Good Potato, Bad Potato: War Over Starchy Spud Rages On

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Potatoes, it turns out, are political.

At least in the cutthroat world of food and nutrition where, increasingly, what we eat is a highly partisan, hotly debated and frustratingly gridlocked battle pitting health policy types against one another.

Here’s where the potatoes come in:

On one side of the battle, you’ll find politicians, farmers and advocates lobbying for potatoes to become a part of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, saying they are cheap and potentially nutritious. On the other, you’ll find researchers, including many doctors from the Institute of Medicine, steering patients away from potatoes and saying that Americans are currently consuming too much of the starchy vegetable.

As a doctoral student in nutrition, I often find myself caught in the crossfire of such food battles, whether they’re over the health benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, coffee or my current fixation: potatoes. All too often, friends, family members and even strangers on the bus beg for a little simplicity: they just want to know if certain foods are “good” or “bad.”

Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple and, like many foods that have become mired in controversy, nuances around the relative benefits or ills of potatoes have been obscured in the rhetoric.

Some specifics:

For starters, potatoes contain a large amount of carbohydrates and they have a high glycemic load – meaning they are quickly digested. Foods that have high glycemic loads generally cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rapidly spike and may cause a person to feel hungry again shortly after eating a meal.

According to The Nutrition Source, a publication of the Harvard School of Public Health that acts as a source of research-based nutrition information, previous research studies have linked diets high in potatoes and other rapidly digested carbs to chronic health outcomes, including diabetes and heart disease.

The findings from a new study, published in early September, suggested that a low-carb diet, compared to one that is low-fat, may be more effective for weight loss and in reducing the risk of heart-related health problems.

Nutrition researchers, however, have raised concerns over the study’s findings. For example, in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, David L. Katz, a nutritionist and the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, is quoted saying that diets focused on eliminating solely one item, such as carbs, aren’t always good and can actually be harmful: “Our fixation on a particular nutrient at a time has been backfiring for decades…”
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FreshStart Check-In, And Coach Beth On Night-Time Eating

RIP, my night-time cereal habit

Dear FreshStarters: How’s it going? How was your last week? Are your goals making sense? Please post your progress as a comment below. (For background on FreshStart, please click here and here. It’s not too late to join by posting your comment here, and there are still prizes available!)

I blush to admit this, but I really do believe that part of the reason I remained single through my thirties was that I so love to read and eat at night. Nothing could make me happier at the end of the day than settling into bed with a great novel and a box of cereal or a can of corn kernels. How could I marry? How could a husband possibly understand that I preferred fiction and carbs to him?

Happily, I did ultimately find such a man, but just because he understands my night-time vices doesn’t mean I should retain them. I mean, the fiction part can stay; but the eating-and-reading thing, the feeling that I want to be eating as I read, page after page, has to go. Hence the flower tribute to my last (empty) box of nighttime cereal, at the right.

When we launched FreshStart two weeks ago, I pledged to give up my night-time cookies and replace them with cereal. Last week I shared the realization that cereal is no good if you eat half a box of it. So now, inspired by the excellent insights below from Coach Beth, I’m prepared to shift altogether to eating fruits or vegetables at night. Beth — our wellness coach, Dr. Beth Frates — wrote the post below as a response to Rachel’s query about nighttime cereal, but I wanted to make sure everyone saw it. She helped me see that my evening carbs are effectively tranquilizers, and there are much healthier ways to calm down at night:

Ah….the dreaded cereal at night conundrum. Who hasn’t experienced that? Well, the draw of the carbohydrate, the often hidden sugar (but not in the oatmeal you are writing about unless it is instant with added sugar), the cereal… It is so easy to prepare, and it tastes so good. It seems “safe” enough.

Well, depending on the type of cereal you are consuming no matter what time of the day, it can set you up for the sugar cycle. Again, this has to do with the sugar content and whether you are consuming a simple carbohydrate in your cereal. It goes like this, you consume the cereal, you get a spike in blood sugar, your body responds by releasing insulin from your pancreas to counteract that sugar spike, then the sugar is removed from the blood stream and goes into cells, hence you are hungry again because you have low blood sugar. So what do we do, we eat more. This is the vicious sugar cycle no matter what the time of day. Continue reading