White potatoes have long been deemed as evil - due to their "high carb" content (which isn't really that high), especially in the recent low-carb years.
So, the sweet potato has enjoyed the “superfood” status for a while now - so most people have turned to sweet potato as the healthier potato alternative.
But, here’s the thing.
Both white potatoes AND sweet potatoes are healthy, nutrient-dense, and delicious! One is NOT better than the other?
Mind blown? Let me explain.
The problem initiated when people started being concerned about carbs. People now wonder about whether they should eat potatoes at all… aren’t they way too “high-carb”?
But let me tell you, for potatoes, their "high-carb" content isn't usually the problem. The real issue lies in HOW people consume this humble ingredient.
In the Western world, like America, Australia and Western Europe, people tend to consume potatoes in a way that is completely different to its natural form! For example, fries, chips, hash browns, potato pies, mashed potato (with lots of butter and cream) ... you get the point
And if we were to have a natural looking baked spud, we would slather it with other stuff, like butter, sour cream, processed ham, bacon, cheese - yeah, you get it.
So the potato itself isn't to blame, it's how we actually eat it and what we eat it with is what really matters.
Here's the good stuff:
Both types of potatoes are actually high(er) in carb for a reason. This carb content is based on resistant starch - which is complex molecules that we can’t digest, broken down by our gut bacteria in our large intestine.
Compared to sweet potatoes, regular potatoes actually have more resistant starch, especially when you cook and cool them.
So, indeed potatoes have more carbs than other veggies, but rest assured, this type of carb (resistant starch) is so important to our digestive tract, because our good gut bugs feed on this. Which means that, yes, it's good for our "gut health" (which seems to be the new catchy phrase these days.)
Furthermore, not all carbs are created equal. It's actually the type and nature of the carbohydrates food contains that matters; both kinds of potatoes fill us up, give us energy, and leave us satiated for a long time. As a bonus, sweet potatoes often satisfy sugar cravings, especially if they’re baked and caramelised. Purple-skinned, white-fleshed sweet potatoes in particular (often found in East Asian cuisines) tend to have a caramel-y taste that makes them perfect for managing the occasional sugar cravings.
In general, potatoes and sweet potatoes are roughly similar in their vitamin and mineral content. But due to their orange pigment, sweet potatoes are dense in vitamin A. Whereas white potatoes have a higher Folate density. Both nutrients are so important to have enough of, but high rates of deficiencies in these nutrients exist, yes, even in the developed world.
So, as you may already be able to tell, it's pretty important to eat BOTH potatoes - not just one of the other. Because what lacks in one, it made up in the other. Variety is key - that's the secret in nutrition.
So, what makes a potato “healthy”?
As you can guess by now, there's more to potatoes than their carb content. Any food can be made healthy, it just depends on how you prepare it.
Fried potato - in the from of fries or chips, is simply not healthy. Whether they're made from potato or sweet potato. Sorry to put that out there. But when you coat something with refined flour and deep fry it in vegetable oil, this process usually counteracts any goodness the food initially had.
Same as mashed potato - whether using sweet or white - what you're doing is peeling the skin and mashing the vegetable to death, which is what your digestive tract is supposed to do. So already, you've 'processed' it. If that's not enough, you'll add butter, cream, milk, cheese and whatever else to it. Still think sweet potato mash is healthy?
As you can tell, the further away you take a potato, or even a vegetable, from its natural form, it really just isn't the same.
So instead of worrying about the carb or sugar content of whole, natural foods like fruit and veg - and in this case, potatoes - start thinking about HOW you're consuming these foods and how much variety you're consuming them in.
I wouldn't live off white potato, just as I wouldn't live off chocolate. I eat as many different colours of fruit and veg as possible - and since white and sweet potato are two different colours, you bet I'll mix them up in my diet.
Both potatoes and sweet potatoes can be a part of a healthy diet, because we know that including both will:
give you carb and nutrient variety;
help you feel psychologically satisfied and physically satiated;
help you steadily release energy; and
help you eat both without worrying about which one is good and which one isn't!
To finish off with, here are some things to think about:
Stop the thought of “good” and “bad” foods
Instead, ask yourself if this food adds value to your body. Does it nourish you in any way? When you eat it, will you feel satisfied and full?
Neither type of potato is good or bad. They both have their place in a healthy diet.
Try something new
Explore different types of potatoes and sweet potatoes. Look for unusual or colourful varieties at your local farmers’ market. Or grow some in your own garden!!
Choose whole, fresh, and minimally processed foods; and watch your preparation techniques
Whether it’s a regular potato or a sweet potato, it’s still better than potato chips. Wash them well and... KEEP THE SKIN ON! Bake, boil, roast, and/or steam your potatoes and sweet potatoes. If you want to take advantage of the resistant starch, cook and cool your potatoes before eating.
...And that's it!
Hope I've busted this common myth, and I hope you now feel better about eating any type of potato you damned well like!
Lots of love,
Joyce Haddad, Director of A Dietitian's Mission, is an Adelaide based Dietitian, Nutritionist and Master Personal Trainer with a passion for health and wellbeing. ADM aims to help the public make informed and realistic nutritional choices and ensure everyone has a healthy relationship with their body and with food.