By Alvin Tran
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.
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…”