In Praise of Potatoes

[Courtesy of ArePotatoesHealthy.com]

I have a friend who read my Goodreads review of the Gary Taubes' book Why We Get Fat (which I post below), got inspired, and went on an Atkins-y carb-free diet. Mind you, she's not overweight, swims in a Masters program, and seems in no imminent danger of succumbing to metabolic syndrome. Has she lost weight? Yes. Can she keep it up forever? I sure hope not. Not because I mind anyone losing weight or trying to avoid future diabetes, but because life without carbs is so very tiresome. I don't just mean life without Girl Scout cookies and pie, but also life without pad thai, whole wheat artisan bread, carrots, and potatoes.

Poor potatoes.

In just about every recent diet-and-nutrition book, potatoes are villains. Starchy and simple and too often deep-fried, they usually get the axe. It wasn't always so.

As Charles C. Mann notes in his fascinating book 1493 (which I gifted my brother-in-law on Kindle for Christmas and which he has yet to claim--but that's a different story),

Many scholars believe that the introduction of S. tuberosum to Europe was a key moment in history. This is because their widespread consumption largely coincided with the end of famine in northern Europe...More than that, the celebrated historian William H. McNeill has argued, S. tuberosum led to empire: "[P]otatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950." Hunger's end helped create the political stability that allowed European nations to take advantage of American silver. The potato fueled the rise of the West.

Potato as famine-fighter and instrument of colonialist power! In fact, as Mann goes on to discuss, the massive failure of the potato crop during Ireland's great famine (which spawned waves of emigration), was largely traceable to that agricultural bugaboo, monoculture. Grow just one kind of potato and, if that one variety proves vulnerable to a particular blight, you're toast. Or starving, as the case may be.

In Thomas Jefferson's Creme Brulee author Thomas J. Craughwell notes that potatoes "became a mainstay on Spanish ships" because the potato "prevented scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, which was rampant among seafarers"! Forget the morning grapefruit! Maybe we should start the day with a nice baked potato. While many European monarchs embraced the potato's filling and healthsome virtues, some still regarded it with suspicion, not because they feared diabetes and belly fat, but because they thought it might cause everything from tuberculosis to leprosy. It took an evangelist like Antoine-Augustin Parmentier to change the tide of public opinion. During the Seven Years' War (1756-63), he survived as a POW entirely on potatoes. He thereafter won over Louis XVI, and Napoleon later even awarded Parmentier the Legion of Honor. (Click the Parmentier link for a Potatoes Parmentier recipe.) By the time Jefferson arrived in France, potatoes were well-established in both Europe and America, but one recipe he and his slave/pseudo-brother-in-law James Hemings brought back was for fried potatoes, better known as French fries.

With such an astounding worldwide impact and who's-who history, it's time to restore the potato's nutritional pedigree. According to the Washington State Potatoes site, no matter the outer/inner color, potatoes are a rich source of potassium and contain decent amounts of iron, fiber, and protein. Not to mention 45% of the USDA recommended daily allowance of that old scurvy-killer, Vitamin C. So don't class our poor potatoes with sugar and white flour! Boil or bake them, leave the skins on and enjoy.

(As promised, however, here's that book review, just so you don't run out and supersize that fry order:

Very compelling, well-argued and well-researched discussion of why we gain weight. As recent research has shown, it's not from the fat in our diets, and that nonfat/low-fat craze failed to reduce the incidence of heart disease. Taubes points the finger instead at carbohydrates. YES, that includes sugar, as Lustig targets in FAT CHANCE, but when it comes to trying to derail the runaway train of weight gain, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and the suite of "Western diseases," Taubes doesn't like many other carbs either. Not even whole grains or fruits. Super bummer.

My Kindle tells me I highlighted and bookmarked 26 pages of notes(!), but I'll try to hit some highlights for you:

- Weight is NOT about calories in/calories out, and trying to take fewer in or burn more.

- Exercise may have benefits, but they don't include weight loss, generally. When you use lots of energy exercising, your body compensates by making you hungrier so you eat more and/or lowering the amount of energy you burn at rest.

- Fatness is not about lack of willpower or other psychological problems. It's a physiological defect in how our bodies regulate fat tissue.

- Fatty acids flow in and out of our cells, but when they bind with a triglyceride within a fat cell, they're then too big to get back out. They are stored!

- If insulin levels are high (from processing carbohydrates), fatty acids are not taken up to be burned by muscle cells and end up back in the fat tissue. Insulin also suppresses the enzyme HSL whose role it is to break down triglycerides in fat cells and bring those fatty acids out of storage.

- Because insulin prevents the body burning fat for fuel, our cells think they're starved and make us eat even more. And the more fat we put on, the higher our fuel requirements.

- When insulin levels are consistently elevated, insulin resistance results. This triggers "'lipid' abnormalities"--low HDL, high triglycerides, and small, dense (plaque-causing) LDL. In other words, metabolic syndrome.

- Metabolic syndrome is tied not only to obesity and diabetes and heart attacks, but also Alzheimer's and most cancers.

Taubes' recommendation: cut the carbs, all or most of them. When it comes to meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, go for it. Green vegetables are fine, as is cheese.

What I really wish the book would talk about--and I kept reading anxiously to see the topic addressed--was how on earth this meat-heavy, Atkins'-y diet could work nowadays, except for the fairly wealthy. There are just too many people on the planet for us all to eat this way, and if we did, there would be no planet left to speak of. Taubes didn't object to corn-fed beef, but he never addresses the environmental consequences. I suppose fruits and vegetables are pretty darned expensive, too, so switching from some of them to more meat might come out in the wash, but many people can afford neither the meat nor the produce. Just the cheap carbs. Therein, I suppose, lies the problem. If we could get the government subsidies away from grains and sugars and into meats and green vegetables...yeah, right. About as likely as me giving up carbs entirely!)