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Is Samwise Gamgee Right About Potatoes?

Posted By Mark Sisson On October 19, 2010 @ 10:32 am In Carbs,Nutrition | 214 Comments

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 [7] and legumes [8], on the other hand, are tiny, disparate sources of calories that need soaking [9], fermenting [10], 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 [11], and they’ve got even less salivary amylase to break down starch [12] than we do. Evidence exists for human consumption of roots and tubers from multiple sites spanning multiple time periods: Northern Europe (specifically Poland [13]), 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 [14], 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 [15]. 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 [16], gluten [17], and phytic acid while preserving nutrient, vitamin, and mineral content. Besides, Frodo got a lot of low level, slow moving cardio [18] – hiking, really – and didn’t eat much fructose [19] or seed oil, so his insulin [20] 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 [21]. 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 [22], 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 [23] – 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!


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[9] soaking: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/soaking-seeds-and-nuts/

[10] fermenting: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/fermented-foods-health/

[11] use sticks to dig up and eat wild tubers: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/11/071113-chimps-tools.html

[12] salivary amylase to break down starch: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2377015/

[13] specifically Poland: http://www.springerlink.com/content/aj286518013457n7/

[14] rice post: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/is-rice-unhealthy/

[15] macronutrient split: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_zULJExxrW54/SWQ8nXlrCSI/AAAAAAAAAXw/gx02s7lytzI/s1600-h/macronutrient_changes,_tokelau_1968-1982.png

[16] lectins: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/lectins/

[17] gluten: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/gluten-celiac-disease/

[18] low level, slow moving cardio: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/health-benefits-moderate-exercise/

[19] fructose: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-definitive-guide-to-sugar/

[20] insulin: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/diabetes/

[21] straining away on the treadmill: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/chronic-cardio-2/

[22] duck fat: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/yet-another-primal-primer-animal-fats/

[23] not set in stone: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/epigenetics/

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