Christmas and Hanukkah for 2020 are past. I hope that you and your loved ones had a joyous and safe holiday. We are now, thankfully, approaching the new year. Everyone hopes that 2021 will be much better than 2020.
Unless 2021 is a wild exception from the norm, many will resolve to lose weight. The starting of a new year seems the perfect time to turn over a new leaf. Habits are hard things to change, so we look for some miracle diet to help us get to that Greek god body that lies somewhere beneath the layers we have accumulated over the years. We may be tempted to look at the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet, the Keto diet or any number of other diets concocted to make their authors rich.
Many weight-loss diets begin by demonizing entire groups of foods. Other than sugar and processed meats, the most popular vegetable to demonize is the potato. I am here today to stand in defense of the potato.
I am not alone in its defense. Potatoes are included in the Mediterranean diet. Potatoes are not shunned by dietitians. Potatoes by themselves are very nutritious and low in calories. One pound of boiled potatoes, with their skin, is only 354 calories. When is the last time you contemplated eating a pound of potatoes? A frozen margarita can easily clock in at 500 calories.
Potatoes as a cultivated crop originated in the Americas. Potatoes were domesticated in southern Peru in approximately 8,000 B.C. Potatoes made their way to Europe, first to Spain and then to England in the late 16th century. Potatoes are in the nightshade family sharing a distant relationship to the tomato, eggplant and peppers. Potatoes are the most cultivated plant in the United States and are the fourth most cultivated plant in the world just behind wheat, rice and corn.
Potatoes are fat-free and chocked full of phytonutrients and fiber. The healthiest way to cook and eat a potato is to bake it with the skin on. Baking the potato preserves the maximum amount of the nutritional value. The skin is full of fiber and vitamins and should be eaten whenever possible.
The least healthy way to cook a potato is to fry it. We can thank Thomas Jefferson for starting our obsession with French fries. One of Jefferson’s slaves, James Hemmings was training to be a chef at a French country estate and learned the technique. Unless you were serving curly fries, Jefferson wouldn’t recognize today’s French fries. In Jefferson’s time, the potato was cut in quarter inch slices “round and round like you peel a lemon.” It took another hundred years for our obsession with French fries to go viral. French fries were introduced in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. While serving in Belgium and France during World War I, our soldiers developed a taste for pommes frites and brought that craving home. The rest is history.
As you can see, the potato itself is not inherently unhealthy. It’s the addition of fat at high temperature and copious amounts of salt and sugar found in ketchup that are the culprits.
It is the same case with baked potatoes. As stated earlier, baking potatoes, with the skin on, is the healthiest way to cook a potato. As a dish, it becomes progressively less healthy in direct proportion to the amount of butter, sour cream, cheese and bacon we throw on it.
There are unfortunately a couple of downsides to potatoes. Potatoes contain two types of natural toxins. You probably want to stay away from potatoes that have a greenish cast. The presence of chlorophyll means solanine is present. Solanine is a natural toxin and eaten in large quantities this can cause a real pain in the gut.
Potatoes are also a little high on the glycemic index. Foods high on the glycemic index can cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a precipitous drop in blood sugar, which can make you hungry and so you may eat more than you should. If you are diabetic, you should check with your health care professional to see if potatoes or other starchy vegetables are right for you.
I love potatoes but I eat them sparingly and never as the only vegetable on my plate. Sure, I have the occasional french fry, but often I roast/bake potatoes with a little olive oil and garlic. I especially like the purple potatoes. My simple recipe for roasted potatoes with garlic is included.
May the coming year bring you good health, prosperity, love and a turn back toward some level of normalcy.
Dennis Patillo is a committed foodie and chef. He has spent a lifetime studying foods from around the world as well as regional cuisines. His passion is introducing people to ingredients and techniques that can be used in their home kitchen. He and his wife, Louise, own The PumpHouse Riverside Restaurant and Bar.