My name is Cynthia and I eat potatoes. In fact, I might not be thriving today were it not for this humble inexpensive food. I was very likely one of the top 100 pickiest eaters as a child. True. Let’s swap stories and see. When I was age 6-10 years old there were very few foods that I deemed edible except sugar. Which I had a raging addiction to. I would steal hard candies from the neighbor’s candy dish and stuff pieces in the pockets of my little 1960’s zip-up seersucker jumpsuit. When dinner time came I would surreptitiously wrap food into my napkin or under the rim of my plate until my father glanced over and hrumphed that I had eaten enough and could be excused. I didn’t want the food on my plate. I wanted to go off and eat the booty from my pockets.
I did manage to grow, though I was a skinny thing. Besides cinnamon toast, Tang and Chef Boyardee spaghetti, I would happily devour mashed potatoes, baked potatoes or French fries. Somehow I managed to stay alive and growing on potatoes and a few other menu items. Despite current nutrition research, I was skinny as a rail.
That’s right. A study out of Harvard questions potato-eating, linking it as a leading contributor to long-term weigh gain. Most of us thought – well, sure, French fries and potato chips. But according to the study, even boiled potatoes are problematic. The lead researcher says the way the body processes the carbohydrates in potatoes appears to be more conducive to weight gain than the calorie count alone would suggest. Potatoes are lumped in with sugar and refined carbohydrates as part of a growing body of scientific evidence seeking which foods lay on fat and trigger the so-called “metabolic syndrome,” including unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and arterial plaque. Aren’t potatoes a whole food? What’s refined about a potato?
From a big picture point of view potatoes don’t seem the same as sugar to me. But they did to the researchers and the Institute of Medicine panel that developed proposed guidelines for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The new proposed USDA rules for school lunch specifically limits the total number of servings of starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, green peas, and lima beans) to one cup per week. It also would eliminate these vegetables from breakfast altogether (no egg on hash browns?)
The National Potato Council is not accepting the rule like some limp French fry. They’ve launched a clear rebuttal with their “Five Reasons to Keep Potatoes in School” document. In a recent NPR account of the spud battle Chris Voigt of the Potato Commission in Washington was interviewed. Voigt thinks the potato is being punished for what people do to it. It’s true that potatoes have been taking a whipping. Last year, the USDA banned participants in the Women, Infants and Children program from using federal assistance checks to buy potatoes.
Many of the proposed guidelines are good. The Institute of Medicine panel that developed them cite that schools need to serve a greater variety of vegetables, especially dark green and orange vegetables, take chocolate milk out of the picture and make sure that ½ of all grains served be whole grains. I’m all for that!
But in my mind and my body, eating potato doesn’t trigger the same responses as chomping down Snicker’s bar. I don’t get a burst of false energy, or a crash later. I don’t want to steal potatoes from the neighbor’s refrigerator and put them in my pockets. Unlike sugar, potato calories aren’t empty. Significant fiber and potassium are packaged in this low-calorie vegetable. And a typical baked potato entree is almost always accompanied by other awesome whole foods like grilled salmon or chipotle black bean stew, whole milk yogurt, pastured butter, blanched broccoli, homemade salsa. The Potato Council calls them a “gateway vegetable” saying that potatoes do not crowd out other nutritious choices and beckon other vegetables to appear on the plate.
What are your thoughts? Should potatoes be limited in the school lunch menu mash-up?