Don’t skip the spuds this holiday: Why the humble potato deserves a spot at your table

Bags of potatoes at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo., on Feb. 8.David Zalubowski/The Associated Press

Potatoes are bound to end up on your dinner plate this holiday season, whether served mashed, scalloped, roasted or as traditional latkes.

White potatoes, long considered the “white bread” of vegetables, are often thought to be lacking nutrients and unhealthy. Some research has even suggested that a steady intake of potatoes increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

A new study, however, published Dec. 5 in the journal Diabetes Care, suggests the humble potato isn’t to blame. Rather, it’s the way they’re prepared that matters – creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, French fries and potato chips were linked to an increased diabetes risk, albeit a small one.

Don’t this let study – which has several limitations – steer you away from your favourite holiday potato dish. My holiday menu will include scalloped potatoes (made with heavy cream!) and I’ll enjoy every bite. It’s a once or twice a year treat in my overall healthy diet.

Potato nutrition

Potatoes are a worthy of addition to your regular diet – minus the scads of butter and cream, of course. Here’s a guide to their redeeming nutritional qualities and how to add them to your menu.

High-starch potatoes

Russet potatoes, often thought of as the classic potato, are high in starch and, as a result, they absorb water easily when boiled and lose their shape.

Russets are best for baking. They’re also great for scalloped potatoes and for thickening soups. If using russets for mashed potatoes, consider steaming them instead of boiling to prevent them from absorbing too much water.

One medium-baked russet potato (173 g) has 164 calories, 33 g of carbohydrate and 4 g of fibre along with a decent amount of vitamin C, folate and magnesium. It also delivers an impressive amount of potassium – 952 mg. Daily requirements for this blood-pressure-regulating mineral are 3,400 and 2,600 mg for males and females, respectively.

Medium starch potatoes

Yukon Gold, white potatoes and purple potatoes have less starch than russets so they hold their shape better when boiled. Known as “all-purpose” potatoes, they’re great boiled, steamed, mashed, baked or in a gratin.

One small Yukon Gold potato (128 g) has 128 calories, 26 g of carbohydrate, 3 g of fibre and 738 mg of potassium. It’s also a good source of vitamin C, providing 22 per cent of a day’s worth.

Low starch potatoes

Red potatoes, new (baby) potatoes and fingerling potatoes, considered waxy potatoes, have the lowest amount of starch and hold their shape well when cooked.

Use waxy potatoes for soups, stews and Niçoise salads. Serve them boiled, steamed or roasted.

Like starchy potatoes, these spuds deliver fibre, vitamin C, folate, magnesium and plenty of potassium.

Sweet potatoes and yams

The terms “yam” and “sweet potatoes” are often used interchangeably but they’re two different vegetables with unique nutrient profiles.

The sweet potato is related to the morning glory; it has an orange flesh and its skin can be white, yellow, orange or purple.

Yams belong to the lily family. The colour of their flesh varies from ivory to yellow to purple. They’re long and cylindrical and their skin has a rough and scaly texture.

Thanks to their brightly coloured flesh, sweet potatoes are an outstanding source of beta-carotene, an antioxidant thought to guard against cardiovascular disease. One medium baked sweet potato (114 g) delivers 13 mg of beta-carotene; one cup of cooked yams has only 1 mg. Experts recommend consuming 3 to 6 mg of beta-carotene daily to reap its health benefits.

Yams outrank sweet potatoes when it comes to potassium. One cup of cooked yams supplies 911 mg of the mineral while one medium baked sweet potato has 542 mg, still a generous amount.

If you haven’t yet tried Japanese purple sweet potatoes, consider adding them to your menu. Besides fibre, vitamins A and C, iron and manganese, their vibrant purple flesh is an excellent source of anthocyanins, phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Healthier holiday spuds

If you’re looking for ways to decrease calories and fat in traditional mashed potatoes, use Yukon Gold potatoes instead of russets. Their buttery flavour and creamy texture allows you to use less butter.

Add flavour with fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme or chives. Or mash a head of roasted garlic in your potatoes.

Consider making a flavourful root vegetable mash that includes potatoes. You won’t need much butter and you don’t need to add any cream. Tasty and nutritious combinations include potato-turnip, potato-parsnip and potato-celeriac (celery root).

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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