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Hold the Spuds, Say Harvard Researchers

Hold the Spuds, Say Harvard Researchers

Pity the humble potato.

A new study by researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has found that increased intake of potatoes is more associated with weight gain than consumption of other foods. The researchers found that just one extra serving of spuds (served any style, boiled, baked, fried, mashed with reams of butter and garlic) caused more weight gain than an extra 12-ounce can of a sugary drink or that “one more” helping of red or processed meats.

Three separate cohorts of 120,877 U.S. women and men who were free of chronic diseases and not obese at baseline were involved in the study. Changes in lifestyle factors and weight change were evaluated at four-year intervals. Within each of those four-year periods, the researchers found that that participants gained an average of 3.35 lb and that:

on the basis of increased daily servings of individual dietary components, 4-year weight change was most strongly associated with the intake of potato chips (1.69 lb), potatoes (1.28 lb), sugar-sweetened beverages (1.00 lb), unprocessed red meats (0.95 lb), and processed meats (0.93 lb) and was inversely associated with the intake of vegetables (0.22 lb), whole grains (0.37 lb), fruits (0.49 lb), nuts (0.57 lb), and yogurt (0.82 lb) (0.005 for each comparison).

Ok, so it does seem that eating your potatoes fried rather than plain old boiled can result in gaining 0.41 lb.

A Los Angeles Times assessment of the study pinpoints the potato as “Public Enemy No. 1 in America’s battle of the bulge,” even though the American Heart Association has named the potato as “heart healthy” food. This is not good news to the typical American who consumes 117 pounds of potatoes each year, 41 pounds of which are in the form of “previously frozen French fries”; only 28 percent of the total consumed are fresh potatoes. As the Los Angeles Times continues (with a nod to the potato industry):

Making matters worse, potatoes pack a lot of calories into a relatively small package, said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s lead author. A large baked potato — without any fixings — will set you back about 278 calories, and a serving of French fries contains between 500 and 600 calories. That makes the 140 calories in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola or the 150 calories in a Pepsi look puny….

Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, said that if the researchers wanted to figure out what was behind the obesity crisis, they should have examined “onion rings, deep-fried pickles or any other food that is fried.” Potatoes “stand up very well in terms of nutritional value per dollar input into the soil,” he said, and they are “one of the most nutritional foods you can eat.”

It must be noted that it’s when you eat that extra serving of spuds that more weight gain can result. Personally, I do have a limit to my own potato consumption and can forego the extra serving. For one thing, I’m Asian and potatoes were a rarity in our household when I was growing up; my sister and I considered the occasional pan of scalloped potatoes a treat from the daily grind of rice, rice, rice. But I’m just not inclined to pile on the potatoes, in contrast to my Irish American husband’s family: the one dish that was made from scratch at get-togethers was the mashed potatoes.

We now have a teenage son who pretty much seems to consider potatoes (in the fries form) a separate food group; who knows how many servings a day he could eat. Charlie is growing so he can (for the moment) afford the calories. Also, he’s extremely active physically — biking, walking, running (sprinting really), swimming or some combination of all of those every day — and exercise is also noted in the NEJM as a factor in weight loss. In keeping with the newly revised USDA food plate, fruits and vegetables also get a big thumbs up, notes the Los Angeles Times:

…eating an additional daily serving of fruit was associated with half a pound of weight loss over four years, and an extra daily serving of nuts was slightly better. An extra helping of vegetables each day added up to nearly one-quarter of a pound of weight loss every four years.

(Yes, I do get Charlie to eat some fruit, though not so many vegetables these days — he is a teenage boy, amid his carb and protein diet.)

Just as fried potatoes seem to be connected to greater weight gain, I suspect deep-fried zucchini, tempura and banana fritters probably aren’t link so much to weight loss. Once again, when it comes to nutrition and heath, common sense goes a long way, even with Harvard reseachers.

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158 comments

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7:05AM PDT on Apr 2, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

8:14PM PDT on Aug 7, 2011

@ Empress G--- Sorry, you’re wrong. All food is NOT created equal. No wonder the US is facing a growing obesity epidemic. They’ve earned it.

2:06AM PDT on Jul 6, 2011

Well, being diabetic, I have to watch HOW I eat those potatoes. I cut out mashed because the skins are peeled, and you use more butter on them, I scaled way back on deep fried ones, and primarily eat baked potatoes with the skin on, and don't load up too much junk. It's not just the starch, it's how much fat you put on it also. It's the overall calorie content that makes the biggest difference.

Apples are good for you, right? Because "an apple a day keeps the doctor a day". But if we eat the whole 4# bag in one sitting, we'd have to make friends with the toilet, quick... So rather than say that it's bad, why not just say watch how much you eat? One piece of dark chocolate is good for your health. One glass of red wine is also good for your health. Just don't eat the whole bag or drink the whole bottle at once.

4:56AM PDT on Jul 5, 2011

potatos make me feel barfy, unless crisped "to death". I will swallow small chunks in soup and stew,. aside of that. ickkkk.
maybe that is why I weigh so little and had. I would not eat a lot of fries either.(but when I do, I use mayonnaise)

9:16AM PDT on Jul 4, 2011

These 'no such an such' rules/diets are all BS. Any food is fine for you in moderation...yes even starches, sugars, gluten, oils, fats- yes fats are all ok in moderation.. Moderation is the key not extremist rigid foodnazi panic attacks.

2:07PM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

I happily agree with the tone of all the comments to this article...no way am I not eating potato!

1:54PM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

Oh no another food I can't eat if I took these blogs seriously I wouldn't eat very much. I'm guessing the vegans on here don't like this idea much they would starve if you keep this up. Oh i'm joking by the way.

1:41PM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

@Stephen C. - Thanks for being all reasonable and stuff. :)

I would also add, if you use better quality potatoes and recipes for them, a smaller portion size for them won't be an issue, because they'll be more of a tasty treat than a bulk filler or simple add-on for a meat dish.
Personally, after trying garlic and rosemary smashed red or yukon potatoes, I almost have to force myself to eat some of the other kinds.

3:33PM PDT on Jun 28, 2011

I could not live without that extra portion of mash, of roast potatoes. Thank god for a high metabolism!

12:53PM PDT on Jun 28, 2011

I love potatoes...homegrown are so much fun and delicious. Not going to be able to do much with this information, but thank-you for post!

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