It has come to my attention that there has been a bit of potato-bashing going on.
The latest wave of anti-spuddism arises from a study carried out by Harvard researchers into the dietary habits of around 120,000 health professionals from around the U.S. over a period of 12+ years and published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The aspect of the research which has gained most attention is the finger of blame that is pointed towards potato products when it comes to potential for weight gain. On the basis of increased daily servings, the study finds that people who were in the habit of eating French fries gained, on average, 3.35 lb after four years, while those with a predilection for potato chips (or crisps, in Irish-speak) averaged a 1.69 lb increase. If your extra helpings came in the form of boiled, baked, or mashed potatoes, the increase was a more modest 0.57 lb over the four year period.
Cue articles, such as this one, which tell you the frightening amounts of calories, fats and carbs in your average spud meal and warn that “potatoes are calorie dense, very calorie dense“. Clearly, the article implies, when it comes to spuds and my waistline, I should be afraid, very afraid. The premise and the conclusion are simplistic, to say the least. While potatoes are certainly calorie dense if you douse them in fat, a plain boiled potato (as I have mentioned on these pages before) actually has less calories than the equivalent weight of plain boiled rice, pasta or bread. Nutritionally, too, it has plenty to shout about.
Other quotes such as this found here are also, I think, unhelpful.
The problem, said study co-author Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, is that “we don’t eat potatoes raw, so it’s easier [for the body] to transform the starch to glucose.”
With the greatest of respect Dr. Willett, the problem is not that we don’t eat potatoes raw, it’s that we’re probably eating a sizable burger and a sugary drink along with that order of fries. This is a view that would fit with Marion Nestle’s much more reasoned assessment of the study. The professor of nutrition and public health at New York University suspects that “people who eat potato chips and fries also tend to eat too much in general, making these foods markers for a diet leading to weight gain“.
The fact is that we are very fond of finding villains for the western disease that is obesity. We like to consign blame to, say, sugar one week and potatoes the next, culprits that allow us to abdicate responsibility for our own dietary actions (“’twas the spuds that did it, your honour”). The simple, uncomplicated truth is that a balanced, varied diet (spuds included), which avoids lots of heavily processed foods and includes a moderate amount of exercise will, in the general run of things, help to keep our waistlines on the straight and narrow(-ish). I know that I, for one, will be making no plans to steer clear of spuds and, fortunately, it looks like I’m not alone.
As my new twitter friend, Nancy, informed me, spuds have at least one avid fan stateside. She sent me this picture of the t-shirt that her ten year old son custom-made for himself. Now there’s a boy who has the right idea.