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. Being of Scottish extraction, and married to a man who could only be more Irish if he were born in Dublin, potatoes have been a big part of our diet. I’m four days into the primal way of life, and have decided to avoid spuds until I’ve lost this odd 20 pounds (would you believe I’m more than 2.5# down already?) I’ll see how I handle them after that – as a die hard grain-holic, though, I’m shocked that I’ve avoided grains as easily as I have – not that I don’t have to remind myself, but there are so many other options, and no grains = no real psychological need to snack between meals. Yahoo!

    crunchycon wrote on February 26th, 2011
  2. What a brilliant piece of writing.

    Caroline Cooper wrote on April 5th, 2011
  3. This is personal, but I’ve noticed that eating paleo (with a lot of meat) gave me acne, while eating vegan with a lot of potatoes got them away. I’d rather eat paleo, but I’ve always been in better shape when I ate potatoes.

    The days where I looked at my best was, believe it or not, when I started eating tons of french fries and potato chips. I’m not saying this is healthy, but instead of reducing the amount of potatoes I eat, I’ll increase the amount. They taste great, I don’t care about the bad things they cause, as they obviously help me.

    MM wrote on April 21st, 2011
  4. Interesting…one of the challenges I face is that my wife is Bolivian, of Incan heritage, and their meals generally contain at least two, if not all three, of the non-nos – potatoes, pasta, and rice. Makes it hard to generate meal plans we both can live with because there’s no convincing her the potato is evil.

    Gil Gilliam wrote on July 14th, 2011
  5. My carb cravings have pretty much disappeared, so I don’t even want potatoes. But I sure like butternut squash/pumpkin, and its pretty close to a sweet potato, which taste ok but I’ve never liked the slimy-ish texture…

    Milla wrote on September 23rd, 2011
  6. Potatoes stall my weight loss but they don’t cause me to gain weight unless I eat alot of them and other stuff.

    Alex Good wrote on October 23rd, 2011
  7. Excellent post. Again it comes down to knowing your body and what works for you. Having said that it’s also being honest with yourself. Many people are overweight and don’t necessarily consider themselves to be. I personally don’t eat potatoes unless I’ve been invited to someone’s house for dinner and they’ve made them. I don’t have a problem with them but there are too many other amazing other foods I find tastier.

    Rocofit wrote on November 19th, 2011
    • Awesome post, also my favorite and I’m new to the Apple and love it.

      I get locally grown from an organic farm small blue and yellow potatoes that are amazing cooked Indian style with Turmeric.

      I somewhat limit potatoes because the starch maxes out my carb load quick but I enjoy them occasionally.

      I find I like the small colored ones (yellow, red) rather than the larger white variety. Don’t ask me why, just the big ones seem drier and more carby to me.

      I might get some of my geeky LOTR friends interested in paleo showing them this post!

      I WANT that recipe for Lembas someone mentioned:

      “lembas was made of a “meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the color of cream”. i suggest that i was in fact a cake of almond meal, eggs, butter (or cream) and honey….”

      Goes away to do research..

      Thanks for this post!!!

      Galadriel wrote on January 4th, 2012
      • To clarify: yes I do get blue potatoes locally but you may not find them at your store.

        And when I say “bit potatoes” I mean those big ones with the dark brown skin and light colored flesh.

        The big yellow ones can be fine in my experience.

        Over and out. :)

        Galadriel wrote on January 4th, 2012
  8. *big* not bit. Need an edit button.


    Galadriel wrote on January 4th, 2012
  9. I have been eating copious amounts of potatoes for the last 9 months(10-12 per day) as my primary source of calories and I’ve lost 75lbs! Not bad eh paleo trolls. Had I followed the poor dietary advice offered here by this nitwit Sisson and all you fools, I’d be dead. So STFU and quit with the tuber bashing.

    Chris Ripley wrote on January 22nd, 2012
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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

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