If you have diabetes or are at risk of developing diabetes, you probably have a lot of questions about how your diet can play a role in your blood sugar levels – and for a good reason!
Your diet plays a big role in your blood sugar, but it can be difficult to know exactly what to do about your eating habits sometimes.
We’ll try to set the record straight on one food that gets a lot of attention in the diabetes world – potatoes! Are potatoes bad for diabetes? Keep reading to find out.
Are potatoes bad for diabetes?
When it comes to diet and diabetes, several opinions and myths are floating around. One of the reasons potatoes get a bad reputation in the realm of a diet for diabetes is because they are starchy vegetables.
Starchy vegetables are higher in carbohydrates than non-starchy vegetables (like leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), which means they can raise your blood sugar levels more significantly.
Let’s compare 100 grams of white potato against 100 grams of broccoli so you can get an idea of the difference in total carbohydrate content:
|Potato vs broccoli||Total carbs||Dietary fiber||Sugars|
|White potato – 100 g||17 g||2.2 g||0.8 g|
|Broccoli – 100 g||7 g||2.6 g||1.7 g|
Potatoes and other starchy foods (or any food, really) aren’t “bad” for diabetes. The idea that there are foods people with diabetes absolutely cannot eat is unfortunate and can lead to disordered eating habits and other issues among people with diabetes.
The more important thing to consider regarding potatoes and diabetes is the portion size, your overall eating habits, and other lifestyle factors.
Let’s look at a few examples of how these all come into play in terms of your overall lifestyle:
- If you eat potatoes along with a green salad (or other non-starchy vegetables) and a good protein source, it’s less likely to spike your blood sugar than if you’re eating potatoes in the form of French fries along with a burger, bun (source of carbs/starch) and a milkshake (high-sugar/carbs).
- If you eat potatoes but bolus mealtime insulin to counteract the rise in blood sugar, it’s less likely to spike your blood sugar than if you don’t take any medications for your diabetes.
- Eating potatoes when you lead an active lifestyle (activity helps improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar) means your blood sugar is less likely to rise to a high level than if you have a sedentary lifestyle and eat the same amount of potatoes.
Food preparation matters
According to findings from an observational study published in Diabetes Care, the form in which you eat potatoes can play a role in how it impacts your health, including diabetes.
According to one of the Ph.D. candidates reviewing the results, when boiled potatoes were “separated from mashed potatoes, fries or crisps, boiled potatoes were no longer associated with a higher risk of diabetes: they had a null effect.”
It was also noted that some people who ate the most potatoes also ate more red meat, butter, and soft drinks (sugary beverages), which is significant since sugary drinks alone are likely to spike your blood sugar levels more than a boiled potato.
That means that diets high in potatoes in the form of French fries, crisps, or mashed potatoes (often prepared with butter and cream) seem to have a different impact on diabetes risk than boiled potatoes.
If we were to theorize why a diet high in potatoes high in fat (fries, crisps, etc.) is associated with increased diabetes risk, here are a few reasons that could be.
- Diets higher in fries might indicate an overall diet higher in processed/convenience food, including fast food. A consistent intake of processed food is generally linked to higher fat and sugar intake, which could increase diabetes risk along with other factors.
- A diet higher in fat could imply a diet higher in calories, which can promote weight gain if it’s not offset with physical activity. These factors can contribute to overweight and obesity, and you’re more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes if you’re considered overweight or obese.
Another study mirrored those results, indicating that eating potatoes in the form of French fries is associated with a greater risk of diabetes compared to potatoes in other forms.
Yet another study concluded that the risk of diabetes increases along with the portions of potatoes eaten per day, verifying that portion size plays a role.
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Can eating too many potatoes cause diabetes?
As we just mentioned, some studies have associated a diet high in potatoes, especially in large portions and in high-fat forms, with an increased risk of diabetes.
Without knowing other details about the people in these studies who provided their food records, it’s difficult to get a “big picture” of their lifestyle.
What else did they eat, how active are they, and do they have additional risk factors for diabetes like a family history or being of higher-risk ethnicity?
According to CDC, the risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes are:
- Having prediabetes
- Being overweight or obese
- Age 45 years or older
- Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes (family history)
- Being physically active less than 3 times a week
- History of having gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) or giving birth to a baby who weighed over nine pounds
- Ethnicity: African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native American, Alaska Natives, some Pacific Islanders, and Asian American people are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes
As you can see, there is nothing specifically about diet in those risk factors. However, your diet does play a role in your health and disease risk.
Eating a diet high in carbohydrates and sugar when you’re already at risk of having diabetes for other reasons could push you over the edge into a diabetes diagnosis.
On the other hand, if you have normal insulin sensitivity (you aren’t insulin resistant), are physically active, and don’t have other risk factors, then eating potatoes likely won’t impact your diabetes risk.
The bottom line is that many factors are coming into play with diabetes risk, and we can’t pin all the blame on one food like potatoes.
We can conclude that eating a healthy diet and practicing other healthy lifestyle habits can help reduce your risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Potatoes’ impact on blood sugar
So how much can potatoes raise your blood sugar compared to other foods? Everyone is different with varying glycemic responses, but we can look to the glycemic index and glycemic load to help give us a better picture of potatoes’ impact on blood sugar.
The glycemic index is a rating system for foods containing carbohydrates that shows how quickly each food affects your blood sugar level when that food is eaten on its own.
A food is considered low glycemic index (less likely to raise blood sugar levels significantly) if the score is 55 or less, moderate glycemic index if it’s 56-69, and high glycemic index if it’s 70 or higher.
The glycemic load takes into consideration the portion of the food and how quickly it can raise your blood sugar based on how fast it’s digested.
Boiled potatoes have an average glycemic index of around 73, making them a high glycemic index food. The glycemic load for potatoes is considered to be “medium,” so not low and not high.
Benefits of eating potatoes
If you look past the carbohydrate content of potatoes, there are many benefits to consider.
Leaving the skin on potatoes helps boost their fiber content, which means it will raise your blood sugar more slowly than if you removed the skin.
Eating baked potatoes with the skin on them would be preferable to eating peeled, mashed potatoes, which are lower in fiber.
Potatoes are rich in nutrients like potassium (good for your blood pressure), vitamin C, and vitamin B6.
Potatoes are among the more budget-friendly vegetables, which means they can better fit into the diets of people of lower socioeconomic status.
One last idea to consider: potato intake is lumped under many forms, including chips and fries. Unfortunately, a typical Western diet is higher in these types of foods than is healthy, which is one of the reasons there might be a stronger association between potatoes and diabetes risk.
That means that eating potatoes in healthier forms along with practicing other healthy lifestyle habits (practicing portion control, getting regular physical activity, limiting added sugar intake, etc.) isn’t likely to be a concern for diabetes.
On the other hand, if you frequently eat potatoes in the form of French fries, consume sugar-sweetened processed foods, don’t eat many other vegetables, and aren’t active – then it will likely be a different story.
Some studies show an increased risk of diabetes with potato consumption. However, many of these studies specify that French fries and potato chips/crisps are associated with the greatest risk, as well as other diet and lifestyle habits.
Eating potatoes (not in fried or crisp form) isn’t necessarily “bad” for diabetes – the more important thing to consider are your overall diet and lifestyle habits, as well as your portion sizes of starchy foods like potatoes.