Susannah Taylor: Why I love the humble spud

The poor potato has been cast aside in recent years in favour of trendier plate-fillers such as quinoa and bulgur wheat. Rarely these days will you see a ‘fitfluencer’ on Instagram eating a baked spud for lunch or a nutritionist tucking into a few king edwards. But why? The potato has been a staple and affordable part of our diets for centuries and every nutritionist’s golden rule is that most foods straight from the earth are good for us. So why is the humble potato no longer seen as a health food?

are potatoes good for you
Image: David Yenni. Stylist: Sairey Stemp.

Over recent years, the popularity of low-carb, high-protein diets has potentially put the potato back under ground. Nutritional therapist Amelia Freer says that studies showing a potential link between potatoes and obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease may be to blame. However, the reports are often confused by lack of detail on cooking methods.

Another reason for their fall from popularity is that potatoes are classed as a starchy food and not one of your five a day. Amelia says that potatoes contain high levels of simple carbohydrates, which are converted to sugars during digestion and can therefore have an impact on blood sugar levels. In short, spuds are now associated with couch potatoes.

However, if eaten in moderation and cooked correctly, there is a stack of goodness in a spud. ‘Potatoes contain vitamins C, B1, B5 and B6, potassium, fibre and magnesium,’ says Amelia.

Nutritional therapist Nicola Moore is a big potato fan and eats them regularly. ‘Studies show that potatoes can also be helpful in supporting a reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol,’ she says. And, she adds, the resistant starch in potatoes provides a fuel source for gut bacteria, which support our whole body’s health. ‘Potatoes make a useful contribution to a healthy diet,’ she says. ‘Their fibre content means they are useful for keeping us fuller for longer.’

This is not to say that you can consider a family-size pack of Kettle Chips a superfood. Potatoes are good for you when they haven’t been highly processed. There is nothing wrong, therefore, with a good old-fashioned baked spud. Am I allowed butter, I ask Nicola? ‘I’m a big fan of butter on jacket potatoes,’ she says (phew). ‘I look to buy unpasteurised butter, because this adds a probiotic element which, mixed with the prebiotic potato, is a winning combination for gut bacteria.’ Both Amelia and Nicola recommend pairing the potato with protein (such as tuna, cheese or egg), which will slow the absorption of the carbohydrates and ensure your blood sugar levels are stabilised.

Probably the biggest problem with potatoes is that they’re easily consumed in high quantities. ‘Try to stick to a moderate portion size,’ says Amelia, ‘which is about two egg-sized potatoes or one medium jacket potato.’

And with so many types on the supermarket shelves, should we go for jersey royals or maris pipers? ‘Potatoes contain phytonutrients,’ says Amelia. ‘Red, russet and purple potatoes, for example, may contain more anthocyanins (a pigment that has antioxidant effects), while yellow-fleshed varieties may contain more carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin (important for eye health).’

The big win is new potatoes, which Nicola tells me contain more of a slower-digested starch than bigger varieties. And, says Amelia, they also have a higher ratio of skin to flesh, and therefore more fibre. Our mums were right – the skin is the best bit.

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