Why This Beloved Carb Is Actually Kind Of Good For You

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
We need to talk about the starch hierarchy (hier-starchy?) of Thanksgiving dinner. There's the stuffing, adored by many but still kind of random; the sweet potato casserole, which may or may not be a dessert in disguise; then the mashed potatoes, beloved by all but given an unfortunate reputation because they're "not healthy." But the thing is, potatoes have way more to offer than their reputation suggests, and they may be good for you after all.
To get the no-gravy truth, I turned to Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition. She emphatically replied in an email, "YES! I love this because I love potatoes!" So, there you go.
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According to Harbstreet, many people decidedly swear off potatoes because they believe they're too high in carbs (which, FYI, your body needs in order to function), and thus spuds have been blamed for causing weight gain or health issues. "In the context of a balanced diet, though, potatoes can absolutely earn a place on your plate," she says.
What exactly is in the flesh of a potato, from a nutritional perspective? "Potassium is sometimes highlighted as the nutrient superstar for potatoes," Harbstreet says. We need potassium to regulate our blood pressure and keep our nerves and muscles functioning. But Harbstreet likes to remind clients that potatoes also contain a small amount of plant-based iron, which is especially important for women, she says. "Eating one potato won't meet your daily requirements, but it can be one ingredient to include that boosts your iron intake," she says. Plus, potatoes also have some B vitamins and a little bit of vitamin C. (For a refresher on what exactly those vitamins do, click here.)
Potato skin, on the other hand, contains extra fiber, plus nutrients like iron, potassium, and magnesium. "I always advocate for eating the potato skin," she says. Try mixing it into "dirty mashed potatoes" or serving potatoes roasted to cash in on the skin, she adds. Baked potatoes are also great, because they can be prepared ahead of time and eaten as a snack or simple meal, she says.
"As with any food, it also matters what you eat with it," she says. "Adding lots of extra salt or sugar to any food can diminish its nutritional value and potatoes are no different." There may already be a strict potato-prep plan in place for your Thanksgiving dinner, but Harbstreet suggests roasting them with other non-starchy vegetables to "increase variety in your diet."
If you've been led to believe that regular potatoes are the devil, and sweet potatoes are way better for you, that's not necessarily true, either. "When comparing to sweet potatoes, I'll use the term 'different' rather than 'better,'" she says. When it comes down to it, sweet potatoes technically have more vitamin A, but lower levels of minerals than regular ones. And sweet potatoes also have fewer total carbs than white potatoes, but more of those grams come from sugar, she says. In others words, potato-potato.
The bottom line to remember this Thanksgiving — and all year 'round — is that no one food is terrible for you, and some demonized ones like potatoes can have nutritional value. If someone tries to question your mashed potato volcano at dinner, keep in mind that there's probably something else going on that they're mad about. Chances are there's going to be enough fake news flying across your dinner table this year, anyway; the potatoes, at least, can stay firmly on your plate.
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