Ancient man ate a lot of baked potatoes. Strict Paleo diets exclude potatoes, claiming that the saponins they contain make them unfit for human consumption. Given the scientific evidence, this is complete nonsense. Potatoes and tubers have provided an important source of energy for many millennia.
I’ve been avoiding potatoes for years because of the low-carb craze and misguided Paleo advice! Research shows that starches like potatoes and tubers were a staple in the diet of Paleolithic man and they should be a staple in your diet, too. Today, most people tolerate potatoes quite well and I see no reason to exclude them from the diet. Rediscover and relish potatoes.
Research on the diets of early man proves to us that they were eating tubers, roots, rhizomes and corms – foods similar to our modern potatoes and tubers. Researchers not only found evidence to prove this by testing bones and observing the structure of their teeth, but they have found digging sticks – to dig up those tasty little tubers. (6)
Today the evidence for our prehistoric potato feast lies in the fact that human’s most plentiful saliva enzyme, amylase, breaks down starch. Chimps have two copies of the gene for amylase. Most humans around the world have seven. This means we ate enough starch to evolve more genetic copies of this gene. (11) We are adapted to eat potatoes, okay?!
Why Aren’t Potatoes Paleo?
- Have a high glycemic index (they rapidly raise your blood sugar)
- Consumed in highly processed forms (uh, just eat whole potatoes)
- Contain a toxin called saponin
Saponins, also known as glycoalkaloids, are toxins present in various plants including spinach, oats, chick peas, beans, asparagus, onions, yams, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers as well as potatoes and tubers, but aren’t present in sweet potatoes. In plants, they act as a protective mechanism, but some think they can cause gut permeability or leaky gut in humans. Leaky gut is characterized by perforations in the gut that cause undigested food and toxins to leak out into the blood stream leading to all kinds of health problems, namely food sensitivities and autoimmune disease.
Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, makes a huge deal about saponins, saying that they cause intestinal permeability. His references to support his case only point to in vitro studies, which are done in a test tube, not in the human digestive tract. Sorry, I’m going to need some real world evidence.
It has never been shown in a human being that consuming a lot of spuds will increase intestinal permeability. Saponins or glycoalkaloids are easily broken apart during digestion, posing no problems in the gut. (8) Additionally, saponins appear to be found mainly in the potato skin. If you’re worried about it just don’t eat the skins. Stephan Guyenet’s graph shows the differences in saponin content between different potatoes if you’re worried about them. However, I believe there is nothing to fret about.
Here’s why saponins are not a problem according to Steve Guyenet:
- Different varieties contain different amounts of saponins, aka glycoalkaloids.
- Common commercial varieties such as russet and white potatoes are low in glycoalkaloids. This is no accident. The glycoalkaloid content of potatoes is monitored in the US.
- Most of the glycoalkaloid content is in the skin (within 1 mm of the surface). That way, predators have to eat through poison to get to the flesh. Fortunately, humans have peelers. (4)
There’s only one spud species that has a significant amount of saponins in the flesh and that’s the Snowden potato. Even still, they’re found mainly in the skin of the Snowden. You won’t find Snowdens at your local grocery store. They go directly into making potato chips. Just avoid potato chips if you’re worried about it.
Saponins don’t pose a problem to health because the human body is designed to handle a certain amount of plant toxins with no ill effects. All plants contain toxins. In fact, all plant foods contain radiation! I think our bodies can process a little potato poison.
Why Eat Spuds?
Potatoes and tubers are surprisingly nutrient dense. In South America, the birthplace of our beloved spuds (Peru), there are over 3000 varieties of potatoes, with some of them being so nutrient dense people can survive on potatoes alone! Believe it or not, there are more potato varieties in the world than just Idaho Russets and our run of the mill sweet potatoes. There are so many varieties! I love to go to the farmer’s market and find novel varieties.
Contrary to all the hullabaloo about eating low carb, the truth is we need to eat carbs. Some people need to restrict them temporarily for weight loss, but most need them for their brain to function. Others get weird symptoms like cramping or tingling due to eating a diet too low in carbs. Athletes especially are not going to function well on the typical Paleo prescription that promotes no grains or potatoes. They need more energy sources. Many find they don’t feel quite right on the typical Paleo template and must add carbs. Add potatoes!
If you’re going to eat carbs, you want your carbs to break down to glucose, not fructose (fruit fuel). You should never eat more than 25 grams of fructose per day, which is one piece or serving of fruit. Potatoes are pure starch, which will decompose into glucose. There’s no liver harming fructose in there, so potatoes make great healthy fuel. Need more energy? Eat a spud!
Potatoes are a complete protein. An early researcher named Hindhede set out to explore the quality of potato protein. He fed three adult men almost nothing but potatoes and margarine (the no trans fat kind) for 309 days. Dr. Hindhede discovered that potato protein is high quality, providing all essential amino acids with high digestibility. Potato protein alone is sufficient to sustain an athletic man (although that doesn’t make it optimal). (5) There are lots of experiments showing humans managing quite well eating only potatoes. Who would have guessed?
Another reason to eat potatoes is that a number of cultures throughout history have successfully relied on the potato as their principal source of calories, and several continue to do so, such as the Peruvian Quechua who get 74% of their calories from potatoes. (5) They must be pretty nutritious to accomplish this feat.
Sweet Potatoes Vs. Potatoes
Ladies and gentlemen. In this corner, we have the Sweet Potato. In the other corner, we have your Garden Variety Potato. Enjoy the show! Who do you think will win nutritionally? I hope you didn’t bet on either because they are going to tie.
Don’t worry about choosing sweet potatoes over regular potatoes thinking they are healthier. They are actually about the same nutritionally with the only difference being that sweet potatoes are higher in vitamin A. Big deal. I mean, yes, vitamin A is very good for the eyes, which is healthy for all you nerds that wear glasses. But we can get Vitamin A in many other foods. All the other amino acids, minerals and nutrients between sweet and other potato varieties are very similar. (10)
Don’t forget other healthy potatoes!
- Purple, red and yellow
- Cassava (Tapioca)
Don’t Potatoes Raise your Blood Sugar?
The glycemic index (GI) of potatoes can vary highly from mid 50′s all the way up to the high 100′s, depending on the type of potato and how it is cooked. On average, white boiled potatoes have a GI of 82 where as sweet potatoes have 70. (7) Baking can increase GI. Leaving the skin on increases GI. Frying potatoes, as in french fries and chips, increases GI to 100. Boiling produces the lowest GI. And when you eat them with low glycemic foods like vegetables, vinegar or fats, which is what usually happens during a meal, this reduces the GI even more. Different varieties of potatoes and sweet potatoes will have different GIs. In general white potatoes have a higher glycemic index. Colored potatoes, like red, yellow and purple are healthier in this regard since they typically have a lower GI.
Yes, spuds do raise your blood sugar, but they’re supposed to. How else are they going to give you energy? This shouldn’t be a problem in people with healthy blood sugar regulation. We have to get our fuel from somewhere! For many, meat and veggies alone don’t cut it in the energy or brain department. Especially if you’re an athlete, you should be getting your carbs from taters as opposed to grains or energy drinks. For us couch inclined, simply putting fat on them in the form of butter or sour cream will reduce the glycemic index.
What if you’re diabetic or have insulin resistance? Diseases like obesity and diabetes are primarily caused by toxic foods. Diabetes and obesity became common after vegetable oil, trans fats and fructose consumption soared in the 1970’s. On the other hand, potato-eating cultures have very low rates of diabetes and obesity. Unfortunately, if you’ve destroyed your blood sugar regulation by eating toxic foods for many years, you may have to limit or eliminate potatoes. Cut out toxic foods by going Paleo and you can on day eat your spuds when your blood sugar regulation is healed. Yes, it can be healed contrary to what your doctor might tell you.
Potatoes are “okay” to eat if you are meeting your personal fitness and body composition goals. If you’re trying to lose weight, you don’t want to go too nuts with potatoes since anything that increases your blood sugar can increase your waistline. You may not have gotten overweight in the first place by eating baked sweet potatoes with grass-fed butter, or Yukon golds roasted in duck fat, but these foods certainly aren’t going to help you lose weight. Potatoes should be limited, or even outright eliminated, for this (large) subset of the population. For the lean and active, however, I don’t think a few red potatoes with dinner are anything to worry about.
So does this mean that everyone out there should be chowing down on potatoes? Unfortunately, no. Not because there is anything unhealthy about potatoes, but a lot of people cannot process dense carb sources in a healthy way. It ultimately depends on your activity level and metabolic status. Basically those carbs fuel your activity level. If you’re living a desk to couch lifestyle then either up your activity level or keep the intake low. You have to earn your carbs. If you have metabolic issues (read: abdominal fat) then you need to get that sorted out first since you are not processing carbs correctly. It ends up being shuttled to the fat tissue instead of being available as energy.
Deciding whether potatoes fit into your diet should be based on how your body reacts to starch – in its current metabolic state, which, remember, is not set in stone. Once your metabolism (blood sugar regulation, thyroid, adrenals) is on the road to healing, you may be able to incorporate more potatoes into your diet. If you’re still trying to lose thirty pounds, I’d go with holding off on the spuds.
Spuds have not been associated with contributing to the modern disease epidemic. This does not mean we have a free pass to begin popping potato chips, tater tots and french fries. There is a reason french fries are one of the most popular foods in the US. People instinctively know what to eat, even if they’re missing the boat a bit by eating them fried. Potato chips and french fries are not on The Modern Paleo Diet because they are fried in inflammatory vegetables oils. We’re talking about eating real potatoes that have been baked, broiled and boiled to death.
Dr. Paul Jaminet, co-author of Perfect Health Diet recommends eating 1 pound (.45kg) of potatoes, sweet potatoes and tubers a day. It makes much more sense to me that humans should be eating starches to get enough carbs to fuel their brain as opposed to getting carbs from grains and refined sugar. Starches were abundant during Paleolithic times, grains and sugar were not. Eat your spuds.
Remember I mentioned that human’s most plentiful saliva enzyme is amylase – perfect for breaking down starch? People have varied amounts of amylase in their saliva. If you have less, you won’t do as well eating potatoes. Those suckers need to be broken down. If you have a lot, start roasting some potatoes right away. How do you know? You don’t. Just see how you feel after eating potatoes. You can always supplement before meals with amylase found in most digestive enzymes. You have to discover for yourself and see if potatoes work for you.
Some people feel great after they eat potatoes. Others find that potatoes and other members of the nightshade family give them digestive problems, exacerbate their arthritis, or cause weight gain. If you have a sensitivity to nightshades, which can contribute to pain disorders and other health issues, simply exclude all potatoes except sweet potatoes. A portion of the carbohydrates in potatoes do not break down in the small intestine. For most people, this produces a fiber-like effect and helps improve bowel function. For others, the insoluble starch will promote IBS-like symptoms. See what works for you – n=1.
If you do choose to eat potatoes, follow these simple guidelines:
- Don’t eat potatoes that are green, have green spots, or are sprouting, blemished, or damaged
- Store them in a cool, dark place. They don’t need to be refrigerated but it will extend their life.
- Peel them before eating if you rely on them as a staple food.
- Buy organic. Potatoes are in the “Dirty Dozen” of foods you should buy organic because they can be heavily sprayed with pesticides. In modern times, potatoes have been used in cultivation as a means to pull toxins out of the soil. So, our little spud sponges are soaking up the pesticides.
- Eat your spuds with a fat, vinegar or vegetables. This reduces a spud’s potential glycemic spike.
- Boiling or slow crock pot cooking is the best method of eating potatoes
Cook your potatoes gently but thoroughly. In plant foods cooked at high heat, a common group of toxins is the Maillard reaction products produced by reactions between sugars and proteins and derivative compounds such as acrylamide. It’s one of the toxins raw foodists are killing themselves to avoid, but there are ways get around their formation. Acrylamide is formed when starches are cooked above 250° F degrees (120° C) – which happens when roasting, grilling or frying, but not boiling. Interestingly, potato fiber protects the intestine from acrylamide damage.
Simply be mindful of your selection, preparation, and habits in consuming potatoes. Potatoes are primarily starch – which breaks down into glucose, so you need to be mindful of the frequency with which you consume them (if you’re trying to lean out, avoid them).
Here’s my last bit of advice: Try them out for a couple meals a week, and take note of how you feel after consuming them. Do you feel better or worse? If they agree with you, great! And remember to always drown those spuds in raw grass fed butter or sour cream. These gooey gobs of goodness lower the spike in your blood sugar and help you absorb the minerals. It’s all so Paleo. Pass the raw butter please.
[accordion clicktoclose=true][accordion-item title=”Click here to view references”]
1. Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet. Revised Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
2. Dobrowolski, P. et al. Potato Fiber protects the small intestinal wall against the toxic influence of acrylamide. Nutrition 28, no. 4. April 2012:428-35. http://pmid.us/22414587
3. Guyenet, Steve. Potatoes and Human Health, Part I. http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2010/09/potatoes-and-human-health-part-i.html
4. Guyenet, Steve. Potatoes and Human Health, Part II. http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2010/09/potatoes-and-human-health-part-ii.html
5. Guyenet, Steve. Potatoes and Human Health, Part III.http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2010/10/potatoes-and-human-health-part-iii.html
6. Jaminet, Paul. Jaminet, Shou-Ching. The Perfect Health Diet. Scribner, 2012.
7. Harvard Health Publications. Glycemic index and glycemic load for 100+ foods. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods.htm
8. Kresser, Chris. Revolution Health Radio Podcast. RHR: What Science Really Says About the Paleo Diet – With Mat Lalonde. June 13, 2012. http://chriskresser.com/rhr-what-science-really-says-about-the-paleo-diet-with-mat-lalonde
9. Lentzner, Matt. Meat & Potatoes: Back On The Menu. November 3, 2011. http://robbwolf.com/2011/11/03/meat-potatoes-back-on-the-menu/
10. Louise at Ancestralchef.com. Why Aren’t Potatoes Paleo? April 9, 2013. http://www.ancestralchef.com/why-arent-potatoes-paleo
11. Perry. G. H. et al. Diet and the evoltuion of human amylase gene copy number variation. Nature Genetics 39, no. 10. October 2007: 1256-60. http://pmid.us/17828263