A lot of foods get an unearned reputation for being healthful. Granola, for example, can be packed with excess fat and sugar. The same is true for yogurt. In the 1980s, baked potatoes had a reputation as a trendy diet food. There was only one problem — baked potatoes can become secret calorie and sodium bombs once they’re dressed with chili, sour cream, butter, and all sorts of other accouterments. Now, in a time when many people are choosing low- or even no-carb lifestyles, potatoes have a bit of a bad reputation as a high-carb food. This has led to a lot of conflicting information — are baked potatoes really healthy?
They’re not as high in carbs as you might think.
Potatoes in general have a somewhat deserved reputation as high-carb foods. They’re a means of energy storage to nourish new potato plants, so they have to be packed with easily accessible sources of sugar. That said, a baked potato is still lower in carbs than white rice or pasta. A medium potato contains about 37 grams of carbohydrates, while a small one may only come in at 15 grams.
Some of the carbs in potatoes also undergo a chemical change after heating and cooling, converting to a substance called “resistant starch.” This is a type of starch that’s more difficult for the body to digest. Baking potatoes a day or two in advance, refrigerating them, then re-heating them boosts the ratio of resistant starch, lowering the potato’s glycemic load.
Baked potatoes are high in fiber.
Potatoes in general have a lot of dietary fiber: 4 grams per medium-sized potato with the skin on. Fiber helps improve heart health by balancing blood lipids, feeds beneficial gut bacteria, slows sugar absorption, and helps carry toxins out of the body by adding bulk to stools. Fiber also contributes to feelings of satiety, by taking up space in the stomach and intestines.
The Blue Mountain Eye Study, perhaps the longest-running study linking nutrition with healthy aging, found that fiber had the strongest correlation to getting older without experiencing diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. The fiber content of a person’s diet is generally a good marker for that diet’s quality. High-quality diets tend to incorporate a lot of fresh, minimally-processed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — all of which contain fiber.
They’re high in potassium.
A baked potato contains more potassium than a banana. At a time when most adults in the U.S. don’t meet the recommended daily allowance of potassium, this is important. Potassium helps lower heart rate and blood pressure and is necessary for all cells to function properly. Without it, the body may experience muscle cramps, headaches, anxiety, or rapid or irregular heart rate.
Potatoes contain protein.
While many people think of potatoes as nothing but carbohydrate bombs, this isn’t true. A medium potato contains about 4 grams of protein, too. Interestingly, potato protein is a “complete” protein — meaning that it contains all of the amino acids necessary to support animal life. That said, they are low in tryptophan, histidine, and methionine, and so should be combined with a diet that supplies these three amino acids.
The Short Answer
Yes, baked potatoes are healthy.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with including potatoes in an otherwise healthy, balanced diet. The only pitfall here is preparation. A plain baked potato is a rich source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that provide protein, and is low in fat and sodium. The addition of condiments can make or break a potato, so it’s important to be mindful about what you choose to add:
- Instead of sour cream, mix fat-free Greek yogurt with a splash of lemon juice. It’ll give you the same creamy tartness as sour cream, but with less fat, more protein, and some beneficial probiotics.
- Instead of canned chili, try making your own at home. Chili freezes well, so you can portion it out and save it for when a craving strikes. By substituting lean ground turkey for beef, adding lots of fiber-rich beans, and limiting added salt, you can have a chili that’s just as healthy as it is flavorful and satisfying.
- Limit the amount of cheese you use. Instead of prepared cheeses or cheese dips, splurge on some high-quality cheddar and grate your own. It’ll taste better, and you won’t have to use as much.
- Pile on all the low-sodium seasonings and chives you like. These contribute tons of flavor, without significantly altering the nutrient profile of the baked potato.
- There’s also nothing wrong with using full-fat dairy. If you do so, make sure to measure out each serving. It’s very easy to throw off your final fat, cholesterol, and calorie counts by trying to eyeball portion sizes.
Lastly, try to boost the resistant starch ratio of your potatoes whenever you can. Baked potatoes keep well in the refrigerator, so consider baking up some a few days ahead of time, refrigerating them, and popping them back in the oven for a bit to heat them up. Your blood sugar and energy levels will thank you.
Potatoes in general have gotten a bad rap, partially because of their use as a convenience food in chips and fries. On their own, potatoes are a very healthful addition to a diet. As long as you choose the right condiments and preparation technique, there’s no reason for anyone to miss out on a delicious baked potato.