only get about 5 grams.
The amount of resistant starch in a potato varies depending on how you cook and store it. A hot boiled potato has about 1.3 grams, but a boiled potato that's been cooled and is served cold might contain 20% more. (Good news for everyone who loves potato salad!)
Potatoes taste great baked, boiled, roasted and sautéed.
Pictured recipe: Ham and Broccoli Topped Baked Potato
"I'm a fan of the simple baked potato," Gorin says. "I like mine with black pepper and a little bit of truffle salt!" You could also stuff a baked potato with chili for a protein-rich meal, or make twice-baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese. Opt for russet potatoes—their thick skin and dry flesh make them perfect for baking.
Or, roast smaller potatoes with a drizzle of olive oil and rosemary. Red bliss or Yukon Gold potatoes are perfect for this, as they have a waxy flesh that gets creamy in the oven, and thin, subtle skin. These varieties will also be your best bet for mashed potatoes, which you can choose to make with or without skin.
For breakfast, sautéing potatoes in a skillet with eggs and vegetables is a great choice. Use whatever potatoes you have on hand, but heed Gorin's advice and leave the skin intact for maximum fiber benefits.
Bottom line: Potatoes shouldn't be the only vegetable you eat, but don't let anyone tell you they're unhealthy.
As is the case with most things, the only problem with eating potatoes happens when you eat them instead of other vegetables. Getting a variety of fruits and veggies is important, as each one contains different important nutrients. And, potatoes are relatively high in carbs and calories compared to other vegetables, which is something worth keeping in mind. Still, potatoes are nutritious, tasty and inexpensive, and they definitely deserve a place in your healthy diet.
Read more: How Many Carbs Are in Vegetables?