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Potatoes and Diabetes: Is there a Connection?

Are potatoes and diabetes really related? For many years, potatoes have been vilified to the point they have been called one of the possible causes of the dangerous condition. Of course, I know plenty of people that rarely eat potatoes and have diabetes.

Russet potatoes

On the other hand, I'm aware of people that have been eating potatoes every day for over 20 years and have a clean bill of health.

So is there any truth behind the statements? Well, let's dig deeper and see what we can find.

Do Potatoes Cause Diabetes?

It isn't a secret that a lot of people think that potatoes contribute to the development of diabetes. A few health professionals have been insisting for years that eating them for a prolonged period is one factor that may lead to diabetes, and they have cited a few studies to prove the validity of the statement.

One of them, the Nurses' Health Study, which was done with 84,550 women between the ages of 34 to 59 years old with no history of chronic disease, has been used time and time again as the number one evidence supporting the claim. The study concluded, "Our findings suggest a modest positive association between the consumption of potatoes and the risk of type 2 diabetes in women. This association was more pronounced when potatoes were substituted for whole grains.”

At first glance, the study seems rocksolid. While some claim the research done is indisputable, there are several questions about it that haven't been addressed. For example, What type of potatoes were used? How were they prepared? Which ingredients or extra toppings were added to them?

As stated in the study, participants chose between 1 baked or 1 cup of mashed potatoes or 4 oz of French fried potatoes. Those were the alternatives available. They could have used Russet, White, Red, Yukon gold, or any other type of potatoes.

Since each variety has different amounts of starch, it is hard to precise if it is a particular type the one more likely to contribute to diabetes. Additionally, and more importantly, no one questioned about the “extras” commonly used to prepare potatoes.

According to Jeff Novick, MS, RD butter, margarine, milk, cheese, and sour cream are just a few of the ingredients often used by people in the United States and other countries around the world to add flavor. These can double or even triple the calories served during the meal.

For instance, one medium baked potato contains approximately 161 calories, but a loaded baked potato from a restaurant can easily pack around 569 calories. The difference is huge.

So the potato itself might not be the problem, but the “extras” on them, and that's without mentioning the quality of the food.

There was no mention of organic potatoes or unprocessed toppings in the study, so it is safe to assume the participants cooked their meals with ingredients grown or manufactured using the conventional approach.

Are They the Same as Candy in the Blood?

Another popular belief is that GI (Glycemic Index) accurately measures the healthiness in food. Now, the concept of GI was introduced around the 1980's by David Jenkins, and it measures how fast blood sugar levels rise in the human body after consuming a meal containing 50 grams of carbohydrates. This measurement is then later compared to a standard such as glucose.

Logically, you would assume that anything with a low GI is ideal for people with diabetes since carbohydrates get absorbed much more slowly (resulting in lower glucose levels in the bloodstream). But in life, nothing is that simple. By that reasoning, chocolate cake with a GI of 38 is a healthier alternative than a baked potato with a value of 85. Surely, I don't think anyone would dare to make such a statement.

Chocolate brownie cake

Since GI by itself can't be used to determine how good or bad a particular food is, the concept of glycemic load was introduced. The glycemic load is determined by taking into consideration the GI and the amount of food consumed.

However, the amount and type of carbohydrates ingested can't be used solely as a tool to know whether a specific type of food will help or harm a person with diabetes as the insulin's response inside the body may vary depending on how the different components of a meal interact with each other.

Can Potatoes be Used to Lose Weight?

Without a doubt, one of the leading factors in developing type 2 diabetes is being overweight. As a matter fact, scientists believe is the number one element people who have diabetes have in common.

For years, it has been said that potatoes can make you gain weight in addition to contributing to the onset of diabetes. But what if I tell you that isn't necessarily true. What if you could eat potatoes and get in shape? If you like potatoes, I have good news for you. Researchers have found that potatoes may be part of a weight loss regime as long you eat them the right way.

In the study, 90 overweight participants were divided into three groups. All of them were to include healthy potato recipes in their diets and eat up to 7 servings per week. The two experimental groups had their calories restricted. One of them consumed high GI foods and the other low GI ones. The control group had no restrictions on calories in the diet. Over a 12 week period, all three groups lost weight.

The leading researcher Dr. Britt Burton-Freeman stated, “There is no evidence that potatoes, when prepared in a healthful manner, contribute to weight gain. In fact, we are seeing that they can be part of a weight loss program," said Burton-Freeman.” In other words, potatoes can help you lose weight as long as you don't overdo it with the toppings.

Should People with Diabetes Avoid Them?

One question floating in the minds of all people with diabetes is, Do they have to shun potatoes altogether? Well, there is no need for that. While it is true that potatoes are mostly carbohydrates and turn into sugar after breaking down due to their starchy nature, they are a remarkable source of vitamin B6 (26%), potassium (26%), vitamin C (22%), fiber (15%), protein (3g) and many more minerals.

Furthermore, after potatoes have been boiled and cooled down at room temperature, they develop a resistant starch which is a good source of nutrients for the good bacteria living in your digestive track. This starch boosts insulin sensitivity, stabilizing the sugar in your bloodstream. Moreover, there are a few varieties like the purple that contains up to 4 times the antioxidants found in the Russet potato and are less starchy making them an even healthier alternative.

In the following video, Dr. Mark Hyman explains the beneficial effects of starch from potatoes.

Since potatoes are jam-packed with complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and can even feed the beneficial bacteria living in your gut, it makes perfect sense for them to be part of a well-balanced diet. Remember, people with diabetes like everyone else need energy which is why they require carbohydrates like the ones found in potatoes.

How Can you eat Potatoes if you Have Diabetes?

The trick to enjoying delicious, healthy potato-based meals lies in controlling the portions and extra ingredients. You see, as long as you eat moderate amounts of potatoes (limit the frying to the minimum) without pouring a ton of cheese, margarine, butter, cream, milk, or any other highly processed topping, everything is going to be OK. For the most part, it is the extra ingredients and frying for too long that turn potatoes into a not so healthy food.

Consult with a nutritionist or dietitian about the number of carbohydrates you should be eating. Typically up to 30 grams of carbs per meal is acceptable for most people with diabetes. However, you should keep in mind that's just an estimate, and assessing your individual needs with a healthcare professional will help you keep your blood sugar under control.

Tips to Stabilize Your Blood Sugar:

  • A trick you can use to eat your potatoes and not be scared of a sugar spike is to accompany them with other vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, or chives to make it into a more filling dish. That way you will not feel the need to add anything that might jeopardize your health.

  • A small portion of chicken or fish may also slow down the carbohydrate absorption since protein and fats are digested more slowly than carbs (but don't overdo it).

  • Exercising moderately after a meal is an excellent idea as a good portion of the carbohydrates consumed are used as fuel by the body keeping sugar levels in check.

As long as you apply common sense to your potato dishes, you will be able to enjoy them without risking your well-being. Of course, always talk to your health professional about your food choices.



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