Saturday, January 7, 2012

In defense of the potato

Growing up, I loved potatoes. I mean, I still do, but I eat less of them now than I think I did as a child. My mom looked down on my preference, dismissing potatoes as merely starch. When she'd be planning our meals for the week and ask what I wanted, I'd say potatoes and she'd ask me what vegetables I wanted to eat.
There is some nutritional basis for this opinion. For one thing, in the "five fruits and veggies each day" type diet, potatoes don't actually count toward the veggies. And when you remove the skins, as my mom usually did, you remove a lot of the nutrition with them.
Studies and articles like this one, proclaiming the potato as essentially being a nutritional and diet bomb, don't help. (If you read the article, it keeps saying that the study found an extra portion of these foods to be bad for your waistline. Umm, it took a study to figure out that extra portions of foods is bad for you?)
I'd like to take a stand right here and say that the lowly potato can actually be good for you. I am absolutely not going to promote them for weight loss, or as a source of resistant starch. (For a definition of resistant starch, go here. For an article touting potatoes as a source of resistant starch, go here. For an article against it, go here. For a more moderate article, go here.) Whether or not they do have the fabulous and healthy resistant starch (and that seems to be a huge debate) they do have a lot of other good things for you. Vitamin C, Thiamin, B vitamins, protein, fiber, riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium to name just a few. They also contain fabulous things called carotenoids, which do so much for you I'm not going to list everything here. They do have a lot of calories, but almost no fat.
I think most of the trouble people have with potatoes is twofold. One, how they're cooked. If you're eating buttery mashed potatoes made with cream, or baked potatoes topped with cheese and bacon and sour cream, or fried in any form, they won't be so good for you. Since that's the way most people eat them (or in mayonnaise-y potato salad), they blame the potato rather than everything else that's wrong with the way it was cooked, prepared and eaten.
The second is that people fail to take into account, or don't realize, all the extra calories that potatoes bring into the diet. However, when that's taken into account, considering everything I mentioned above, there's no reason to think that a potato will cause you to gain weight by itself, just by virtue of being a potato. Avocados have a decent amount of fat and calories in them, but they're still considered a type of superfood. Why does the poor potato get so maligned?
There are currently no GMO potatoes grown commercially in the U.S., so that's not a concern (at the moment). They're also very easy to grow because they require so little maintenance and grow nearly everywhere. (Where they're grown does affect the nutritional content a little, but it's the same way with pretty much any plant food. That's part of the reason that good soil is so important.) Around here, I've never had to water my potatoes (although that's usually a by-product of watering my other crops) or worry about pests and disease. The only thing I do to them is to hill them once in a while, before they start flowering. (Once they flower, the growing is basically over.) Hilling is just the process of putting more dirt around the potato so that the roots grow bigger. To make the process easier, a lot of home growers place them in buckets or large containers. Last year I grew mine in old tires that were lying in the yard, and it worked quite well so I'll do that again this year. It also means less digging and less chance of spearing your potatoes with a shovel or trowel trying to get them out of the ground.
When Shane and I do eat potatoes, it's often as a sort of meat substitute rather than a side. Lots of people think of the quintessential meat and potatoes. In our house, it tends to be more of an either-or, rather than both. Either that, or the meal has a very lean protein such as salmon or chicken. They're also hardly ever the focus of the meal, just a part of it. For instance, last night I made pasta and my veggie fries (baked). Potatoes were, of course, part of it. However, at least half of the veggies were sweet potatoes so the regular potatoes were just a small part of the meal. And because the way I prepared them left the skin on, and the rest of the meal was low in calories, it was overall a very healthy meal.
We've actually been eating these veggie fries so often that I'm worried we'll run out of potatoes! Usually I have plenty to plant as soon as the ground starts to thaw. This year I might have to have my in-laws bring more up when they come here in May to use as seed.
For someone else's fantastic blog post on what motivated them (and still motivates them) to make foods from scratch, this one is very thoughtfully written. I'm looking forward to buying a copy of her book sometime soon.

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