Thanks to Dr. Atkins and other carbohydrate phobics, the potato has gotten a bad rap. It is true the potato is high in carbohydrate, but when eaten as part of a balanced diet, it's not the nutritional nightmare it has been made out to be.

A Starch or a Vegetable?

According to the USDA, the potato is a starchy vegetable. This distinction comes from its status as a tuber, which is the name given to an enlarged underground stem of a plant. A tuber is a plant's storage site for starch—the complex form of carbohydrate. This makes the potato much higher in carbohydrate, and therefore calories, than the average vegetable. For example:

VegetableCalories Carbohydrate
(grams)
Boiled zucchini (1 cup = 180 g)287
Baked potato (180 g)18943
Spaghetti (180 g)25251

So, a serving of mashed potatoes counts as a vegetable serving when striving for 5-A-Day—the government's campaign to encourage people to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. However, when considering calories, the potato is more on par with a serving of rice or pasta.

The Benefits of a Vegetable

The potato is a good source of fiber (with the skin on), vitamin C , potassium, vitamin B6 , and niacin. And like most vegetables, this tuber contains no fat. However, when it's fried or smothered in butter, sour cream, or similar toppings, the calories and fat really add up. For example, note the nutrient profile of French fries:

Baked potato
with skin
(1 medium)
Mashed potatoes,
homemade
(1 cup)
French fries
(Burger King's
medium)
Calories220222360
Fat (g)0.28.820
Carbohydrate (g)513541
Protein (g)4.644
Vitamin C (mg)26124
Potassium (mg)844606unknown
Vitamin B6 (mg)0..700.48unknown
Niacin (mg)3.32.22.6
Sodium (mg)16620590
Fiber (g)4.84.23

Source: Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 1998.

Building a Better Baked Potato

Mashed potatoes, hash browns, potato salad, French fries, potato pancakes, scalloped potatoes…what do these potato preparations have in common? Their high fat content. There are many ways to prepare potatoes, but the baked potato is the healthiest. However, many people load up a baked potato with fatty toppings like sour cream, butter, bacon, and cheese, which change this way of eating a potato from healthful to unhealthful. It can be a side dish or, with the right toppings, can stand alone as a meal.

Try some of these toppings to make your baked potato a bit healthier:

  • Baked beans
  • Black or red beans and salsa
  • Salsa and shredded low-fat cheese
  • Broccoli and low-fat cheddar
  • Tomato sauce and Parmesan or part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • Light cottage cheese
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Light, whipped butter
  • Low-fat or non-fat sour cream and chives or diced scallions
  • Sautéed vegetables in tomato sauce

Potatoes can be baked quickly in the microwave. Poke a few holes in the skin with a fork and cook for about 6-8 minutes per potato. Turn potatoes once during cooking. When baking potatoes in the oven, poke a few holes in them, but don't wrap them in aluminum foil. Foil seals in moisture resulting in a texture that is pasty instead of dry and fluffy. A potato can take an hour or more to cook thoroughly. Once baking is complete, though, the potato can be wrapped in foil to hold its warmth.

One Potato, Two Potato…

Potatoes come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Here's a guide to help decide which spud to buy and how best to prepare it.

Type of PotatoWhat It Looks LikeWhat It's Best For
Russet
  • Brown skin and white flesh
  • Light and fluffy when cooked
  • Baking
  • Mashing
  • Frying
  • Roasting
  • Soup
Round White
  • Smooth, light tan skin with white flesh
  • Creamy in texture
  • Hold their shape well after cooking
Can be used for any potato preparation, but are especially good for:
  • Frying
  • Scalloping
  • Pancakes
  • Gnocchi
Long White
  • Oval shaped, with thin tan skin
  • Firm, creamy texture when cooked
Can be used for any potato preparation, but are especially good for:
  • Roasting
  • Boiling
  • Salad
Round Red (often called "new potatoes")
  • Rosy red skin and white flesh
  • Firm, smooth, and moist texture
  • Salads
  • Roasting
  • Boiling
  • Steaming
Yellow Flesh
  • Golden in color
  • Dense creamy texture
  • Can be used for any potato preparation
Blue and Purple (relatively rare in the US)
  • Subtle nutty flavor and flesh that ranges in color from dark blue or lavender to white
  • Microwaving
  • Steaming
  • Baking

Selecting and Storing Your Spuds

Here are some tips for handling potatoes:

At the market:

  • Select potatoes that are firm, smooth, and fairly clean.
  • Avoid potatoes that are wrinkled or have wilted skins, soft dark areas, cut surfaces, or a green appearance.
  • Choose potatoes of similar size (or cut them into similar size) for even cooking time.

At home:

  • Store potatoes in a cool, dark place that is well ventilated. The ideal storage temperature is 45-50°F.
  • Do not refrigerate potatoes. If they are stored below 42°F, the starch will be converted to sugar, which changes the taste and causes potatoes to darken when cooked.
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to light, which causes potatoes to turn green. This greening causes a bitter flavor, so any green areas should be cut off before cooking.
  • If your potatoes develop sprouts, trim them off before using.
  • If you cut potatoes ahead of time, they can be stored in cold water before cooking to prevent discoloration. However, do not leave them in water for more than two hours, because the water-soluble nutrients (such as vitamin C and B6) will seep out into the water.
  • To retain water-soluble nutrients, save and use the soaking and/or cooking water.
  • Keep the skins on potatoes in order to retain more of the nutrients, including fiber. Scrub them with a vegetable brush or clean sponge before using.
  • Refrigerate leftover potatoes within two hours after cooking.

Click here for some potato recipes .