Potatoes notoriously get a bad rap for their high carb and starch content and semi-limited nutritional value. And it doesn’t seem like that reputation is going anywhere soon. A recent study published by The BMJ showed that a higher intake of boiled, baked, or mashed potatoes, French fries, or potato chips is associated with an increased risk of developing high blood pressure in adult women and men.
Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School followed the dietary intake, including potato consumption, of more than 187,000 men and women for more than 20 years. Their findings revealed that women who consumed four or more servings a week of baked, boiled, or mashed potatoes had an increased risk of hypertension when compared to those who ate less than one serving a week. Only French fries were associated with this increased risk for both men and women.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that this is an observational study, which means it did not have any set parameters or control groups such as how often the participants could exercise, what toppings were allowed (e.g., butter and sour cream), or what else could be eaten throughout the day. Secondly, it’s probably no surprise that the correlation was stronger with French fries. But is that increased risk for hypertension due to a greater consumption of fried food overall instead of this version of potatoes specifically? Interestingly enough, scientists from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service found that potatoes contain a compound that may actually help reduce blood pressure. Confused?
The authors themselves acknowledge that the study has limitations and that, as with any observational study, no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect. You may have heard the saying “correlation does not imply causation.”
As a registered dietitian, I will continue to recommend potatoes to my clients. One medium-size potato has only 110 calories and offers plenty of nutrients including potassium, vitamins B and C, and fiber—to get the most benefits, eat the skin. What this study brings up is the question of how to best prepare potatoes so that you reap the most health benefits. Some smart options: Baked and topped with salsa, hummus, mustard, plain yogurt, or cottage cheese; roasted with a little olive oil and rosemary; or boiled and mashed with veggie or chicken broth, and a little salt and pepper. If you still want the French fries, go for it. Because let’s be honest. A world without French fries is a sad one. Just keep portions to a minimum.