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. As a kid when I was hungry and it was way before dinner was going to be ready my Mom would give me a big slice of uncooked white potato with a little salt and pepper on it to hold me over until dinner. Tasted fine and held me over.

    Any thoughts on the difference in the insulin response and nutrition between raw and cooked potatoes?

    Aguahondo wrote on February 19th, 2012
  2. I’d rather be a Samwise and lead a mortal life rich in good character and God made carbs than a vile, wretched Gollum dieting on raw fish, destined to an eternity of misery…which is pretty much what life would be without potatoes ;)

    Literary Mom wrote on February 22nd, 2012
  3. Hasn’t anyone read Clan of the Cave Bear, The Earth’s Children series? Jean Auel did a ton of research for them. I remember something about “ground nuts” which were described as being similar to potatoes. The series is great if you want a good read. The main character knows ALOT about food.

    Erin wrote on February 28th, 2012
  4. I don’t eat potatos (nightshade intolerance) but iv been experimenting with paleo over the last month. On three occasions sweet potato has caused bloating and weight gain. Nothing else iv eaten has had this reaction.

    So all potatos are off the menu for me I think.

    Tarryne wrote on March 24th, 2012
  5. I have eliminated wheat, rice, legumes from my diet and life is 10x better, stronger leaner…

    However I do eat potatoes and yams regularly with my vegetables and steaks.

    They are very mineral and vitamin rich, they provide nice clean energy, and they are great on training days for adding muscle mass!

    Potatoes and beef all the way :D

    Aaron wrote on August 24th, 2012
  6. Wondering what’s the take on sweet potatoes. I’ve been helping my mom cut out the grains and sugars, and I keep catching her cheating and thinking its healthy (juicifying fruits and veggies with yoplait flavors into smoothies is a fun example) Every meal she tells me about involves sweet potatoes. My instinct says sweet potatoes on the reg is still a lot of carbs and sugar and not really necessary, but I’m also thinking that if she’s gonna eat something sweet it might as well be that. Any cautions against daily sweet potato consumption aside from the fact that you just might not lose weight as effortlessly? What about for my diabetic grandma? Any concerns there? Thanks guys!

    J. Yolks wrote on September 25th, 2012
  7. I wouldn’t worry about sweet potatoes… there’s lots more to them than just carbs. Advise your family members to steer clear of empty carbs, processed food, grains… but I would advise you not to push them too hard (e.g. no carbs at all) or they’ll stop listening to you altogether!

    2ndChance wrote on September 25th, 2012
  8. New to the paleo diet, our family has been eating low starch, refined grains and sugar diet a long time. Alway heavy on the veggies and proteins. SInce starting paleo, I save the potatoes for big workout days. It helos me stay energized int eh workout.

    Nessa wrote on October 17th, 2012
  9. I’ve been tinkering with this.. So, I like to eat potatoes raw. Like the little Gold potatoes, from Trader Joe’s. I just slice them and eat them raw with a little salt on them. Am I eating something I shouldn’t be, by eating them raw?

    Mark wrote on November 30th, 2012
  10. I’ve been playing with fermenting potatoes to reduce the starchiness, reduce inflammatory bullshit and just cause I like fermenting things to see what it does.

    I use brine from sour kraut previously made, so the culture is already established and armed with enzymes. The result is a delicious and far more complex food, with a really nice flavor arch. Can’t do shit with it other than mash, since the fermentation loosens it up quite a bit, but you don’t need to add sour cream or salt cause it’s already got the sour/savory thing going on. Just add one metric f&*^ton of butter and you’ve got a great side dish for a post assbust meal.

    Samtop wrote on January 14th, 2013
  11. I ate plenty of raw potatoes when I was a child. In fact I found them quite palatable. (Not ‘New potatoes’ as they gave me a slight burning sensation on my tongue.) I can’t say I was ever ill through eating a raw, King Edward’s!

    John Walker wrote on January 25th, 2013
  12. I used potatoes to help eliminate wheat, for example eggs with potatoes and I still lost 12 pounds in less than two mnoths. I also eliminated sugar. So occasional potatoes seems to suit my metabolism ok.

    Foodie wrote on February 4th, 2013
  13. Being Irish and all, I eat between 4 and 6 spuds a day and I don’t have a problem with them. Even if I did, I couldn’t give them up. Dad and myself have just finished planting all of this years spuds and if I don’t eat them the alternative is going hungry.

    Anthony wrote on March 12th, 2013
  14. Mark, thank you for the great post about potatoes.
    I grew up in a potato eating culture, where potatoes were the main source of energy along freshwater fish and game meat, counting probably as high as 50% of the daily calorie intake. I, however, quickly grew out of the habit of eating potatoes when I moved out of home. This was something that came very natural to me without anyone ever telling me that I should not eat potatoes. This happened when I was about 20 years old, after extremely active childhood. For me that indicates that my body was telling me that I do not need all those starchy calories anymore as my metabolism was slowing down, as was my activity level, too. Nevertheless, I do still enjoy potatoes occasionally, as long as they are “primal” varieties and organic.

    As a side note I would like to point out one thing about Tolkien and his inspiration. In addition to the Norsk and Anglo-Saxon mythology, one of Tolkiens major inspirations came from the Finnish national epic Kalevala and finnish language.
    “Tolkien’s High Elvish language, Quenya, was inspired by Finnish. Tolkien taught himself Finnish in order to read the Kalevala, a 19th-century compilation of old Finnish songs and stories arranged by Elias Lönnrot into a linear epic poem and completed in 1835 and revised in the mid-1800s.
    The Kalevala epic parallels the real history of the Finns. It played a key role in preserving the oral legends and songs of the Finns, which linguists think date back to preagricultural Finland. As cultural anthropologist Wade Davis notes, “it goes back to the time of the shaman … when people lived…”
    continue reading here: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/ngbeyond/rings/language.html

    You might already guess that I’m a Finn myself ;)

    Thanks!

    Sampo wrote on March 27th, 2013
  15. I feel fine when I eat potatoes, they are high in nutrients and contrary to popular belief I consider them a low calorie, healthy food. That being said a large potato has roughly 90 calories and can quickly gain more when fat is added which also diminishes the nutritional value. To feel satiated I have found that I need to eat a starchy carbohydrate and potatoes fit the bill.

    America wrote on March 27th, 2013
  16. I’m 29, 6’1 and 155 lbs. basically been this weight since high school. Before paleo I could eat anything and not gain a pound. In fact I ate 10k calories a day for three months once and didn’t gain much. I just started paleo and I feel hungry non stop even though I am eating tons and often through out the day. I also get headaches in the evening (I’m guessing withdrawals) so would working in some potatoes help here?

    David wrote on May 31st, 2013
  17. I follow Dr. Kwasniewski’s Optimal Diet and eat a potato every night for dinner and continue to lose weight each week.

    Theresa wrote on June 26th, 2013
  18. What about the toxic compounds in potatoes – glycoalkaloids? If I remember right they are not present in sweet or yams. Also too lazy to look it up right now, but i believe these compounds are mainly in the skin of the potato.

    Dan Paleo wrote on September 14th, 2013
  19. What about soaking potatoes in water for a few hours and then boiling them to remove starch? Does that make it better?

    CB wrote on September 19th, 2013
  20. I’ve got ‘kinda’ Paleo a while back. I was always a chubby kid, despite being incredibly active from the age of 5 until my late teens (when drink and drugs took over from sport as my main focus). I used to go to the gym four times a week, play tennis, swim, and cycle, and yet I was always sporting a flabby gut.

    I grew up eating mountains of mash, and later, my mum got into pulses and pasta in the early 80’s, and from the age of 20, until my late 30’s I steadlly but slowly put on weight. Back in 2008, I split up my girlfriend rather messily, and decided to stop drinking and smoking, and lost quite a bit of weight straight away, the following year, I was given a book by my Gary Taubes on carbs and weight gain, and changed my diet, eliminating or reducing, rice, pasta, bread, and potatoes (thought less so potatoes). I went from 16 stone at my heaviest, to 14 stone now (I’m 6 foot 3 and fairly big built) – and my weight now very rarely varies my more than a couple of pounds in either direction. I exercise moderately, cycling 4 miles a day, and occasionaly doing some calisthenics and weight training once or twice a week. I’m in better shape now than my late 20’s. I smoke and drink, perhaps once a week, maybe twice I’ll have a good old drink, some weeks none at all.

    Last year I was diagnosed with Coeliac disease, after a year of feeling so bad I felt like I was dying, i was so fatigued and malnourished, I could hardly stay awake during the day, constantly had IBS, and couldn’t concentrate. After a battery of blood tests, my doctor suggested eliminating grains completetly, which I did, and immediately felt better. The test for Coeliac disease came back negative, but my doctor said the test was not reliable and said to trust my body – what a great doctor! He was right.

    On to potatoes. I found that after long bouts of carb rich foods for several weeks, I would lose a lot of body fat, and then could reintroduce potato, and very occasionally rice into my diet, without gaining weight. However, once I start eating those things, I find an incredible craving – I eat enough rice for 4 people the other night, and in the same week, wolfed down two huge baked potatoes.

    I think clearly that if you reset your metabolism by elimination – you can afford to reintroduce those foods, but you need to watch out for the binging. I could eat a huge pot of mashed potato with butter which would feed 6-8 people by myself, without any trouble.

    james mcdonnell wrote on September 25th, 2013
  21. I certainly try to avoid white potatoes as much as I can, but when my mum makes a pot roast, my body wont let me say no.
    Its good to know im not really breaking any laws if I nibble a few spuds every 6 months or so.

    Nell wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  22. The only way for me to keep a healthy (high enough) weight is to eat starches.
    I eat lots of banana’s, carrots and I also eat sweet potatoes or potatoes once in while.
    I do not know how my insulin levels are doing though. I don’t have any obvious problems, but I feel a bit weak if I don’t eat for a long time. Not sure that means anything.
    I always had an extremely hard time gaining and that helps plus fat.
    I tried low carb before, I was able to maintain at a lower weight and not lose but my face was sunk in, saggy and I started getting a fungus on my face and digestive issues as well as PMS, thyoroid and liver problems…short: it really wasn’t for me. With the same weight and starch I looked glowing, youthful it rud me of all the problems :)

    Mia wrote on November 11th, 2013
  23. Im at week 5 of paleo eating and I have terrible nasal congestion, week 3 I felt great after an initial 2 week detox. Any suggestions what the problem could be?

    pauo wrote on November 19th, 2013
  24. Oh, read the books, folks: Frodo complains about his waistline in the first few chapters, and both Sam and Frodo lost a significant amount of weight during their quest to destroy the ring. They are HOBBITS; they weren’t eating as much as they normally did–they were starving, lembas or no–and were far more physically active than usual, in fact physically tortured. Gollum was alive merely by willpower and the influence of the ring, not his diet. Using their weight and diet as a measure of their survival is as irrelevant as using their height. It’s not meant to be a serious correlation, although it did appeal to my LOTR nerdiness. ;)

    I think it’s far more significant to point out Sam’s distrust of ‘foreign food’ as he describes the Elven lembas, and Tolkien’s own preference for ‘simple fare’ and forging in the woods for wild mushrooms. Simple unprocessed foods–whether one includes tubers or not–sounds like a healthier way to me, and seems to be working for me. I don’t currently eat white potatoes or dairy on a regular basis, but I’m also avoiding even paleo baked goods because I tend to overeat them and I’m trying to avoid that.

    A.Z. wrote on March 7th, 2014
  25. For children: how about potatoes for children who have a healthy weight, are active, and seem to have a relatively “undamaged” metabolism. I have 6 year old twins and I’ve very recently gone paleo. They were put on grain-free just this past week. After about 6 days the loose stools started and I thought to check for ketosis. I was not too happy to see that’s where they are at–in keto! So I’m scrambling to find carb and starch sources *that they’ll eat* (picky eating persists, of course.) Bananas aren’t yet an option (but I’m baking them into lots of things for them,) but I know they’d eat baked “french fries” or hash browns. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

    Jodi wrote on March 29th, 2014
  26. Don’t forget that Gollum was a cannibal, so he probably went mad due to prions. (Loads of those in goblin brains!)

    Brian Williams wrote on June 30th, 2014

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