We look at the nutritional facts and health benefits of potatoes, especially for heart health, and why the Heart and Stroke Foundation has endorsed boiled potatoes with the skin on.
“You are what you eat” – this old saying is something to reflect on, especially when heart health is concerned. It is well-recognised that making informed choices about what we eat has a profound impact on our general physical and mental well-being, including the health of our cardiovascular system. What’s less well-known is the contribution that potatoes can make to a heart-friendly diet.
South African statistics
At the outset, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how serious the problem is in our country. The sad fact is that South Africa has one of the highest rates of hypertension and strokes in the world.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa’s website provides these sobering statistics: 225 South Africans are killed by heart disease every day, 45% of adults in South Africa have high blood pressure, and 10 South Africans suffer a stroke every hour.
But the good news is that 80% of heart disease and strokes can be prevented, which takes us back to the importance of a heart-healthy diet.
Endorsement of boiled potatoes
The Heart and Stroke Foundation has endorsed boiled potatoes as a heart-healthy food, provided it’s boiled and served with its skin on. This is an important qualification because one of the characteristics of the potato is that it is so versatile; it can be cooked in many ways, and the cooking method has a huge impact on its healthiness.
Health benefits of potatoes
One of the main reasons a potato a day keeps your heart happy is its high potassium content. A 150-gram serving of boiled potato will provide 20% of the recommended daily allowance of potassium. Potassium helps maintain a proper fluid balance, regulate blood pressure, transmit nerve impulses and support muscle function, including the heart muscle.
Aside from its role in regulating blood pressure, and thus in reducing the risk of hypertension, potassium also blunts the effect of sodium on blood pressure. High sodium consumption—and that’s a South African fault—is a major contributor to hypertension.
Potatoes are also rich in vitamins C and B6, copper and insoluble fibre. Insoluble fibre is another secret weapon in the fight against heart disease. It binds with blood cholesterol, so it is excreted safely, and doesn’t build up in the blood, thus descrease the risk of heart attack.
Because potatoes are a source of fibre, they are bulkier than many other foods. This is important because a bulky meal is more satisfying than a light meal, even if they have the same calorific value. That’s because the more bulk there is in your stomach, the more stimulated the vagus nerve is. This nerve is responsible for transmitting the full feeling to the brain. And the fuller you feel for longer, the less likely you are to be overweight. And as we all know; extra weight is a major strain on the heart.
Claire Jusling Strydom, a registered dietitian, says that the potato’s high potassium content, its fibre and its other important minerals make it an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. “Potatoes are cheap, they make you feel full and they promote a healthy body, including a healthy heart. That makes them a healthy and cost-effective alternative for other forms of refined starch,” she says. “But everything depends on how you cook them, and what else you put on the plate.”
Five ways potatoes improve heart health
- The potato’s fibre, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B6 content, coupled with its lack of cholesterol, all support heart health.
- Potatoes contain more potassium than any other vegetables. Potassium plays a crucial role in normal heartbeat rhythm, smooth muscle contraction, blood pressure control, and nervous system and heart function.
- Potatoes contain significant amounts of fibre. Fibre helps lower the total amount of cholesterol in the blood, thereby decreasing the risk of heart disease.
- Some evidence suggests that potatoes might help reduce inflammation and constipation. Although it is not proven that inflammation causes cardiovascular disease, inflammation is common for heart disease and stroke patients and is thought to be a sign or atherogenic response.
- Potatoes contain several minerals and plant compounds that may help lower blood pressure. Low blood pressure that causes an inadequate flow of blood to the body’s organs can cause strokes, heart attacks, and kidney failure.
“The shocking statistics that can be decreased if we are mindful of our health are a testament that something needs to be done. We work towards the prevention of heart disease on the one hand and suggesting health and nutritious food options on the other, further driving conversation around the role potatoes play in heart health.” – says, Dr Bianca van der Westhuizen, Nutrition Science Manager at the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa. “Further to this, we have started a drive through which we are aiming to achieve a 25% Rheumatic Heart Disease reduction in those under the age of 25 years by 2025.”