Ireland and the humble potato have a lengthy, tumultuous relationship. In the 1700s, potatoes were extensively cultivated in Ireland — many sources even claim that the average Irish peasant consumed about 10 pounds of potatoes each day, which, life goals.
At the time, potatoes were the ideal food — they provided protein, vitamins and complex carbohydrates. In fact, many believe that potatoes were the impetus for the Irish population more than doubling between 1780 and 1840.
But then came the blight — a fungus that caused mildew to form on all parts of the potato plant, turning the once-beloved spuds into a mushy, inedible mess — and Ireland’s relationship with the potato turned sour. The ensuing events have come to be known as The Great Famine, which was utterly devastating. Ireland relied on potatoes, and without them, many people were at risk of starvation on top of the loss of their homes and farmland. By 1848, about one million people are believed to have perished, and another 1.5 million forced to migrate, mostly to the U.S.
You might think that such a catastrophe would forever ruin the potato for Irish people, but for some Irish-Americans, on St. Patrick’s Day, planting (and celebrating) potatoes is a tradition that continues to this day.
But of course, potatoes come in many shapes and forms, some healthier than others, which brings me to why we’re here: In celebration of the potato, I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank common types of potatoes — from super healthy to super not.
Here’s what he came up with…
1) Red Potatoes: “Red potatoes contain the highest levels of vitamins, minerals and healthy phytochemicals,” Friedman explains. “They’re high in quercetin, a flavonoid with powerful anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. They also offer more lutein (for eye health) and choline (for brain health) than any other potato on this list. One large red potato supplies half of the recommended dietary allowance of vitamin B6, which aids in the metabolism of protein, carbohydrates and lipids and helps in the formation of red blood cells. A single red potato also supplies 30 percent of the recommended daily intake of niacin, which is essential for energy production from food and helps digestion. Niacin also helps lower LDL cholesterol — i.e., ‘bad cholesterol’ — and supports healthy skin and nerves.”
“When it comes to the mineral potassium, which is vital for heart, nerve and muscle control, most people think of a banana as the go-to — actually, a banana only contains 422 milligrams of potassium, compared to a red potato, which contains a whopping 1,670 milligrams of potassium,” Friedman continues. “Increased potassium intake allows the body to excrete more sodium through the urine, which may help lower blood pressure. Also, much of the nutritional value of the red potato is found in its skin, so never peel them. Prepare them baked in their skin for the best nutritional value.”
2) Sweet Potatoes: “Even though they have the word ‘sweet’ in their name, these potatoes are diabetic-friendly and won’t spike your blood sugar,” Friedman says. “In fact, their high fiber content actually helps with blood glucose control and weight management.”
“Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are one of nature’s unsurpassed sources of beta-carotene, which is needed for healthy skin and mucous membranes, our immune system, good eye health and vision,” Friedman continues. “Sweet potatoes are also high in manganese, which aids in the formation of connective tissue, bones, blood-clotting factors and sex hormones. This mineral also plays a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism, calcium absorption and blood sugar regulation.”
Lastly, a hot tip: “After a strenuous workout at the gym, consume a sweet potato with a little cinnamon on top (which has anti-inflammatory properties) and your muscles will recover twice as fast,” Friedman suggests.
3) Purple Potatoes: “These are considered to be part of the sweet potato family, but instead of being orange on the inside, they’re purple,” Friedman explains. “What makes them different than the orange-colored sweet potatoes are two genes — IbMYB1 and IbMYB2 — that get activated to produce the pigments responsible for the rich purple tones of the flesh. The purple is due to anthocyanins — primarily peonidins and cyanidins — that have important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, purple potatoes contain four times as many antioxidants as russet potatoes.”
“They also may help to lower the potential health risk posed by heavy metals and free radicals,” Friedman continues. “Purple potatoes have been found to slow the growth of certain types of cancer cells in test-tube studies, including bladder, colon, stomach and breast cancer. Finally, a study presented by the American Chemical Society found that eating purple potatoes may lower blood pressure. This could be because of their high concentration of a phytochemical called chlorogenic acid, which has been linked to a reduced hypertension.”
4) Russet Potatoes: “Many confuse russet and white potatoes as being the same thing, but they’re quite different,” Friedman emphasizes. “If you’re a steak-and-potato person, russet is your go-to. Russet potatoes are larger and more oblong in shape than white potatoes, and they have a tougher skin, which is also commonly kept for skin-on French fries.”
Russet potatoes are also generally healthier than white potatoes. “Russet potatoes offer a higher fiber content than white potatoes, which helps improve gut health,” Friedman continues. “Russets are also a good source of iron, which supports healthy blood, and magnesium, which is needed for heart, nerve and immune system function.”
However, the way you eat your russet potatoes can really change up how healthy they are. “If you top a baked russet potato with butter, sour cream and bacon bits, it can quickly become an artery-clogging monstrosity,” Friedman says. “But eaten plain or with heart-healthy garnishments, such as olive oil and chopped chives, a russet potato contains nutrients and fiber that can benefit your heart, bones, immune system and metabolism. Make your baked russet potato even healthier and more flavorful by adding some parsley or green onions, or topped with sautéed mushrooms and bell peppers.”
5) Fingerling Potatoes: “A fingerling potato is a small, stubby, finger-shaped potato,” Friedman says (hence the name). “Fingerlings are an excellent source of vitamin B6, which plays an important role in the production of red blood cells, liver detoxification and maintenance of the brain and nervous system. Fingerling potatoes are also rich in vitamin C, which has immune boosting properties.”
6) White Potatoes: “White potatoes are a good source of several nutrients, including potassium, magnesium, dietary fiber and vitamin B6,” Friedman explains. “The white spud is also an excellent source of resistant starch, which feeds the friendly bacteria in your intestines. White potatoes are a great source of high-quality protein, too, because of their superior amino acid complex. White potatoes actually exceed the recommended amino acid levels for lysine, methionine, threonine and tryptophan — amino acids that play a vital role in cellular repair.”
However, white potatoes also have a downside. “The negative aspect of white potatoes is that they’re considered a high-calorie food compared to other staple foods, such as rice and pasta,” Friedman says. That said: “The carbohydrate or starchy part of this potato also ranks high on the glycemic index — that means it enters the bloodstream faster, which is a plus if you’re an endurance athlete. Food is fuel and a plain baked potato makes an excellent meal before a challenging workout.”
7) New Potatoes: New potatoes aren’t really a variety by themselves — they’re simply the baby version of any potato that a farmer grows, Friedman explains. “New potatoes get purposely thinned out early in the season in order to make room for the rest of the potatoes to mature.”
“A single cooked new potato contains only 25 calories, and about 85 percent of those calories come from carbohydrates, while nearly 10 percent come from protein and four percent or less from fat,” Friedman continues. “New potatoes offer some vitamins and minerals, however, because they haven’t fully matured, new potatoes have less nutritional value than their fully-grown counterparts.”
8) Mashed Potatoes: “A traditional homemade serving of mashed potatoes can contain 237 calories or more when they’re prepared with butter and whole milk,” Friedman says. “Some restaurants use heavy cream to prepare their mashed potatoes, which drives the fat and calorie count even higher. Top your mashed potatoes with gravy, and they could easily reach 450 calories.”
However, you can make healthier mashed potatoes at home — if you’re willing to skimp on the butter, that is. “Blend cauliflower with the potatoes to get a buttery, smooth flavor with fewer carbs,” Friedman suggests. “You can also whip potatoes with Greek yogurt to get a creamy consistency. Then, instead of butter, you can give your mashed potatoes some zest by using extra virgin olive oil and seasonings, like chives, paprika, garlic or thyme. Lastly, forego fatty milk and try using healthier cashew milk instead.”
9) French Fries: “I’ve had many patients who believe that eating French fries is adding a healthy vegetable to their diet,” Friedman says. “Unfortunately, that’s not true. French fries aren’t only unhealthy — they’re potentially deadly. In an eight-year study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, fried potatoes can actually increase your risk of morality. Eating more potatoes in general didn’t have any health risks associated with them, but researchers found that fried potatoes of any kind, like French fries and hash browns, increased mortality risk twofold.”
“One reason French fries are so bad for you is the amount of trans fats they contain,” Friedman continues. “Consuming trans fats has been shown to increase the risk of coronary artery disease in part by raising levels of ‘bad cholesterol,’ lowering levels of ‘good cholesterol’ and increasing triglyceride levels [which can contribute to fatty buildups in your arteries]. Then there’s a chemical in French fries, acrylamide, which has been linked to an increased cancer risk.”
Worse yet, dipping them in ketchup only adds fuel to the unhealthy fire. “Ketchup contains high fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to causing attention deficit disorder, obesity, heart disease and cancer,” Friedman says. “Two tablespoons of ketchup also contains eight grams of sugar, and most people gob more than this on their plate of fries.”
“If you love French fries, there’s a healthier way to eat them,” Friedman continues. “Instead of frying them, try baking them in the oven using extra virgin olive oil. Then, instead of white processed salt, use a healthier variety, like black Hawaiian salt or Himalayan sea salt.”
So it looks like, once again, fries should be off the menu. But if I get to compensate by yeeting a couple pounds of regular potatoes into my mouth, that doesn’t sound so bad.