How to turn potatoes into a health food

Ask people if they eat the recommended five servings of vegetables daily and you’ll often be met with some variation of the response ‘potatoes are a vegetable, right?’ While this is technically true, potatoes are high in starch and are often prepared in unhealthy ways.

But the humble spud gets a bit of a bad rap, because we love to fry them up in oil and batter. Baked potatoes are far healthier, but even then we tend to fill them with all kinds of fatty and oily toppings.

Another reason they are often maligned is their high starch content. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, meaning it is a string of joined glucose (sugar) units. It’s an important part of your diet and one of the major sources of food energy.

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When highly processed, potatoes – such as those sliced, fried and turned into chips -are high in refined starches. Refined starches are digested quickly in the small intestine, raise blood sugar levels and increase insulin resistance, which are all leading risk factors for type 2 diabetes.

But by baking potatoes, and then allowing them to cool, the starches inside are turned into what’s known as resistant starch.

This type of starch is so named because it is resistant to digestion in the small intestine and passes through unscathed to the large intestine, where it becomes food for beneficial gut bacteria.

This process stimulates the production of butyrate, a chemical compound that is key to keeping the gut healthy and functioning normally.

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“Butyrate is the preferred fuel for cells lining the gut and ensuring the integrity of the gut wall, helping to protect it against cancer and other serious digestive diseases,” the CSIRO advises.

“Resistant starch also offers health benefits beyond those in the gut, such as helping to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin.”

This effect can be seen in other high-starch foods such as pasta and rice. Try cooking both of these and then allowing cool to substantially boost the amount of ‘good’ starch you’re eating.

Resistant starch occurs naturally in legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, red kidney beans and baked beans, nuts and some seeds and firm bananas. The best sources are wholegrain cereals and legumes.

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Baked potatoes with a dash of salt and pepper can be a tasty and healthy side dish, but there are even tastier ways to prepare a baked spud that preserve all the health benefits.

Rather than dressing your baked potato with butter, try using hummus, salsa or even a low-fat cheese sauce.

As for the classic filled baked potato, avoid highly processed meats and dairy as fillings. Try our recipe for baked potatoes with eggs, or this delicious recipe using lean turkey mince, low-fat cheese and spices as a filling.

How do you usually prepare potatoes? Do you think you might give baking them a try? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer