As a patient with diabetes, there’s a seemingly infinite number of foods you are urged not to eat. To manage your blood sugar, doctors will recommend that you avoid almost all the sweeter things in life. This includes everything from candy and pastries to basically anything with a high glycemic index (GI).
What does this mean for the avid potato lover? Do you have to give up all the tasty fries, jacket, boiled, and mashed potatoes for life? Well, not exactly.
Despite being a starchy vegetable and a high GI food, potatoes can still be enjoyed by people with diabetes without facing the implied repercussions. In fact, some studies show that eating potatoes might actually aid people with type 2 diabetes in controlling their blood sugar.
In this article, we shall debunk the myths surrounding potatoes and see if they can be good for type 2 diabetes patients.
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Type 2 diabetes is, by far, the most common type of diabetes, accounting for 90% to 95%¹ of all diabetes cases. Like most other diabetes types, it is basically an impairment in how your body uses and regulates sugar. As a result, levels of glucose or sugar easily build up in your bloodstream.
Having high blood sugar, you are prone to severe health problems, including vision loss, heart disease, and kidney disease.
Perhaps what makes type 2 diabetes different is that, in this case, your body is actually resistant to insulin activity. This means your body won’t be able to use insulin like it is supposed to.
What is the role of insulin in all this, and why is it so important?
Well, to break it down, insulin is a hormone made in your pancreas. Its role is to help move the sugars in your blood into your body cells to be used as energy. In type 2 diabetes, your cells fail to respond to the insulin. Consequently, the pancreas will produce more insulin to force the cells to respond. When they ultimately fail to respond, your blood sugar rises.
Usually, people with type 2 diabetes (or any diabetes type) are advised to avoid foods with a high GI. The argument is that such foods make it hard for the body to control blood sugar levels. Therefore, since potatoes have a high GI, they can potentially be bad for people with diabetes if consumed in large quantities.
However, that is not to say people with diabetes should entirely avoid potatoes. In fact, in a study testing overnight blood glucose control in patients with type 2 diabetes, the participants who consumed a meal with skinless potatoes had an overall lower blood glucose response overnight when compared to others who had basmati rice, a low-GI carbohydrate food.
Based on this, one might conclude that potatoes can be just as good for people with type 2 diabetes. If consumed moderately, they can be a perfect addition to a patient’s healthy diet.
Much like any other food containing carbs, potatoes cause an increase in blood sugar levels. When you eat a potato, your body converts the carbohydrates into simple sugars (glucose). The glucose then moves into your bloodstream, causing an increase in blood sugar levels.
At this point, the body releases insulin to help transport sugar into cells for it to be used for energy. However, this process is a little different in people with diabetes. Since they are resistant to insulin, the sugar will not move into the cells as efficiently.
Instead, it will remain in circulation, meaning your blood sugar levels remain higher for longer.
Taking this into account, you can say that eating potatoes (or any other carbs) in large portions will increase blood sugar levels. If you have type 2 diabetes, it is always better to moderate your carb intake.
The GI and GL are common terms used by nutritionists when picking out meal plans for patients. What’s the difference between the two? Let’s have a look.
The GI or glycemic index is a value used to rank foods based on their potential or speed in raising blood sugar levels. Generally, foods with a high GI tend to raise blood sugar faster than lower GI foods.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), foods can be classified into three based on their GI:
High GI—foods with a GI of 70 and above
Medium GI—foods with a GI ranging between 56 and 69
Low GI—foods with a GI of 55 and below
As a person with diabetes, you are recommended to stick to foods with medium or low GI. Now, while some types of potatoes have a high GI, some other factors come in and balance it out. For instance, it can vary depending on how you prepare it.
Here are some examples of potatoes and their GI based on preparation.
Other than GI, there is another value used to rank foods based on their impact on blood sugar—the glycemic load or GL. In this case, GL shows the amount of sugar that will enter the bloodstream; in other words, how high your blood sugar will rise after ingesting certain foods.
You can calculate the GL by multiplying the GI by the amount of carbohydrates (in grams) in your food and then dividing it by 100.
As per the NIH,² foods can be classified into three based on their GL:
High GL—20 and above
Medium GL—11 to 19
Low GL—10 and below
Where do potatoes rank in all this? Well, it also depends on the type of potato you are dealing with and how you prepare them. Baked potatoes, for instance, have a GL of 33 (which is quite high), while a boiled potato has a GL of 25. These are higher than your typical doughnut or jelly beans.
Here’s a quick rundown based on the varieties of potatoes available in the market.
High GL—French fries, Desiree
Medium GL—Russet Burbank, white, potato crisps, instant mashed potato, Charlotte, Desiree
Low GL—Nicola, Carisma
Naturally, you want to stick to foods with a low GL to manage your blood sugar levels better.
There are three major types of potatoes:
Starchy potatoes are high in starch but low in moisture. They tend to get fluffy and easily separate when cooked. Examples include Idahos, Russets, Yams, and some sweet potato varieties.
Waxy potatoes contain medium starch levels. They are also high in moisture and sugar. Some common examples include Red Bliss and Fresh fingerling.
All-purpose potatoes have the lowest starch levels. They are fairly fluffy yet hold their shape when cooked. An example is Yukon Gold.
According to the diabetes association, starchy vegetables, like potatoes, are perfectly okay to include in a healthy diabetes diet. Being a complex carbohydrate, starch generally takes longer to break down in the body than simple sugars like sucrose. Therefore, starchier potatoes are the best for type 2 diabetes.
Still, the ideal potato for a type 2 diabetes patient can be influenced by other factors, including:
Type, maturation, and origin
Preparation or processing
What you consume them with
You want to stick with simple preparation methods such as baking, boiling, air frying, steaming, roasting, and grilling. At the same time, avoid any preparation method that needs extra fat, like French fries or fried potatoes. The fat tends to counter some nutritional benefits that the potato might have. Leave out toppings that might counter the potato’s nutritional benefits, too, such as sour cream, cheese, or bacon bits.
Also worth noting is that letting your potatoes cool down helps lower GI.
An average potato will weigh about 5 ounces. This translates to around 110 calories, 3 grams protein, 2 grams fiber, and zero fat.
When it comes to nutrition, potatoes are good sources of:
Vitamin B6 and Vitamin C
Small amounts of riboflavin, thiamine, folate, iron, zinc, and magnesium
However, this doesn’t apply to all types of potatoes. Waxy potatoes, for instance, have fewer calories, fiber, and carbs than starchy potatoes. They also have higher amounts of niacin and Vitamin K.
For the most part, potatoes are okay to ingest, even with diabetes type 2. However, if you eat too much of it, your blood sugar is bound to rise as your body converts carbohydrates into glucose.
Eating potatoes in large amounts is also known to cause gas and bloating. Nutritionists recommend incorporating them into a balanced meal or eating a protein alongside them.
Another less critical side effect of eating too much potatoes is that it increases your craving for carbs. This might lead to you eating more and possibly gaining weight.
While it is okay for people with type 2 diabetes to include potatoes in their diet, you still stand to gain more by limiting your portions or substituting them with other healthy alternatives.
For this, you can settle for foods with low GI and GL, including:
Lentils and legumes
There is a reason potatoes are one of the most consumed foods in the country. They are budget-friendly and easy to make, plus you can dress them up with various ingredients and season them how you want. It is virtually impossible to avoid them completely.
It is worth noting that while they are in the clear for type 2 diabetes patients, potatoes are high GI foods and will still increase your blood pressure if consumed in large quantities. The key here is moderation. Simply limit your portions of potatoes per meal.
On top of that, you should also mind how you cook them. The healthy way is to bake, boil, or steam rather than fry the potatoes. The oils used in frying contain higher quantities of unhealthy fats and calories.
At the end of the day, having type 2 diabetes doesn’t prevent you from eating potatoes. Just be mindful of how much you eat and what you eat them with, and you are good to go.
Diabetes fast facts | Center for Disease Control Prevention
Potatoes maintain blood sugar control overnight in those with type 2 diabetes | Physicians Committee
Insulin resistance and diabetes | Center for Disease Control Prevention
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