Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Redeeming one of the season's favorites: the potato

As a journalist, I sometimes come across stories that almost seem to write themselves.

That's how I felt when I heard about Chris Voigt, the executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, and his successful attempt to eat nothing but potatoes for 60 days. For Thanksgiving, he actually celebrated with a mound of potatoes, molded into the shape of a turkey, because he was determined to make a statement about how healthy potatoes really are.

He has an interesting theory as to why his stunt diet led to hundreds of media requests from all over the world. (I interviewed him shortly after he returned to his office after appearing with Matt Lauer on NBC's The Today Show.) He believes people like potatoes so much that they enjoy seeing them vindicated.

With all the sugar and salt-laden foods out there, and the popularity of carbs made by extruding paste through a machine (as is the case with most pasta) I share the view that the lowly potato seems to get unfairly picked on. After all, it is produced by a plant that grows in the earth, and there's no mistaking it's earthiness.

In one of my favorite nutrition books of recent years, The Jungle Effect: A Doctor Discovers the Healthiest Diets from Around the World — Why they Work and How to Bring Them Home, Daphne Miller devotes a chapter to the Icelandic diet, which is high in potatoes but results in a population with exceptionally low rates of depression. She draws an interesting connection between the sensory pleasure associated with consuming a food and the creation of mood-enhancing hormones that act like an antidepressant. She also offers several helpful tips for making the consumption of potatoes as healthy as possible. Start by choosing the smaller waxy-textured versions rather than the big conventional baking potato. (Local farms like Venetucci grew some fabulous multicolored spuds this past year.) Pre-cooking and then cooling them before eating, as is the case in making a potato salad, lowers their glycemic index considerably. Eating them whole (and with the skin) rather than mashed also yields benefits. And finally, adding a touch of vinegar also appears to have positive health attributes.

One revealing aspect of Chris' "diet" was that he had to eat 20 potatoes a day just to try to maintain his weight. While potatoes are filling (so filling it's hard to imagine eating 20 of them) they are actually relatively low in calories at 110 per average sized vegetable. Yes, it's easy to exceed this by heaping on the toppings, like cheese and butter. Still, Chris found it difficult to maintain his weight and actually lost 21 pounds over the 60 days.

An obvious alternative — that yields similar eating pleasure — is the sweet potato. According to 50 Secrets of the World's Longest Living People by Sally Beare, sweet potatoes are one of the most nutrient-packed vegetables you can find. They offer a similar smooth and hearty consistency to a potato with less carbohydrate and even more nutrients, including the beta carotene that gives them their cheery orange color.

With Christmas only hours away, I'm thinking about how potatoes are an affordable indulgence. Since Colorado is one of the largest producers, you can always get them locally grown. Mashed potatoes seem practically inevitable next to an equally decadent slice of meltingly tender Callicrate Beef prime rib. And how many Christmas Eve traditions involve a hearty ethnic soup (such as a creamy clam chowder) enhanced by the presence of potatoes?

Here's to enjoying all the blessings of the holiday season... and refusing to condemn potatoes, eggs, red meat, real butter, whipped cream and the other various villains out there that in fact have plenty of redeeming qualities and have fed humans well for centuries.