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December 6, 2012

Lori Brothers on Healthy Living: It’s time to talk potatoes

NEW CASTLE — I bring up the potato because around the holidays, I have very interesting “food” conversations with people. Mashed potatoes, cheesey potatoes, scalloped potatoes, french fries, and buttered parsely potatoes all rank high on the sentimental “taste buds scale.”  

Is your mouth watering? Or do you just feel a sense of warm affection just at the thought of potatoes?

The overall feedback suggests that it’s really more about the comfort that potatoes deliver. Whether they are baked, boiled, fried, even microwaved, the general concensus is that potatoes belong on the plate as a favorite food. One friend at work, Jackie, said when she goes out to eat, she orders off the menu based on whether it comes with potatoes.

From birth to about the age of 40, I had the same love affair with potatoes that many of you have. It was a sad day when I decided that I would forgo the long-term relationship with potatoes as a mainstay.

I aligned myself with more whole food and a lifestyle plan that includes brown rice, whole wheat pasta and other grains like quinoa and barley. I haven’t eliminated them, but I’ve chosen not to choose potatoes too often. (The exception is the occasional potato chip binge.)  

Let’s look at the overall data on potatoes. The good news is that there is nutritional value if you don’t overeat potatoes. There are some interesting things to note about preparation. And I also discovered that you are better off eating potatoes at home instead of eating them out. Who knew?

If you eat the skin, potatoes are a good source of fiber, vitamin C and potassium. Potatoes protect against colon cancer, relieve intestinal toxemia and constipation (they draw water into the colon), and are good overall for the digestive system since potatoes “pass through” easily.

The starchiness of potatoes helps with satiety, meaning they keep you feeling full. I think this explains that fondness that makes potatoes so popular. The sense of fullness can also feel like contentment.

The alarm is raised when it comes to the way you cook a potato. Baking or frying at high heat activates acrylamides, a compound shown to cause cancer. (This makes my potato chip binging a little scary.) It has not been determined exactly how much of this chemical is harmful to humans.

Since we tend to eat more french fries and baked potatoes when ordering out, we are upping the risk of ingesting cancer-causing chemicals. Eating mashed potatoes, out or at home, is the exception because they are boiled in the cooking process — just watch the butter, cheese and full-fat sour cream. Believe it or not, it has been determined that a microwaved potato is safe, and does not contain acrylamides.

People often wonder if potatoes with green skin are good or bad. Potatoes grow underground. The ones that get exposed to the sun get “sunburned.”  The sun increases chlorophyll production, which causes the green tint. Chlorophyll is not harmful but another chemical called solanine also is developed when potatoes are exposed to the sun.

If you are sensitive to solanine, you may notice an upset stomach. Research shows that solanine can irritate the stomach lining and can upset irritable bowel disorders. There has been no clinical proof, but some people claim they feel an increase in arthritis pain if they potatoes with green skin. Keep your potatoes away from the sun!   

Potatoes also improve the body’s tolerance for glucose, and insulin sensitivity. This helps maintain your sugar levels, which keeps the brain from getting tired. This chocks up another point for why we associate comfort with potatoes.

I say eat potatoes, and enjoy them wisely.

(Lori Brothers is the director of The Dean Ornish Program For Reversing Heart Disease at Jameson Hospital, www.jamesonhealth.org)

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