If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that potatoes are delicious. These all-star tubers are versatile enough to be both a main course and a side dish, and they can be prepared a number of ways — roasted, baked, mashed, fried… the possibilities are endless. However, nutritionists and doctors agree that we should eat them in moderation because they aren’t healthy. But just how unhealthy is a potato, really? According to recent research in Diabetes Care, a scientific journal published by the American Diabetes Association, potatoes don’t necessarily deserve their bad reputation.
Understanding the Research
In the study conducted at Edith Cowan University (ECU), researchers looked at the diets of 54,793 Danish participants between 50 and 64 years of age. (The participants were taking part in the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health (DDCH) cohort, a long-term study that analyzes the effects of diet on a person’s health.) All the participants completed a detailed questionnaire about their diet when they first entered the study. About 16 years later, the DDCH researchers followed up with the participants to learn more about their health and whether they developed any diseases.
The ECU researchers used this data to determine how many people developed type 2 diabetes, and whether diet had anything to do with it. Here’s what they found: Participants who ate the most vegetables tended to have lower BMIs. They were also 21 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. In addition, participants who ate the most potatoes (compared to those who ate the least) were 9 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. However, when the researchers adjusted for diet (they weeded out participants who ate unhealthy foods in general and unhealthy forms of potato, like French fries), they found no link between potato consumption and diabetes risk.
“In previous studies, potatoes have been positively linked to incidence of diabetes, regardless of how they’re prepared — but we found that’s not true,” said Mr. Pratik Pokharel, a PhD candidate who worked on the research, in a press release. “In Denmark, people consume potatoes prepared in many different ways; in our study, we could distinguish between the different preparation methods. When we separated boiled potatoes from mashed potatoes, fries or crisps, boiled potatoes were no longer associated with a higher risk of diabetes: They had a null effect.”
In other words, unhealthy dietary habits like eating butter, fried foods, and red meat are more likely to increase your risk of type 2 diabetes than eating plain potatoes, according to this research.
As with any study, this research had its limitations. The participants themselves reported their dietary patterns, so there is a chance that at least some of the data wasn’t accurate. In addition, the participants only took the diet questionnaire at the beginning of the study, not at the end — so the ECU researchers didn’t know whether those participants’ diets had changed over the years. As a result, there’s a chance that dietary changes may have affected the participants’ risk of type 2 diabetes.
Still, the study has merit, because most other long-term research on the health effects of eating potatoes has not differentiated between unhealthy (fried) and healthy (boiled) potatoes.
Ways To Make Potatoes Healthy (But Still Tasty)
Overall, the message of the research is clear: When you eat potatoes, do your best to eat them boiled and mashed, and not fried or covered in butter. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to live with bland potatoes for the rest of your life. Try these three tasty alternatives the next time you want potatoes for dinner:
- Serve baked potatoes with chives and plain Greek yogurt, rather than sour cream. Plain yogurt has a sour flavor and it’s high in protein — so it balances out carb-heavy potatoes.
- Spritz potato wedges with a small amount of oil, then air fry them instead of frying them. You’ll still get that delicious, crisp exterior.
- Craving potato chips? Oven-bake thinly-sliced potato with all your favorite seasonings rather than buying a bag of chips at the store. Chances are, your version will be more flavorful and less processed.