The Daily Spud

...there's both eatin' and drinkin' in it

Spud Sunday: In Defence Of The Spud

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.

New potato

These, my friends, are not the problem

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.

I love potatoes

That's my kind of t-shirt

12 Comments

  1. I think their research is a bit skewed. Obviously if you fry anything in fat you are going to gain weight. If they did a study on people who eat cupcakes on a daily basis they’d also find these people gained weight. Too much fat and too much sugar are to blame. Not innocent spuds!!!

  2. A well-reasoned defense, Spud. Chips and crisps are barely potatoes, more a vehicle for saturated fat. Tasty, yes, but if we all got a taste for deep-fried cauliflower, it would be just as much of a culprit!

  3. Obviously potatoes aren’t going to add years to your life if you cover them in fat and eat bucketloads of them! I think spuds are also the victims of carb-phobia.

  4. Daily Spud

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Kim: It does seem a bit obvious, doesn’t it. What’s been talked about as a result of the study is the fact that it seems to indicate that, say, regularly having extra fries causes more weight gain than regularly having extra sugary drinks, but, really, it’s having ‘extra’ of either that’s more the problem.

    Tim: oh they’re tasty for sure, but it’s no particular surprise that if you were given to having extra helpings of same on a very regular basis that you might well start to pile on the pounds; meanwhile you have me pondering deep-fried cauliflower, just because…

    Aine: indeed, the whole anti-carb / Atkins diet thing did potatoes no favours either

  5. What’s not to love about a whole food that’s inexpensive, lends itself to every kind of preparation imaginable and even comes in its own handy jacket?! My potato loving, t-shirt making, spud eating machine is EXTREMELY thin as it happens. He counts potatoes among his staple foods but rarely sips a sugary soda–the face of the next generation of potato love?! Lord help me if/when he discovers how vodka is made! :) Thanks for the mention–we all enjoyed it as well as another perspective on the nutritional info.

  6. Hear Hear! I’m sick of totties getting the blame for putting on weight. Everything in moderation, I say. The Atkins diet is my worst nightmare.

  7. Just read the original paper there and for the most interesting thing about it is that lack of correlation between normal and low fat versions of dairy products (in fact in Sweden, consumption of full fat milk and cheese was correlated with weight decrease): this pretty much goes against the standard weight loss advice for the past fifty years. Howver, the main problem with basically all these studies is that they are correlational and how notoriously hard it is to prove causation using this method of study; note that in the paper there is no attempt to control for genetic facotrs which surely has a huge impact on people’s metabolisms. Behavioural genetics uses twin studies to get around this problem but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a nutrional study that does the same.

  8. Daily Spud

    Monday, July 4, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Nancy: and thank you for sending on the pic in the first place – I really do hope your son is a sign of good things to come for the next potato eating generation!

    Catherine: I really do hope you meant tatties and not totties there! :D

    Stef: On the whole topic of low-fat vs. full fat dairy – I often think that people reckon “it’s low-fat so I can have twice as much”. I, for one, have moved away from things like low-fat milk & reckon that the full-fat, less processed version is better for me in the long run; agreed also on the general difficulties with doing studies like this – there are so many factors that aren’t or sometimes can’t be taken into account

  9. Well one of the major problems with low fat versions of yoghurts etc are that to make up for the resulting loss of flavour companies just load them full of sugar which of course just gets turned into fat by your body if you eat to much of it (as we in the West do). I’m the same as you, I don’t bother with low fat versions of anything anymore, I would rather taste them as intended but eat less than have a comprimised product.

  10. I wondered if you were going to take a “dig” at this study! GREG

  11. Daily Spud

    Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Stef: absolutely, the question I do tend to ask if a product advertises itself as low-fat is not so much what’s been removed as what’s actually been added…

    sippitysup: well, with the study having headline results like that, how could I not?

  12. I absolutely love potatoes in their natural boiled state and hate them being tarnished in any way. Obviously deep-frying anything will have a bad effect! Great post :)

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