“What we need is a few good taters.”
“Po-ta-toes! Boil them, mash them, stick them in a stew. Lovely big golden chips with a nice piece of fried fish.”
Sam – Lord of The Rings
I know a few of you are already considering not reading further. Potatoes have become vilified in many fad diets as evil, starchy vegetables that will make you fat! Those darn carbohydrates. Others shun potatoes because they are a member of the nightshade family and can aggravate certain inflammatory conditions. While both of these assertions hold some truth they overlook the many numerous benefits that potatoes offer. Before you toss your taters in the bin, read on to see why potatoes are a staple in mine and many other kitchens.
A bit about potatoes –
Solanum tuberosum, our humble potato, is fourth largest produced food crop in the world falling behind, rice, wheat and maize. Originally from the Andes, the Inca Indians were the first people recorded to have cultivated potatoes. Dating back to 8,000 BC, there are an estimated 4000+ varieties of edible potatoes and they are now the most eaten vegetable in the world. To be correct, potatoes are tubers, like yams and taro. They grow underground and have flowering tops – but that’s still a veg. The total global crop production exceeds 300 million metric tons and potatoes are very likely to be one of the most important food crops as the world faces food security issues and our population grows. Why? Potatoes are relatively easy to grow and require less effort to grow, process and store compared to other major staple crops. A single acre planted with potatoes is estimated to be able to provide much of the nutrition needed for 10 people. My meager number of plants can produce a ridiculous number of lovely little potatoes from early summer to early autumn. I pull the plant up, pluck off the potatoes I want and then bury the plant again giving it a chance to produce more potatoes before finally pulling the plant in early autumn. So generous!
How did potatoes get to North America?
Enter the Spanish Conquistadors, again. In 1536, with their conquest of Peru they returned to Europe with treasures from the Andes including potatoes. Although, not hugely loved at first, the Basque sailors along the Bay of Biscay would start cultivating potatoes and including them as a staple in their diet by the end of the 16th century. It would take another 40 or so years before Europe as a whole began to embrace the humble tater.
However, it’s actually the Irish Immigrants that we owe our thanks to for bringing the potato to North America. In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh brought potatoes to Cork, Ireland. He started a modest little potato plot – some 40,000 acres. Soon the potato would be come the main food staple of the Irish people. The blight outbreak of the 1840’s would destroy most of the potato crops in Ireland and into the European mainland. As the potato had become the main source of food for the poor and working class, they had to either choose to struggle in their homeland to survive or to emigrate. Nearly a million Irish died of disease and starvation while another million fled Ireland for the United States and Canada. Those that came to North America before and during the famine brought with them some healthy, happy potatoes starts. Thank you!
Western nutritional highlights of potatoes
Potatoes are high in fiber – which is essential for your Colon and bowel health. They are very low in sodium and rich in nutrients. A medium potato – we’re not talking a huge Idaho Russet – holds a mere 100-150 calories and contains vitamins B, C, folic acids, pantothenic acid, thiamine, niacin and fair amounts of magnesium, manganese, iron and zinc. Potatoes are famously abundant in potassium – a mineral that aids in reducing cramping, muscle tension and calms and relaxes.
Potatoes are a “resistant” form of starch. Pardon? Resistant starch is a relatively new term. Basically, I believe it’s a pivot on the term of complex carbohydrate to help people come back to understanding the importance of fiber rich whole foods. The terms “starch” and “carbohydrate” have been misused in numerous fad diets to the peril of our blood sugar, enzyme balance and colon health. Resistant starches do not break down fully in the small intestines, rather they move into the large intestines where they ferment and serve as prebiotic for the gut bacteria. This is true of all fiber rich forms of whole foods – lentils, legumes, roots, and whole grains. We aren’t talking “whole wheat bread” we are talking about actual whole cooked oats or wheat. They take time to cook and digest. Just the way the body likes them. Find out more about pre and probiotic foods.
Yes, overeating too many potatoes can help you gain weight, especially if you load them up with sour cream. I sometimes recommend clients to eat potatoes to help them gain weight. However most people can eat a serving size of potatoes regularly without it affecting their weight. A serving is about 1 to 1 1/2 cups, often far less than most people pile onto their plates at Thanksgiving.
Potatoes can also aid in weight loss. While Clara and I were in Ireland, getting her settled for her freshman year at college, Gary was playing with the Martian diet – as demonstrated by Matt Damon in the Martian movie – but without the Vicodin. He literally ate just three medium sized potatoes with a bit of butter or ketchup for 2 weeks and lost weight. On the other hand, Clara and I were wandering through Dublin in search of Irish stew and potatoes for comfort and some much needed energy. Now let’s look at potatoes the the lens of Asian energetics!
Asian energetics of potatoes
Applying the principles and theories of Asian medicine (Chinese medicine) gives us a different view of potatoes as a nutritious and healing food. This is essentially the thermodynamics of a food – how does it effect on the body after eaten it? Do they heat, do they cool? Which organs do they specifically benefit?
Potatoes have a Sweet, neutral temperature and enter the Earth organs – Potatoes are the Goldylocks food. Not too heating or too cooling, making them a perfect food for many people. They can benefit those who have heat conditions like high blood pressure and those that are cold like chronic fatigue or Yang collapse. Potatoes enter the Late Summer and Earth Element’s organs, the Stomach and Spleen and pancreas. They calm, sedate and help the person feel connected and receptive to those around them. They literally and metaphorically root us.
Potatoes moisten the intestines and gently nourish Yin – Their soft, easy to absorb form of complex carbohydrate soothes the intestines and nourishes the Yin aspect of the Stomach and Kidneys. They help move the bowels, especially if eaten with the peel. Their Yin nature helps to counter jet lag and the fatigue and weariness that comes from our stressed out hi-tech culture (Yang) culture. On the other hand, too many potatoes can too greatly increase Yin, making you gain weight and become lazy. Again, a serving is about the size of the palm of your hand.
Potatoes reduce inflammation and neutralize acidic conditions – Potatoes have been used for centuries both internally and topically to reduce inflammation. Topically, they are applied either as a raw poultice or juice to reduce sun burns, burns and swellings. Internally, the raw juice is consumed to reduce ulcers and to lower blood pressure. If you don’t have a juicer, just peel a potato, grate it and press it through a cloth or strainer. The fresh juice also helps balance the intestinal flora making it great for all forms of Colon conditions including IBS.
High acidic conditions in the body, caused by highly refined and processed foods can lead to arthritic and rheumatic conditions. Potatoes added to the diet can be a huge benefit in reducing the high acid levels and relieving pain.
Which type of potato is the best potato?
This is a matter of personal preference. I favor the buttery richness of the Yukon golds and don’t actually like the taste and flavor of the Idaho Russets that my state is so famous for. The little reds are lovely, the Peruvian blues a delightful change from from the norm. Even in our culture which has a limited number of varieties of potatoes to choose from (barely a dozen) there is likely a variety that appeals to you. I don’t know where my kitchen and cooking would be without potatoes. I regularly recommend them for children, especially those that have problems settling down or “grounding” – mashed potatoes with a little broth or butter for fat and protein, a wee bit of salt to descend the Qi, the potassium and grounding nature of the potato and often the child calms right down and rests. Clara, who is away at college, keeps them as a regular part of her diet. Okay, she is in Ireland, the other place with rocks and potatoes so they are common there but they serve both as an excellent form of nutrition and a lovely comfort food and they are very inexpensive.
The trouble with potatoes – a few concerns for a strong food
“I know, potatoes are bad for me, right?” I hear this question often and it needs re-framing. In my mind, bad food is either that which has rotted or been manufactured. If grandma can recognize it, as it came from a plant, animal, etc. If there is a historical tradition of using it and raising it – then no, it’s not bad. Whether or not it is right for you, right now is a more appropriate question. In other words, whole real foods aren’t “bad” but they may not be the best choice for our body in its current condition.
Potatoes are a member of the solanacae (deadly nightshade) family along with eggplants and tomatoes. This automatically puts them in the allergy sensitivity category. Choose your potatoes wisely, avoid those that are turning green or have sprouted as they can become toxic at this stage and move from being able to reduce inflammation to aggravating or triggering it. If you have chronic inflammatory conditions like arthritis and be certain your potatoes aren’t green or sprouted. Those will best serve you either in the compost bin or I tend to just toss them into a whole in the garden and let them produce other happy little potatoes for me.
Potatoes and pesticides and chemicals – Potatoes are very thin skinned and will soak up whatever they are sprayed with – even if that spray is above the ground. Try to find organic potatoes whenever possible.
Eat your potato peels – Potatoes are one of the most nutritious foods in the world and eaten with their peel they have a high level of fiber to regulate your blood sugar and bowels. Unfortunately, some people have extremely compromised digestive systems and simply cannot eat seeds and peels.
How to used potatoes – so many choices!
- Boil them – even more Yin nourishing and best for those who are dry and dehydrated.
- Bake them – honestly, the large bakers are 2 -2 1/2 servings for the average person, so share or save some for later.
- Roast them with other roots and your favorite oil and spices and a kiss of vinegar or lemon.
- Bake them twice – fun for breakfasts, lunches and little holiday get-together. Bake them, cool them, cut them in half. Scoop out the center, leaving enough in the potato skin to hold its form. Mix the potato with plain yogurt or sour cream, some green onions, salt pepper, maybe a litter butter, sprinkle with a bit of cheese and bake them again.
- Make hashed browns or potato pancakes – I like to bake up a several potatoes at a time. Just quickly rinse them, poke a hole in them so they don’t explode and roast on a sheet in the oven at 400º for about an hour. They can hang out on the kitchen counter for days. grab one and grate it to make hashbrowns for breakfast or to make potato pancakes.
- Use them to thicken soups.
- Poulitces of raw grated potatoes are used to draw out abscesses, swellings and to reduce the inflammation of heat on the skin caused by sun burns and burns. The poultice is still used in some countries for headaches, by applying it to the temples.
- Internally the raw juice is used to reduce high blood pressure and sedate intestinal heat and inflammations, cholecystitis, pancreatitis and other acute digestive problems and at room temperature. Why room temperature? I rarely recommend raw foods, but when I do I specify room temperature. Your refrigerator are 50-60° colder than your body and that requires a lot of Yang to heat the food up, excess cold damages the tissues of the body – poor throat and stomach – and extinguishes the Yang of the Spleen and Kidney. Brrr…