For a few months now, I’ve been eating white potatoes in my personal interpretation of Paleo with great personal success. I ditched grains back in mid-2010, and pretty much conducted the Paleo/Primal lifestyle ‘by the book’ – largely avoiding potatoes up until November 2011. (For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that Cordain didn’t include potatoes in the original Paleo Diet due to concerns with glycoalkaloids – read on for more on what those are and what that means to those who choose to eat potatoes.) However, back in November 2011, a post went up on Robb Wolf’s website basically saying that potatoes are “okay” to eat if you were meeting your personal fitness and body composition goals. This is the particularly resonant part of the post:
Check and check – so the next time we were in Whole Foods, I dropped a 5lb bag of organic Russet Potatoes in our cart and we were on our way.
At the start of the new year, Hayley and I decided to join the masses of people cleaning up their diets by doing the 21 Day Sugar Detox. Diane Sanfilippo (who runs Balanced Bites and the 21 Day Sugar Detox) is a good friend of ours. She came to stay with us for a few weeks back in December while she cooked recipes for her upcoming book and we photographed them. She knows both of our personal dietary nuances very well – I, for example, have a FODMAP issue and that I generally feel better eating more starchy foods instead of those under the “FODMAP” umbrella. Given that, she gave me her blessing to keep starchy foods in (within reason) during the detox.
Throughout the 21 days, we’ve been blogging every day and posting nearly every meal, blog-worthy or not, to our Facebook Page. This has raised quite a few eyebrows, especially the part about me eating white potatoes somewhat regularly. Without fail, several people asked why I was eating potatoes. It seems a bit silly to us that potatoes are under heavy scrutiny, as people seldom ask us those same questions about our modern interpretations of “Paleo” baked goods (Chocolate Chip Cookies with Candied Bacon, anyone?) It’s funny because things like that would never have been recognized by our paleolithic ancestors as food – yet toss Grok a potato (or anything edible) and I’m sure he’d know it was something he could cook and eat. In other words, this way of life is a point of reference from which to conduct deeper, more critical thinking than just whether something is “Paleo” or not.
Robb Wolf isn’t the only heavy hitter that has weighed in on potatoes – so have Kurt Harris, and our friend Mark Sisson. While Kurt admits readily to eating potatoes, Mark takes a slightly harder line on them:
“(Potatoes) represent a bolus of dietary starch, which can wreak havoc on the insulin resistant, but they are undeniably whole, real foods that don’t require much processing beyond simple heating.
Deciding whether potatoes fit into your diet is ultimately a personal decision, but exactly how your body reacts to starch – in its current metabolic state, which, remember, is not set in stone – should be the major determinant. Other potential, secondary concerns with potato consumption exist, things like glycoalkaloids, macro- and micro-nutrient counts, intestinal permeability, and anecdotal accounts (including my own) of joint irritation, all of which I’ll get into next time, but for now, potatoes reside in dietary limbo.” (read the full article here)
But cavemen didn’t eat potatoes!
Here is the thing that really grinds my gears about the whole Potato argument with respect to whether or not they’re “Paleo.” Most often, I hear the argument against potatoes in the context that “the cavemen didn’t eat potatoes” – the ever-popular “reenactment” argument (which is pretty lame). Potatoes in their modern form were originally cultivated in Peru around 8,000 BC, and then brought to Europe in the late 1500’s. If people were cultivating potatoes earlier than 10,000 years ago, the benchmark for the dawn of agriculture (and thus, the Neolithic Era) would be different too. If anything, I’d say it’s quite compelling that potatoes were one of the earliest cultivated crops, suggesting they were probably a food source before organized agriculture – and one that early Peruvians felt were worth the effort of trying to cultivate. If you’re all riled up at this point about whether or not potatoes are a Neolithic food, head over to Free The Animal and read Richard Nikoley’s response to this very same issue – we like what he has to say. According to some of the articles I consulted in writing this post, the hypothesis that potatoes (ie. tubers) were consumed prior to the Neolithic Era is possibly true. To quote Mark Sisson again:
“Evidence exists for human consumption of roots and tubers from multiple sites spanning multiple time periods: Northern Europe (specifically Poland), in the terminal Paleolithic and early Mesolithic. Clearly, we have the physiology (amylase production, glucose metabolism), the tools (fire, hearths, digging implements), and the motivation (attraction to dense caloric sources with negligible or easily neutralized anti-nutrients) to consume starchy tubers.” (read the full article here)
Instead of trying to go down the decision-making paths of “WWCD” (What Would Cavemen Do?) we prefer a more intuitive approach to eating “Paleo.” Some people call it Primal, some people call it Archevore, and some people just call it eating clean. Whatever name you give it, the worst thing you can do is try to cram it into a neat little box with hard lined boundaries and food definitions. Eating an ancestral diet is not one-size-fits-all. (As Liz Wolfe, who edited this post, pointed out to us – this is probably why we, as a community, have gravitated towards the “ancestral” term.) There are important personal nuances to digestion and nutrition that make n=1 a very important exploration (in other words, it is best to find out what works for you on a personal level.)
Important things to consider about potatoes:
- Peel the potato! White potatoes are in the nightshade family, but unlike most other nightshades, most of the anti-nutrients are in the skin. This is because the skin of the tuber, in addition to the stem and leaves, is where the plant has defense mechanisms. Glycoalkaloids are the primary toxin in potatoes (almost all plants have toxins – please note.) Age of the potato, skin damage, and exposure to light can increase glycoalkaloid content in the tuber as well – so buy fresh, undamaged potatoes and keep them out of the light. Again, most of the glocoalkaloids are in the skin of the tuber, so peel those potatoes.
- Always Buy Organic potatoes. In modern times, potatoes have been used in cultivation as a means to pull toxins out of the soil. (Potatoes are #9 in the “Dirty Dozen”)
- Avoid green potatoes, or potatoes with green spots – they contain saponins (which are also toxic).
- Potatoes break down to glucose. They are a big source of carbs – 26 grams in a medium potato, on average. Potatoes are not recommended for consumption by people who are trying to lose weight.
- Potatoes have a high glycemic index / low glycemic load. The GI number can vary highly from mid 50’s all the way up to the high 80’s, depending on the type of potato and how it is cooked. (see chart) – Got this clarification of GI vs. GL from Free The Animal, good stuff Richard.
- Better bowel function? A portion of the carbohydrates in potatoes do not break down in the small intestine. For most people, this produces a fiber-like effect and helps improve bowel function. For others, the insoluble starch will promote IBS-like symptoms. Be mindful of how you react.
- Potatoes contain some miRNA’s, even when cooked, which seem capable of interfering with human gene expression (Andrew of Evolvify writes a compelling argument against potatoes, rice and wheat – making some logical predictions based on micro RNA (miRNA) studies with rice. Read his outstanding post here.)
And now, a side-dish recipe using potatoes! This recipe is adapted from a Rachel Ray recipe (I know what you’re thinking right now: “yuck”) that I made pretty regularly in my post-college years. The original recipe is quartered potatoes, oven roasted with a brown mustard and white wine dressing with cranberries. I used to make that bad boy on my grill’s skillet, and it was mighty tasty. For our take on this recipe, we adjusted the dressing to our liking and made some embellishments. We also brought the cooking for this one back into the kitchen so that no one has to fuss with a grill in the winter months.
An option for this recipe would be to use turnips in place of potatoes.
- 5 medium potatoes (or turnips if preferred)
- 3/4 lb green beans
- 1/4 cup bacon grease (or grass fed butter or coconut oil)
- 2 tablespoons slivered almonds
- 2 tablespoons brown mustard
- 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes, diced
- 2 tablespoons minced onions or shallots
- salt and pepper
- Peel potatoes and cut into 1″ pieces
- Parboil potatoes for approximately 15 minutes, or until fork tender.
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Add green beans to boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Then drain, and add to rimmed baking dish. Reserve 1 cup of hot water, and rehydrate sun dried tomatoes if they are fully dry.
- Add slivered almonds over the potatoes and green beans.
- Melt bacon grease if solid (or other fat), and toss with green beans, potatoes and almonds.
- Roast for 15-20 minutes, or until potatoes get golden brown edges.
- In a small mixing bowl, combine brown mustard, white balsamic vinegar, minced onion, diced sun dried tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk together until mixed evenly.
- Toss potatoes and green beans with brown mustard dressing, and serve warm.