Health and Nutrition

Potato Health and Nutrition

Potatoes are a wonderfully versatile ingredient and are a source of potassium, and eaten with their skins are a fibre provider, as well as being naturally fat-free and gluten-free.

Provided they are not cooked or served with a lot of fat, and portion sizes are moderate, they can be a good choice as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Read on for more on nutrition and potatoes.

Potatoes are technically a root vegetable but in the UK they are part of the starchy carbohydrates, one of the key food groups featured in the Eatwell Guide, the UK’s healthy eating model. Starchy carbohydrates are a good source of energy. After they are eaten, they are broken down into glucose, which is the body’s main fuel, especially for our brain and muscles. UK dietary guidelines suggest that starchy food should make up just over a third of the food we eat, choosing higher-fibre, wholegrain varieties where possible, such as wholewheat pasta and brown rice, and eating potatoes in their skins, for more fibre.

Potatoes are a source of potassium, a nutrient which has some important functions in the body, including:

  • contributing to normal functioning of the nervous system
  • contributing to normal muscle function
  • contributing to the maintenance of normal blood pressure.

Did you know that if you have high blood pressure you are more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a stroke?

The humble spud is also a source of thiamin (vitamin B1), which has some important functions in the body including: 

  • Supporting the release of energy from foods
  • Contributing to normal nerve function
  • Helping normal psychological function
  • Contributing to normal heart function

In the UK, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) (2014/15-2015/16), the national survey that assesses the diet, nutrient intake and nutritional status of the general UK population, indicated that potatoes currently make useful contributions to our daily nutrient intakes. In UK adults potatoes contributed:

  • 15% of average daily potassium intake
  • 13% of average daily vitamin B6 intake
  • 14% of average daily vitamin C intake
  • 12% of average daily thiamin (vitamin B1) intake
  • 9% of folate average daily intake

As part of a healthy, balanced diet, UK dietary advice is to base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, choosing wholegrain varieties, and eating potatoes with their skins on for more fibre.

Potatoes and fibre

Potatoes with skins are a natural source of fibre. The NHS website suggests fibre can help us feel full, which means we're less likely to eat too much, so eating enough fibre can be important for weight management.

A diet rich in fibre can also help digestion and prevent constipation, and is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. In the UK adults are advised to consume 30 g of fibre a day, however on average we are only eating 18 g per day. Potatoes in their skins, wholegrain breads and breakfast cereals, brown rice, and wholewheat pasta, as well as fruit and vegetable, pulses, nuts and seeds, are all good sources of fibre. Just to give you an idea of the contribution potatoes can make to your daily fibre intakes: A medium baked potato with its skin contains around 5 g of fibre (about 16% of the recommended daily intake for an adult, about 20% for an adolescent and 25% for a primary school aged child).

Potatoes for children

On average, like adults children and teenagers are not getting enough fibre. Encouraging them to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and starchy foods (choosing wholegrain versions and potatoes with the skins on where possible) can help to ensure they are eating enough fibre.

In the UK, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) (2014/15-2015/16) indicated that potatoes on average, make useful contributions to children’s daily intake of some important nutrients. See the % contribution from potatoes and potato products to daily intakes in 4 -10 year olds and 11-18 year olds below:

4 - 10 years

  • Energy - 6%
  • Fibre - 10%
  • Potassium - 14%
  • Vitamin B6 - 12%
  • Vitamin C - 9%
  • Thiamin - 10%
  • Folate - 7%

11 - 18 years

  • Energy - 7%
  • Fibre - 13%
  • Potassium - 17%
  • Vitamin B6 - 15%
  • Vitamin C - 15%
  • Thiamin - 13%
  • Folate - 9%

Sources: National Diet and Nutrition Survey

Potatoes can also be used for a baby’s first foods from around 6 months. First foods can include pureed or mashed, soft cooked potatoes and fruit and vegetables – such as parsnip, yam, sweet potato, carrot, apple or pear.

Potatoes and resistance starch

The relationship between our gut bacteria and health is an increasingly important topic in the nutrition world. Resistant starch (RS) is a type of starch found in some plant foods. As its name suggests, it’s resistant to digestion so enters the bowel where it can feed our gut bacteria. RS is naturally present in some foods such as bananas, potatoes and grains. Interestingly more RS is available from potatoes when they are cooked and cooled.

In studies, scientists have found that including foods rich in RS within a meal can be useful for controlling blood glucose levels, and there is a lot of interest in RS with regards to our gut microbiota and the potential benefits for gut health, but we need more research to fully understand this.

Potatoes in your diet

As part of a healthy, balanced diet, UK healthy eating advice is to base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, choosing wholegrains and eating potatoes in their skins, where possible, for more fibre.

NHS website advises the following about potatoes:

  • Leave potato skins on where possible to keep in more of the fibre and vitamins. For example, eat the skin when you're having boiled potatoes or a baked potato.
  • Potatoes are a healthy choice when boiled, baked, mashed or roasted with only a small amount of fat or oil and no added salt.
  • When cooking or serving potatoes, try to go for small amounts of unsaturated oils, such as olive or rapeseed oil (or the spreads made from these), instead of butter.
  • In mashed potato, use lower-fat milk instead of cream.

It’s important to have a wide variety of foods in the diet, as no single food can provide us with all the nutrients we need to stay healthy. A healthy, balanced diet is essential for normal growth and development, maintaining healthy body weight and reducing the risk of developing certain diseases. 

Potatoes can be part of a healthy, balanced diet, especially when eaten with the skin on. They’re a source of fibre and potassium and are naturally fat-free. Try these delicious, simple and modern potato recipes featuring important nutrients for a healthy lifestyle.

The UK’s Eatwell Guide recommends that a healthy, balanced diet includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, basing meals on higher fibre versions of starchy carbohydrates (such as potatoes in their skins), some lower fat dairy foods or fortified dairy alternatives, some good quality protein foods (such as beans, pulses, eggs, fish and lean meat), and a small amount of unsaturated fats or oils.

Healthy eating involves eating the right amounts from each food group, maintaining a healthy weight, and of course enjoying your food.

Find out more on how fibre plays a role in your diet and how potatoes can contribute.

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