Potatoes are edible plant tubers first cultivated in the Andes region of South America. Spanish explorers brought the potato back to Europe from their South American expeditions in the early 16th century. Despite the potato's widespread popularity today, it was previously thought to be completely inedible and even poisonous.
Along with the tomato and eggplant, the potato plant belongs to the nightshade family, of which some species are truly poisonous. Today potatoes are one of the cheapest universal crops to produce and are available year-round.
It is often said that the key to getting an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals in the diet is to eat a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables - the more color, the better. However, this philosophy tends to leave potatoes in the dark. In many cases, if a food lacks color, it also lacks necessary nutrients. However, potatoes prove quite the contrary.
The humble potato is vastly underrated in terms of nutritional benefits. Due to the increased interest in foods that are low-carb or low-glycemic index, the potato has unjustly earned a bad reputation because of its starchy makeup, leading many to believe that it should be cut out of the diet altogether. What many people do not realize is that this nutrient-dense tuber is packed with a variety of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that ward off disease and benefit human health.
This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods.
Nutritional breakdown of potatoes
One medium potato contains 164 calories, 0.2 grams of fat, 0 grams of cholesterol, 37 grams of carbohydrate, 4.7 grams of dietary fiber and 4.3 grams of protein. The same serving also meets 2% of daily calcium needs, 51% vitamin C, 9% iron, 30% vitamin B-6, 12% magnesium and 25% of potassium needs. Potatoes also provide phosphorus, niacin, folate, choline and zinc.
The humble potato is vastly underrated in terms of nutritional benefits. Due to the increased interest in foods that are low-carb or low-glycemic index, the potato has unjustly earned a bad reputation.
Unlike processed potato products like french fries and potato chips, whole, unprocessed potatoes have very little sodium (only 13 milligrams, less than 1% of the suggested daily limit).
Potatoes also contain a compound known as alpha-lipoic acid, which helps the body to convert glucose into energy.
Some evidence suggests that alpha-lipoic acid can aid in blood glucose control, improve vasodilation and protect against retinopathy in diabetic patients and help preserve brain and nerve tissue.3
Quercetin, a flavonoid found in potato skin, possesses powerful anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidant capabilities that protect the body's cells from free radical damage.8
Possible health benefits of consuming potatoes
Consuming fruits and vegetables of all kinds has long been associated with a reduced risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions. Many studies have suggested that increasing consumption of plant foods like potatoes decreases the risk of obesity and overall mortality, diabetes, heart disease and promotes a healthy complexion and hair, increased energy, overall lower weight.
The iron, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium and zinc in potatoes all contribute to the building and maintaining of bone structure and strength.
Iron and zinc play crucial roles in the production and maturation of collagen.7 Though phosphorus and calcium are both important in bone structure, the careful balance of the two minerals is necessary for proper bone mineralization - consumption of too much phosphorus with too little calcium intake can result in bone loss.
Maintaining a low sodium intake is essential to lowering blood pressure, however increasing potassium intake may be just as important because of its vasodilation effects. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, fewer than 2% of US adults meet the daily 4700 mg recommendation.5
In addition, potassium, calcium and magnesium (all present in the humble potato) have been found naturally to decrease blood pressure.1
The potato's fiber, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin B-6 content, coupled with its lack of cholesterol, all support heart health.
Potatoes contain significant amounts of fiber, which helps lower the total amount of cholesterol in the blood, thereby decreasing the risk of heart disease. In one study, those who consumed 4069 mg of potassium per day had a 49% lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease compared to those who consumed less potassium (about 1000 mg per day).5
Vitamin B-6 prevents the buildup of a compound known as homocysteine. When excessive amounts of homocysteine accumulate in the body, it can damage blood vessels and lead to heart problems.
Choline is a very important and versatile nutrient in potatoes that helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning and memory. Choline also helps to maintain the structure of cellular membranes, aids in the transmission of nerve impulses, assists in the absorption of fat and reduces chronic inflammation.4
Potatoes contain folate, which plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair, thus preventing the formation of cancer cells from mutations in the DNA.6
Fiber intake from fruits and vegetables like potatoes are associated with a lowered risk of colorectal cancer. Vitamin C and quercetin function as powerful antioxidants that help protect cells against free radical damage.
Digestion and regularity
Because of their fiber content, potatoes help to prevent constipation and promote regularity for a healthy digestive tract.
Weight management and satiety
Dietary fibers are commonly recognized as important factors in weight management and loss by functioning as "bulking agents" in the digestive system. These compounds increase satiety and reduce appetite, making you feel fuller for longer and thereby lowering your overall calorie intake.
Potatoes are a great source of vitamin B-6, which plays a vital role in energy metabolism by breaking down carbohydrates and proteins into glucose and amino acids. These smaller compounds are more easily utilized for energy within the body.
Collagen, the skin's support system, relies on vitamin C as an essential nutrient that works in our bodies as an antioxidant to help prevent damage caused by the sun, pollution and smoke. Vitamin C also promotes collagen's ability to smooth wrinkles and improve overall skin texture.
How to incorporate more potatoes into your diet
Select potatoes that are firm, un-bruised and relatively smooth and round. Avoid potatoes that show any signs of decay, which may appear in the form of wet or dry rot. Also be sure that the potatoes are not sprouting or have green discoloration, as these are indicators of the presence of the toxic compound solanine. It is best to buy potatoes that are unpackaged and unwashed (premature washing removes the protective coating on potato skins) in order to avoid bacterial buildup.
Potatoes should be stored between 45-50 degrees F in a dark, dry environment such as a cellar or pantry. Exposure to sunlight can lead to the formation of solanine, and storing potatoes in the refrigerator causes their starch content to be converted to sugar, imparting an unpleasant flavor. Potatoes should also not be stored around onions because both vegetables emit natural gases that cause the other to decay. Fully grown potatoes have a shelf life of up to two months, but spoiled potatoes can negatively affect the other potatoes surrounding them. Remove rotted potatoes from the rest of the group to prevent further spoilage.
Since much of the vitamin, mineral and fiber content of potatoes are found in their skin, it is best to consume potatoes with the skin left on. Scrub potatoes under running water and remove any bruises or deep eyes with a paring knife. Use a stainless steel knife instead of carbon steel in order to prevent the metal from reacting with the phytochemicals in the vegetable, which may cause discoloration.
Boil potatoes then dice and mix with eggs, celery, onion and mayonnaise for a quick and easy potato salad.
- Roast or sauté potatoes with your favorite herbs and spices
- Cut a cooked potato in half and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving only the skin with some potato lining. Season the potato skins and after baking them, fill with whatever ingredients you like. Try plain Greek yogurt as a substitute for sour cream for an extra protein boost
- Boil potatoes and mash until smooth then add cream cheese and garlic for a boost of flavor
- Use potato flour as a gluten-free baking substitute
- Bake a whole potato and top with chili and shredded cheese
- Boil potatoes then dice and mix with eggs, celery, onion and mayonnaise for a quick and easy potato salad.
Try some of these healthy and delicious recipes using potatoes:Homemade BBQ Chips
Roasted Rainbow Potatoes
Stuffed Peppers and Potatoes
Quick and Easy Mexican Minestrone
Fire-Roasted Rosemary Vegetable Soup
Potential health risks of consuming potatoes
It is important not to consume potatoes that are sprouting or have green discoloration. These characteristics are indicators of the presence of solanine, a toxic compound that has been found to cause circulatory and respiratory problems, as well as headaches, muscle cramps and diarrhea.
Studies have shown that potatoes, when cooked above 120 degrees C (248 degrees F), produce a chemical known as acrylamide. This compound, which is found in plastics, glues, dyes and cigarette smoke, has been found to play a role in the development of several cancers. Acrylamide contains neurotoxic properties and may also have negative effects on genes and reproductive health. Fried potato products, such as potato chips and French fries, are relatively high in acrylamides (as well as fat and sodium), so it is best to avoid these foods.2
Beta-blockers, a type of medication most commonly prescribed for heart disease, can cause potassium levels to increase in the blood. High potassium foods like potatoes should be consumed in moderation when taking beta-blockers.
High levels of potassium in the body can pose a serious risk to those with kidney damage or kidneys that are not fully functional. Damaged kidneys may be unable to filter excess potassium from the blood, which could be fatal.
It is a total diet or overall eating pattern that is most important in disease prevention and achieving good health. It is better to eat a diet with a variety than to concentrate on individual foods as the key to good health.
Written by: Megan Ware, RDN, LD, registered dietitian and nutritionist