I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “Are white potatoes Paleo?”
Mashed. Boiled. French fried. Potato dumplings. Potato chips. Hash browned potatoes. Scalloped potatoes. Potato pancakes. (I hope you read that in your best Forrest Gump voice.) No matter how they’re prepared, humans seem to lurve them. But it’s no surprise to feel a little confused when Paleo websites and cookbooks give the green light to the sweet potato but not the white variety.
What gives? Why do some people say white potatoes are okay and others say, “No way!”? Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we? (No pun intended.)
Are Potatoes Paleo? Point 1: Nutrition & Effects on Blood Sugar
Botanically speaking, white potatoes are tubers: subterranean lumps of energy that the green, above-ground part of the plant has socked away for tougher times. The majority is starch, a complex carbohydrate, with a small amount of protein and almost negligible fat. Paleo often touts the sweet potato as really nutrient-dense, so it’s common for folks to assume that because white potatoes are shunned, they have little nutritive value. That’s not the case.
When it comes to micronutrients, white potatoes do pretty well. Per 100 grams, they have more potassium and Vitamin C, for example, than do their sweet counterparts. They’re pretty much level when you consider things like iron and magnesium. Carb-wise—which is what most people are concerned with—white potatoes contain fewer total and fewer net grams of carbohydrate than sweet potato. When we compare glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load, though, white potatoes rank higher than sweet. What does this mean? When you compare these tubers, white potatoes are more quickly digested and will cause a sharper spike in blood glucose—and subsequent release of insulin—than sweet potatoes. To put it another way:
eat & digest white potatoes >> blood sugar sharply rises >> insulin is secreted >> blood sugar sharply drops
This is not ideal. Instead of a roller coaster thriller, we’d like blood sugar levels to be more like a lazy river ride at an amusement park. Even Steven. Nice and steady. (Side note: That’s one of the reasons eating Paleo results in such stable energy levels; high GI, carb-dense, nutrient-poor foods are mostly avoided. If you’ve ever had that post-lunch, can’t-keep-your-head-off-your-desk slump, you know what this feels like.)
Are Potatoes Paleo? Point 2: Nightshade Status
White potatoes belong to the botanical genus Solanum. Besides the fact that I’m a bio nerd and have an affinity for Linnaean nomenclature, I mention this because the common name, nightshades, signify a group of related plants with some pretty unique chemical compounds. And by unique, I mean toxic. (Why would something so tasty be potentially toxic? It’s the plant’s attempt at a defense system since it can’t bite or run away or fight back against predators.)
The alkaloid compounds in white potatoes are particularly concentrated in the skin, especially when you see a potato that’s turned green from light exposure. (The green, by the way, is harmless chlorophyll, but it acts as a visual indicator that the biochemical processes that makes these toxic glycoalkaloids, such as solanine, have been activated.) That’s why, if you do eat potatoes, it’s advised to peel them or to never eat a potato that’s turned green.
In addition to being pretty gnarly overall, these glycoalkaloids can make autoimmune conditions flare up. It’s advised that if you’re dealing with such a condition, you avoid white potatoes and other nightshades, such as peppers, tomatoes and certain spices. To learn more about autoimmune protocol (AIP) Paleo and for recipes, click here and here.
Are Potatoes Paleo? Point 3: Are They Served as Junk Food?
Let’s face it, in the typical American diet, potatoes show up in two very common preparations: chips and fries. Usually drenched in cheap, industrial oils and covered in salt, it’s no wonder why they’re irresistible: They hit the fatty and salty notes that we’re hardwired to like. Granted, it’s possible to prepare potatoes in myriad healthier ways, but if chips and fries are the only ways you’re eating white potatoes, you’re sort of cheating yourself.
If the only way you want potatoes is as a great big trough of ooey gooey cheesy fries, well, that’s important to note.
Are Potatoes Paleo? Point 4: But Aren’t Potatoes an Ancient Food?
They may have been domesticated thousands of years ago, but that doesn’t mean you can deny their effects on our physiology. See Nutrition & Effects on Blood Sugar.
So, What’s the Answer? Are White Potatoes Paleo or Not?
Let’s summarize what we know about white potatoes:
- They’re a dense carbohydrate source.
- They potently affect blood sugar.
- They’re nightshades and may exacerbate autoimmune conditions.
- They’re commonly consumed in less-than-ideal preparations. Hello, greasy fries.
It’s for these reasons that white potatoes aren’t part of a rigid Paleo template. Because, think about this: When the original framework for the Paleo diet was put out to the masses, it was exactly that…put out to the widest audience possible. An audience with metabolic issues and poor body composition, with illnesses to resolve and serious amounts of fat to lose. So, authors and bloggers gave the recommendations to help people get healthy again by giving them a framework for the most ideal foods to eat. Foods that are the most nutrient-dense and the least likely to mess with your hormones and your brain.
So, the answer is to figure out what’s going to help you optimize your health: eating white potatoes all the time or not? Simple. As always, it’s really about applying the guidelines in a way that makes sense for you. Because you really are a unique snowflake.
Maybe you need a more concrete description. Here’s my recommendation. Avoid white potatoes on a regular basis if you’re:
- Trying to get your blood sugar regulation under control.
- Trying to significantly shift body composition by losing fat and gaining muscle.
- New to Paleo. (You’ve gotta establish a baseline by doing 30 days strict! I recommend reading this.)
- Dealing with an autoimmune condition.
- Feeling bad after you eat them.
If these don’t apply to you, a white potato now and then shouldn’t be a problem. Remember, they’re probably not as ideal as sweet potatoes for the reasons listed above, but they do offer some decent nutrition.