What you need to know about natural toxins found in potatoes and potato skins and the effects on your body
Guest Article by Nate Miyaki - Nutritionist, Author of Feast Your Fat Away
Try to eat a bird in the wild, and it will try to peck off your hand.
Try to reel in a Marlin without being prepared for battle, and it will take you for a swim and then stab you in the heart.
The point is that all animals have defense mechanisms against potential predators.
Guess what? So do plants, but they are just not as obvious as claws or teeth. They have more innovative ways of trying to NOT get eaten.
Most plants produce some sort of toxic compounds that they use to ward off insects and animals. Who cares right? Well, those same compounds can be problematic for both human digestion and overall health.
Now don’t panic... eating that salad is not going kill you.
As you know, it's the dose that makes the poison with any natural toxin. Small exposure to a toxin – such as the alcohol in a glass of red wine or a dark beer – has an antioxidant effect and can actually improve your health. But large and frequent exposure – like a daily Jack Daniels Attack – can cause alcohol poisoning and liver disease.
Today I want to talk to you about the toxic compounds in a food that's near and dear to my heart – POTATOES, aka - taters.
TATERS AND TOXINS
First, lets establish I believe in a relatively moderate carbohydrate approach for those who perform anaerobic training on a regular basis... Not too low, not too high, and eaten at the right times of day.
While sedentary populations generally do better with a lower carbohydrate approach, some controlled and well-timed carbs can help an athlete properly fuel and recover from intense strength or cross-training sessions.
Yet we know the many problems associated with concentrated sources of refined sugar, gluten, cereal grains, and other foods in a typical Y2K diet. That’s the value of a Paleolithic approach to nutrition – eliminate the crap without the complexity.
So where can we turn to for anaerobic carb fuel? Many Paleo proponents who exercise intensely regularly recommend potatoes and/or sweet potatoes as their primary carb source.
I agree, with a subtle caveat -- the preparation of those potatoes matter, especially if you're eating them on a near daily basis.
Remember, the frequency of exposure to a toxin, and the dose, makes the difference.
I’ve worked with athletes that tried regular potatoes as their primary starch fuel and complained of side effects such as inflammation and joint pain.
Others have tried sweet potatoes and complained of bloating and other gastrointestinal distress.
In both cases, the fact that they were eating “carbs” in general was blamed. But the reality was it wasn’t the glucose/starch that was the problem. It was the natural toxic compounds coming along with, and protecting that starch... the plant's natural defense system.
PEEL TO FEEL BETTER
Lets start with the bad news first. In addition to starch, potatoes contain toxic compounds called glycoalkaloids. This is their own little toxic compound they use to ward off predators (like us humans) from eating the potato and thereby killing it.
The good news? The majority of these glycoalkaloids are located in the skins of potatoes.
Thus, if you eat potatoes on a regular basis, I suggest you peel, boil, and eat them without the skins. Why? You end up with good starch that you can use as anaerobic fuel (if you workout intensely), along with a decent variety of vitamins and minerals that are found in potatoes, but WITHOUT the potential drawbacks of overexposure to the toxic compounds found mostly in the skins.
Sure, that means you're throwing away a little bit of the fiber of the potato, but I think you'll agree it's best to pass on a couple grams of fiber if it means you eliminate most of the TOXINS too!
What about sweet potatoes?
Now, the science is not so clear when it comes to sweet potatoes, as they are a completely different classification of plant from regular potatoes, and don't contain these particular toxins we've identified in potatoes. But my personal anecdotal evidence as an athlete and coach is clear.
I’ve worked with many strength trainers that complained of GI distress when emphasizing sweet potatoes as their primary carbohydrate source. I experienced this personally. My suspicion was that some compound located in the skins caused it.
It makes sense logically right? The skin is that outer layer that wards off predators, especially those that don’t walk around with a handy-dandy peeler. So we tested this theory...
And sure enough, when the same peeling method was applied, removing the skins of sweet pototoes, the GI distress went away for the majority of my clients. The consistency was too much to just be coincidence.
RICE CAN ALSO BE NICE
I look at the skins of potatoes and sweet potatoes much in the same way I look at the bran of rice.
If you are a Paleo geek, you already know the problem with most cereal grains – “anti-nutrients” such as phytic acid can inhibit mineral absorption and cause GI distress. Brown rice is no different.
Yet in more informed Paleo circles, especially those that include regular intense exercisers, white rice is often included as what is referred to as a “safe starch” option. I agree 100%.
The “anti-nutrient” or phytic acid that is problematic for digestion and nutrient absorption is located in the bran of the grain. This is removed in the milling process that essentially changes brown rice to white rice.
That’s why cultures that eat a lot of rice generally eat white rice. It’s probably due more to natural intuition than scientific method.
CAVEMAN AND CULTURAL CONCLUSIONS
I believe evolutionary history teaches us valuable lessons about optimum nutrition for health, without information overload, or waiting for science to “catch” up to what nature has been trying to teach us for centuries.
I also believe some cultural approaches to nutrition can do the same for merging health with modern performance and physique goals.
As I wrap this thing up, I’m looking down at my Japanese-style dinner. The side of rice is white, and the sweet potato next to it is peeled, boiled, and mashed. In a cultural diet that includes these foods on a regular basis, that’s for a reason!
Hey, it's Mike here... Thanks Nate for a great article! I recently met Nate and have found him to be one of the most knowledgeable guys I've talked to about nutrition in a long time.
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Certified Nutrition Specialist
Certified Personal Trainer