Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
19 Oct

Is Samwise Gamgee Right About Potatoes?

Potatoes are controversial in the Primal and paleo world. They 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. Grains and legumes, on the other hand, are tiny, disparate sources of calories that need soaking, fermenting, and extensive heating to be palatable (and they’ll still mess you up), but potatoes are big, dense, and obviously food. Chimps have been known to use sticks to dig up and eat wild tubers, and they’ve got even less salivary amylase to break down starch than we do. 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.

So what’s the hold up? Why do I generally recommend limiting their intake?

As I mentioned in the rice post, a human metabolic tabula rasa can handle all macronutrients in whole food form without metabolic dysfunction. That’s why you get folks like the Kitavans eating a high starchy tuber diet with excellent health and fit figures, or the supremely healthy pre-colonial Tokelauans, who ate a mixed diet high in saturated fat from coconuts and supported with plenty of yams and breadfruit (similar to a plantain) that amounted to a roughly 52/36/12 fat/carb/protein macronutrient split. Not low-carb (or low-fat, for that matter), but they were starting from scratch using ancestral whole foods.

So, before you start frying up some hash browns in that bacon fat or enjoying an extra large baked potato with your steak, ask yourself: are you Samwise Gamgee or Frodo Baggins?

Remember the Lord of the Rings flicks (yes, I know the books are better, but my take on this relies strictly on the actors portraying the characters and a specific line used in the movies)? Besides being masterfully crafted amalgamations of Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, fairy tales, and Judeo-Christian theology, they also represent an interesting – if unwitting – treatise on nutrition, metabolism, and the necessity of dietary individuation, especially when it comes to potatoes (who knew?!). Samwise Gamgee, as portrayed by Sean Astin in the movies, waxes exuberant about the myriad uses of the waxy tubers: “Boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew!” But should we listen to the portly halfling’s views on potatoes? I mean, the guy walked clear across Middle Earth, all the way to Mordor and up the face of Mt. Doom, without losing a single pound. If anything, he gained a bit.

And what of Frodo? It’s true that Frodo was able to subsist entirely on Elvish bread while staying lithe and lean, but it was magic Elvish bread known as lembas. The Elves (stay with me here…) were immortal, giving them plenty of time to develop a mode of grain processing that destroyed all dietary lectins, gluten, and phytic acid while preserving nutrient, vitamin, and mineral content. Besides, Frodo got a lot of low level, slow moving cardio – hiking, really – and didn’t eat much fructose or seed oil, so his insulin sensitivity was adequate to deal with non-optimal food sources. He could eat potatoes (or lembas) for days and not gain an ounce, or worry about metabolic derangement.

But Sam? Sam reacts differently to potatoes. He’s a chubby, emotional eater who’s prone to manic excitement and instinctual distrust of outsiders. He clings to starchy foods, even as his ability to effectively metabolize them without excessive fat accumulation falters. Sam’s an active guy, too, putting in a ton of hiking, hill walking, bouldering, and hobbit-carrying, but he can’t seem to shake those pounds. Sound familiar?

You might say he’s a fair approximation of your standard SAD-eater straining away on the treadmill. His metabolism was damaged long before joining the Fellowship, and eating potatoes only makes it worse. Are you Sam or Frodo?

Of course, this is simply a playful way to illustrate my point: whether potatoes belong in your eating strategy may have a lot to do with the state of your metabolism.

My first impulse is to speak to the Samwises of the world: the metabolically-deranged, overweight, insulin-resistant men, women, and children (and even, horrifyingly, infants) who have lost the ability to handle glucose. They’re the ones who are most likely to be looking for a solution, while skinny (on the surface), fit (on the surface) folks tend to be satisfied with their current dietary path. Many of my readership started reading because they were overweight. A good chunk of this country, and indeed the entire world, is overweight. This is a problem. This is a problem that’s growing, quite literally and figuratively. And they may not have gotten overweight in the first place because of baked sweet potatoes with grass-fed butter, or Yukon golds roasted in duck fat, but those foods certainly aren’t going to help their current insulin-resistant predicament. Potatoes should be limited, or even outright eliminated, for this (large) subset of the population. For the lean and active, however, I don’t think a few red potatoes with dinner are anything to worry about.

The Final Word (There Isn’t One)

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. You guys are the deities here, folks. You get to decide who gets redeemed. You can be a loving, caring, selfless god who accepts everyone (including more weight around the midsection), or you can be a clever tactician, taking that which suits your current situation (think of the Greek gods, those immortals with very mortal flaws and foibles). If you’re still trying to lose thirty pounds, I’d go with the latter option and maybe hold off on the spuds.

(For my money, I’ll have what Gollum’s having, thank you. He rocked 5% body fat, a great strength-to-bodyweight ratio, retched at the thought of eating bread, and dined on whole, raw, living fish. I don’t recall him eating all that often, either, so I’m going to say he’s firmly in the IF camp, too. Yeah, Gollum was pretty Primal.)

What do you think? Can you eat potatoes and avoid fat gain? Did you have to lose the weight and reset the metabolism before you could partake? Let me know in the comments!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Very well written blog, thank you! alike Led Zeppelin, the lord of the rings references are great!

    Regarding potatoes I prefer sweet potato in moderation. It would be good to know your advice about the skin of either tuber though.

    Also think it should be added that this doesn’t give anyone permission to go out and think that eating deep fried in vegetable oil like “Fish and Chips” is suddenly Primal.

    oliverh wrote on October 20th, 2010
  2. I liked your site when it was more nutrition based and less “I want to be a cave man”. “Grok-on” and Elvish lore are a bit to out there. The site went from respectable to a little ridiculous. Can’t say I enjoy your post much anymore.

    broman wrote on October 20th, 2010
    • I’m impressed with his ability to take a piece of modern media and draw a real lesson from it.

      I don’t know Mark’s “target audience” but I have to assume it also includes people without the desire/ability to wade through 4 years to get a biology degree and decades of science and extract a sensible, logical, supportable and most importantly DO-able philosophy and turn all of that dry, insoluble fiber into an engaging, understandable, relevant story that most everyone can understand.

      I’d say Mark is an amazing teacher for exactly the ability you call “ridiculous”.

      Ok, so it isn’t your style. Give the guy a break. He’s trying to make this LIFE SAVING information available and palatable to as many people as possible.

      If he was only interested in impressing bunged up, tight sphinctered, lab coated blowhards, he wouldn’t have put this site together (for FREE) at all.

      MartyInDFW wrote on October 20th, 2010
  3. Any time I make a major decision, I always ask myself, “Is this something Frodo Baggins would do?” Nobody wants to be a Samwise.


    Ben wrote on October 20th, 2010
  4. Nice post.

    I do yams occasionally, but white potatoes are out for me.

    I think more people need to understand that there are a few grey areas in paleo/primal eating.

    Clint wrote on October 20th, 2010
  5. Potatoes are my Precious. They are My Birthday Present! If you try to take them away from me, I might bite your finger off!

    Seriously, I grow cute little Peruvian purple fingerling potatoes, and larger sweet potatoes. For somebody trying to grow a lot of their own food, potatoes really are The Precious. They can make more calories per square foot than almost any other food plant.

    I read an article recently about Andean people who practically live on potatoes, and they are not fat. Granted, they walk a lot.

    And I’m not just saying this because I’m Irish.

    shannon wrote on October 20th, 2010
  6. i think potatoes are great for use in carb re-feeds i.e after some heavy training… i think making the diet more cyclical is the best approach…

    Sam wrote on October 20th, 2010
  7. I cannot lie…I love potatoes! I have mostly given them the boot since becoming primal – however there are occasions when I will happily eat a few. I really wish I could stomach sweet potatoes, but after years of being forced to eat disgusting sweet potato casserole (w/loads of sugar and marshmallows saturating the poor potatoes!)during the holidays, I can’t eat them without a strong gag reflex. Shame, since they are so good for you!

    Anyway, just wanted to say that if I feel like going all crazy and eating something from SAD, I’ll take a baked potato over fast food or processed junk anyday.

    And while not a LOTR fan, I find that your use of this to explain how food intake & exercise affect people is great. Anyway you can get through to folks about this is awesome! I constantly share your feeds on my FB page in hopes of getting others interested. I’m not going to preach it to them, but I hope my interest will encourage others to check it out – and I have had a few friends and family start leaning this way! So keep up the good work, Mark!

    Jen wrote on October 20th, 2010
  8. How funny that you use a fantasy film to perpetuate the belief that anyone who enjoys as much whole foods as their appetite requires (including potatoes) would be manic depressive and overweight.

    People do not enter into a metabolically damaged state from eating potatoes, and potatoes are not going to hinder metabolic healing. True metabolic damage is done by industrial food, chronic exercise, and prolonged dieting… or anything that raises stress hormones and increases inflammation in the body, including odd obsessions with bashing whole foods.

    Elizabeth wrote on October 20th, 2010
    • “the belief that anyone who enjoys as much whole foods as their appetite requires”

      Whole foods? Isn’t that one of those nebulous terms that means absolutely squat and just serves as a placeholder for “food I consider nutritious”? I’m sure that not everything that isn’t processed is good to consume.

      “potatoes are not going to hinder metabolic healing”

      Is that opinion based on extensive expertise working with metabolically disordered individuals, or did you just make that up?

      fireandstone wrote on October 20th, 2010
      • Yes, it is based on my extensive expertise. I was certainly metabolically disordered and I know many people who are and have been. The presence or lack of potatoes in their diet was not the deciding factor in the restoration of metabolic health. Period. And if it’s not, then why obsess about it? Better to put energy into finding and avoiding foods that are causing real problems.

        By whole foods I mean foods traditional, healthy cultures ate. (Not Dannon yogurt or whole wheat Wonder Bread, obviously, I’m not a moronic USDA spokesperson.) And if we assume potatoes aren’t healthy because traditional cultures weren’t metabolically damaged, then why do we assume steak is? What is the difference?

        Elizabeth wrote on October 21st, 2010
        • My question was rhetorical. Your personal experiences are irrelevant. You can’t speak with that kind of authority from anecdote. Your elaboration on your original invalid statement is unfortunate.

          “”By whole foods I mean foods traditional, healthy cultures ate”

          More subjectivism. Using “traditional” and “healthy” in the same sentence doesn’t unite those concepts into any kind of coherence and certainly doesn’t imply “wholeness”.

          “And if we assume potatoes aren’t healthy because traditional cultures weren’t metabolically damaged, then why do we assume steak is?”

          Because a disordered insulin cycle *is* metabolic damage, making carbohydrate loads aggravating whether they come from potatoes, fruit or otherwise. Healthy undamaged people being able to process taters round the clock doesn’t mean a lifelong victim of CW can do the same.

          fireandstone wrote on October 21st, 2010
  9. It’s not JUST the potato. It’s the whole diet you have to look at when trying to determine what puts weight on–or keeps it off. And it’s your exercise program, too.

    At 55, I competed in bodybuilding at age 41. I carried low bodyfat for years before competing, and I ate potatoes regularly back then. Including them in my diet permitted me to drop bodyfat. But, then, it wasn’t just the potatoes that did that. It was regular, intense weight workouts along with a disciplined lower-carb diet devoid of processed junk.

    I’m not a huge potato fan, but I like them every once in a while, for dietary variety. They’re also great after a workout, when the insulin surge and blood sugar spike help shuttle protein into muscle cells.

    I find it interesting that Russets have such high ORAC value…so I tend to find room in my diet for any food that promises me health benefits.

    Kathleen wrote on October 20th, 2010
  10. I grow wonderful bintje yellow potatoes but if I eat any nightshades my osteoarthritis kicks my butt. I’ve been able to stop taking celebrex since I gave them up…**sigh** and I’m grateful but sometimes a teensy potatoe tear trickles down my cheek…

    Penny wrote on October 20th, 2010
  11. Thanks Mark! I’m totally with you here. I know a lot of Primals are Low-Carb and have weight loss goals, but I’m underweight, low energy, and have a weight-GAIN goal. Ultimately the Kitavan example prompted me to experiment with raising my starch intake. It’s been successful! I do bananas and sweet potatoes, and have much more energy. It’s only been 2 weeks, so we’ll see about weight gain, but it’s worth it for the energy.

    Sophie wrote on October 20th, 2010
  12. I am sure that if potatoes were in the land of Grok, he and his family would have eaten them. Potatoes keep well, veratile and they taste delicious. Actually I think that the only reason I cannot eat potatoes has nothing to do with the potatoes but all of the candy, bread, rice,Little Debbies etc that I included in my diet just ruined any hope I may have had to eat my ever-loving, potatoes.

    mary titus wrote on October 20th, 2010
  13. I just had to comment, given that my strong Lithuanian heritage makes avoiding potatoes impossible during the holidays. I have a Lithuanian cookbook. It has a section on bread. All, oh, five entries are just variations on the first recipe for real, fermented black rye. But then there is a whole section dedicated to potatoes. They literally eat potatoes with EVERYTHING. Oh, and sour cream.

    I can take or leave potatoes, except when it comes to Lithuanian cuisine. Given that I’m so close to my roots (I still have relatives over there), I think I just won’t worry when potatoes are on the menu. I just won’t have them all the time!

    Deanna wrote on October 20th, 2010
  14. Initially, I completely eliminated them. But now I eat them in moderation once a week at the most, especially after I learned the importance of re-feeding (replenishing my glycogen and leptin levels). As long as I boil or bake them and eat them in moderation, there are no adverse or bloating effects. I have similar good results with corn. Too bad I can’t say the same about potato chips – my all time favorite comfort food, so salty and crunchy – they really leave me bloated.

    Bob Mass wrote on October 20th, 2010
  15. The BIG difference with primal is eliminating the grains. They cause all sorts of problems. Potatoes, with plenty of fat to slow down the sugar release, are fine and necessary for me. Sally Fallon is quite clear in her book Nourishing Traditions that tubers were a part of most traditional societies and they were ALWAYS consumed with lots of fat. They are very easy on digestion, unlike grains, and are delicious. Spuds are definitely primal and should be enjoyed.

    pat wrote on October 20th, 2010
  16. This is my favorite post ever Mark and that’s saying a lot! I’m not even that much of a LOR fan, but the Sam/Frodo comparison is just so visual. When you hope to see Gollum in the mirror that’s some kind of hard core. Sadly, when I look in the mirror I see Sam. I certainly needed the inspiration to leave those spuds in the field. Many thanks for all of your work!

    Sally wrote on October 20th, 2010
  17. French Fries.

    I, like many, eliminated potatoes for months. Now that I’ve reached my weight, I can step out of primal eating once in awhile and French Fries are one thing I do enjoy. Especially if I make my own using lard. I may suffer from a leaden stomach for a half hour or so, but it goes away pretty quickly.

    Primal Onahill wrote on October 20th, 2010
  18. I think I’ll have a potato in my omelette tomorrow =)

    Jess wrote on October 21st, 2010
  19. I have made a decision that I can eat those yummy potatos once in a while with strict moderation. Like last night I made this super delicious salmon cooked in oven with cream, sour cream, onions, garlic, 3 different peppers – I decided to take one small-ish size potato to accompany the two carrots and salad. There was a lot of salmon to eat but still I didn’t get that bloated feeling that I used to get when eating salmon – the difference was the potato count.

    Altough, I have been following the PB for a few months now and seen the results (seems like without any effort I’ve dropped 10 pounds of flab [from my impressive 160 pounds :D]) so I can give myself a few ‘treats’ here and there.

    As Mark pointed it out, it’s mostly a personal decision.

    Wille wrote on October 21st, 2010
  20. Oh yeah, just to mention that I generally avoid them because I don’t want that bloated feeling or the sleepiness that follows if stuffing my face with too much carbs/food at one sitting.

    Just an afterthought. :)

    Wille wrote on October 21st, 2010
  21. This post made me laugh so much, because it’s SO true! I’ve been Primal for 4 weeks, lost 9lb, and feel so much healthier already.
    I think Sam would’ve benefitted from switching to parsnip chips too 😉

    Amy wrote on October 21st, 2010
    • p.s. ‘LOTR for weight loss’, new publication in the offing?!

      Amy wrote on October 21st, 2010
  22. one word!!!!! MODERATION

    dedra wrote on October 21st, 2010
  23. RE: Gollum’s bad hair and skin

    I’ll cut him a little slack on this. After all, the dude is almost six-hundred years old.

    Tom wrote on October 21st, 2010
  24. Raising insulin levels and the high GI are not the only problems with potatoes.
    They contain a lot of anti-nutrients, like lectins etc. The whole plant is poisonous – leaves, flowers, etc – we can only consume the tuber. Isn’t it possible that it also contains some poisons?
    Furthermore, here in Europe (and other continents, for eg most people in the present US for that matter) we’ve been consuming this plant for barely 500 years. Before Colombus it was unknown for the rest of the world. To what extent have we been able to get accustomed genetically to a plant that we have known only for a couple of hundred years?

    mineralwasser wrote on October 22nd, 2010
  25. I love my main crop red rascals baked and my early crop of jersey bennies boiled. We grow them organically and in very healthy soil… we know what we are putting in our body. With three or four other home grown vegies every night to sit next to the grass fed beef that we raise and kill on our little farm, its a perfect meal to help keep the old fart at 10% fat and a VO2 max bigger than his age. Spuds… right for me.

    kem wrote on October 22nd, 2010
  26. This post was the best and most amusing thing I’ve read all week. The ad for lembas wafers topped it off (kudos to Dragonmamma for posting the link). Thanks for being a fantastic and entertaining writer, Mark!

    Annika wrote on October 24th, 2010
  27. Don’t forget Golem as a model of paleo fitness. The hearty lad lived on raw fish and raw rabbits, and the meat off of an occasional small orc or goblin (according to the books)…Paleo indeed! He was strong, lean, and tough as nails! Sure…over time, his hair fell out, his eyes started bulging, his skin turned somewhat grayish green in color, and he was plagued by chronic whooping cough and serious dental issues, but that was largely due to his living in a dark, watery cave for decades, being tortured by the forces of Mordor, and–of course–the ever debilitating effects of owning that cursed ring.

    JP wrote on October 24th, 2010
    • Those negatives could as well be attributed to negotiatig his salary with Sir Peter.

      kem wrote on October 24th, 2010
  28. Everyone is forgetting the one true food that nearly every people, race, kingdom or nation ate at one time or another usually during times of great stress and drought. PEOPLE. The long pig is probably the most nutritional of any animal meat, easy to catch, easy to kill, easy to butcher and oh so easy to eat. Delicious. Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew. Better than a brace of coneys and more meat than you can possibly eat in one sitting. We can all look forward to returning to the cannibal cookery soon when the grocery shelves are empty and the government stooges burn your little victory gardens to the ground lest you have non GMO Monsanto foods to eat or barter. We do not know fear, we do not know pain… we will EAT MANFLESH!

    URUK-HAI wrote on October 25th, 2010
  29. AAAAARG! My grrrrr-avatar didn’t show up. We ain’t had nuttin’ but maggoty bread for three stinkin’ days! Yea, why can’t we have some meat? My, you look tasty!

    URUK-HAI wrote on October 25th, 2010
  30. after surviving 6 months of pancreatitus where food of any kind made me feel worse. I am now eating, Love my oatmeal, squash of anykind, legumes (onions for my dark sweets, and toasted pear slices or banana slices for my potassium sugar. Water, tea and soymilk. may sound disgusting, however, more energy, less body fat, and for a chef, thats amazing!

    tidalpool wrote on October 26th, 2010
  31. I grew up in Eastern Europe (I’m Polish/Russian), and life is inconceivable there without potatoes. They are everywhere – in soups, salads, as a side dish, even as a main entree, you name it. The rest of the diet is pretty primal – lots of meat, veggies, some fruit and some dairy. The majority people there are slim. During my childhood working out was not something people did, and yet most still stayed slim. I never had any weight problems back then, they started when I got pregnant for the first time. I did not completely eliminate potatoes when trying to lose postpartum, but I limited the intake, and I still lost (slowly but surely). I’ve tried eliminating potatoes completely, too, and it seems that they simply have no impact on my weight. With potatoes or without, I don’t lose or gain. So I decided I’m going to indulge sparingly… I do love ’em taters. 😀

    Maria wrote on November 7th, 2010
  32. Potato is so over-rated and over-served and it usually has a revolting texture.

    99.9% of the time everything tasty about a potato comes from something else: butter, salt, bacon, onion, mayo, sour cream, tasty grease, celery. And the potato itself distracts me from those other flavors I like. I swapped potato for turnip in a potato salad and it was delicious.

    I truly suspect most people do not stop to taste and analyze but just swish it down with their chosen liquid liver toxin of the day.

    Fried into a potato chip is the only special thing really….crispy texture is neat.

    Olivia wrote on November 18th, 2010
    • I disagree, Olivia. I often have a baked potato with nothing on it at all – no salt, butter, etc. I love the texture. I’ve tried turnip, and hated it… Different strokes for different folks, I guess!

      Maria wrote on November 18th, 2010
  33. My husband and I eat for our blood type so my husband limits his white potato intake and neither of us avoid sweet potatoes. We prefer green veggies anyway so we only have white potatoes about 6 times a month and sweet potatoes 2 to 4 times a month.

    We don’t see any weight gain or loss relative to our potato intake – it’s the grains that affect our weight.

    Cyndi wrote on November 28th, 2010

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