When it comes to potatoes, the classic white variety doesn’t get nearly as much love as its sweeter, orange counterpart. These days, it seems as though sweet potatoes are more commonly touted for their nutritional benefits, while white potatoes are largely looked at as something you might allow yourself on a cheat day.
So what’s the deal? Are white potatoes really that bad for you? We asked Pamela Nisevich Bede, M.S., R.D., a sports dietitian at Swim, Bike, Run, Eat! Sports Nutrition, for her take on the issue.
Sweet potatoes are better for you than white potatoes because they contain more nutrients such as complex carbs, vitamin A, beta-carotene, magnesium, and manganese. White potatoes are higher on the glycemic index scale, and are also seen as fattening since they’re often made as french fries or loaded with toppings like butter, salt, sour cream, and bacon.
Here’s how the two types of potatoes compare: One medium baked sweet potato contains 103 calories, 24 grams of carbs, 4 grams of fibre, 2 grams of protein, 7 grams of sugar, and vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, manganese, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
One medium white potato contains 164 calories, 37 grams of carbs, 4.5 grams of fibre, 4 grams of protein, 1.8 grams of sugar, and vitamins and minerals such as potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, iron, and zinc.
What does all of that actually mean for your health? While both types of spuds have complex carbs, sweet potatoes are indeed lower on the glycemic index versus white potatoes, according to Nisevich Bede. This means sweet potatoes are slower to digest and have less of an impact on blood glucose levels. Fueling with carbs that take longer to digest means that you can run longer without totally hitting the wall.
Both potato varieties contain fibre, which keeps your digestive tract regular and stabilizes your blood sugar so there are no major drops or spikes. They also both contain protein to build and repair your muscles postrun, but white potatoes contain twice the amount of protein as sweet.
The various vitamins and minerals in both potatoes help maintain strong bones and muscles, and a healthy immune system.
White potatoes get a bad rap, “probably because they are typically enjoyed in a high-calorie fashion,” Nisevich Bede says. “They don’t contain serious amounts of flavour or moisture when cooked, so people tend to rely on fat and salt to make up for the flavour.” Think: loaded baked potatoes with all the fixings or deep-fried french fries.
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them though. In fact, white potatoes are a great source of potassium, especially if you leave the skin on. “White potatoes are one of the top sources of potassium in the American diet,” Nisevich Bede says. Just scrub the skin clean before consuming.
They also pack a ton of vitamin C—42 milligrams, or about half of the recommended daily amount.
To retain the white potato’s health benefits and save on calories, Nisevich Bede recommends topping them with things such as salsa, greek yogurt, or spices.
“I believe in moderation, but I also believe in making your calories work for you. So if you choose a more indulgent way to enjoy potatoes, offset this with lean meats and nutrient-dense veggies,” she says.
For instance, if you’re really craving french fries, allow yourself a small serving and pair them with a piece of salmon and broccoli or green beans on the side.
While white potatoes are totally fine to eat, don’t count sweet potatoes out if that’s what you enjoy more—they still contain plenty of nutrients that will benefit you on and off the bike. And don’t worry too much about the fact that this type of spud contains more sugar. Nisevich Bede says you should be more concerned about added sugar in your diet than naturally-occurring sugars like the kind in sweet potatoes.
“I consider either potato a source of carbohydrate, and for most endurance athletes, carbs are a great source of energy before a workout, throughout the day, and to restock glycogen stores post-workout,” Nisevich Bede says.
The bottom line? Both types of spuds are a great addition to a healthy diet, so just choose your favourite. Whichever one you go with, avoid prepping them with added fat, salt, or sugar—baked is best.
By Danielle Zickl