As a follow on from the recent series on the Weekly Grocery Shopping List of foods that contain the nutrients the body needs I am going to repeat my series from 2017 on the health benefits of some of our most common foods.
Food therapy is a broad term for the benefits to the body of a healthy, varied and nutritional diet of fresh foods.
Most of us walk through the fresh produce departments of our supermarkets without really paying much attention to the individual fruits and vegetables. This is a great pity because the vast majority of these foods have been cultivated for thousands of years, not only for their nutritional value but also for their medicinal properties. If you eat a healthy diet you are effectively practicing preventative medicine. A robust immune system, not only attacks external opportunistic pathogens, but also works to prevent rogue cells in the body from developing into serious disease.
NOTE – If you are on any prescribed medication do not take yourself off it without consultation with your doctor. If you follow a healthy eating programme and lose weight and are exercising you may not need the same dose and with your doctor’s agreement you may be able to reduce or come off the medication all together.
The Humble Potato
You cannot claim Irish ancestry and not be aware of the significance of the potato in our history. For my great-grandfather, as a child in Cork, in the 1830s, the potato would have been an essential and daily addition to his diet. By 1845 by the start of the great famine in Ireland caused by the potato blight, over a third of Irish people were reliant on this humble vegetable to sustain their families. My family were lucky in as much as they were close to the sea and had access to other foods but for millions inland it was the most devastating disaster in Irish history. Apart from those that perished, it instigated a mass migration that was to impact countries around the world. So why should the potato be considered so nutritionally important to us today?
Potatoes were the most common carbohydrate for most of us in the western world up until after the second world war. Another ten years and we were starting to develop more exotic tastes and first the Indian restaurants and then the Chinese introduced us to rice in its various varieties. And, over the last 50 years or so they have been chucked in and out of our diet at the whim of “experts” who one minute want us to stop eating carbohydrates, then they are in, then they are out………….
In my mind they should definitely be in and I hope that when you have read all the history of this simple but essential vegetable and all that it offers you too will include in your weekly shop.
The history of the potato.
There are some legends regarding the introduction of the potato into Ireland, around 1600. Some believe that Sir Frances Drake brought specimens back from the West Indies and handed some over to Sir Walter Raleigh who cultivated them on his farm in Ireland. I prefer the far more quirky explanation that potatoes were washed up on the shore after the Armada was sunk and – with typical Irish ingenuity – were transformed into a national treasure and alcoholic beverage.
This humble root vegetable has travelled thousands of miles to adorn our dinner plates and there is archaeological evidence that they were first cultivated in Peru around 4,500 years ago although wild potatoes had been eaten as early as 10,000 years ago. I would imagine that ancient civilisations would have also eaten them in one form or another.
Wheat and corn could not survive the cold of the mountains in the same way as the potato, and the Inca cultures actually developed frost-resistant varieties and a technique to freeze dry the mature root, providing flour that could be stored for a number of years. Like in Ireland, the potato became the staple food for South American’s living at high altitudes and they even produced alcohol in the form of a beer called chicha.
As I mentioned, in recent years carbohydrates have found disfavour with the diet industry and unfortunately this includes the potato. In fact the potato has far fewer calories than rice, pasta and bread; provided it is not laden with cheese and butter. It is a highly nutritious, low fat and healthy accompaniment to any meal.
There are over 100 different types of cultivated potatoes available today, and some of the more familiar to us are the King Edward, Maris Piper, Kerr Pink and Rooster varieties. Some older varieties were reflective of the time they were cultivated, such as Irish Peace.
What Are The Health Benefits Of The Potato?
There is a very good reason why the potato has been regarded as a staple food in so many cultures. When conditions are tough, and nothing else will grow, the potato will thrive and provide many essential nutrients the body needs to survive.
Provided you do not eat a pound of saturated fat with your potatoes (a bit of real butter however is delicious!), including them as part of your diet may prevent a number of potentially serious illnesses. Research into elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, poor immune system function, cancer and hormonal imbalance show that the properties in the potato could well help prevent these conditions from developing in the first place. If you need to lose weight, eating potatoes will provide you with a great many nutrients and energy without adding excess calories or fats to your daily diet.
Despite being around for thousands of years this vegetable still holds surprises and recently scientists have isolated kukoamines in potatoes. Previously, these were only found in some Chinese herbal remedies. The main property of this chemical is its ability to reduce blood pressure levels. As elevated blood pressure is becoming increasingly more common, for both men and women, eating potatoes regularly in the diet could be very beneficial.
Potatoes are also high in Vitamin C, B6, Copper, Potassium, manganese and fibre. They also contain phytonutrients called flavonoids and carotenoids that are extremely important anti-oxidants.
Most of us are familiar with the health benefits of Vitamin C especially in relation to our immune system, but this vitamin also protects the harmful cholesterol LDL from oxidative damage, which leads to plaque forming and blocking our arteries.
Vitamin B6 is involved in nearly every major process in the body and is necessary for the health of each cell in our bodies. It also assists in the formation of several neurotransmitters in the brain and helps regulate our mood.
High levels of homocysteine have been linked to heart disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease and B6 has been shown to lower homocysteine levels in the blood.
B6 is necessary for the formation of haemoglobin, which is the oxygen carrying pigment in our blood, and is therefore linked to our energy levels. B6 also helps balance female hormones so eating potatoes regularly as part of a balanced diet is useful for PMS and other hormonal imbalances.
Copper is an essential trace element needed to absorb and utilise iron. It is needed to make ATP, which is the fuel that we run on, and some hormones and blood cells.
Potassium reacts with sodium and chloride to maintain a perfect working environment in and around each cell; it allows the transmission of nerve impulses and helps maintain correct fluid balance in the body. Without the correct amount of potassium our heartbeats can become irregular.
Manganese is needed for healthy skin, bone and cartilage formation as well as ensuring glucose tolerance. It is also part of our antioxidant defence system.
It is important that you eat the skin of the potato as this contains a concentrated source of fibre, which our bodies need to remove waste and toxins efficiently. If you buy pre-washed potatoes, remember to clean them before eating as the potato will have become susceptible to fungus and bacterial contamination. Scrub the potato under running water and remove any eyes or bruises before cooking. You can boil, bake, dry roast, mash and dice potatoes. If you want to mash or roast with a little fat, use olive oil and herbs rather than butter or margarine.
Next time you pass the display of potatoes in a supermarket don’t think “fattening”, think “mashed with a little olive oil and garlic” or “roasted with rosemary and Mediterranean vegetables with a little lamb on the side”!
©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2020
I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty-two years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.
If you would like to browse my health books and fiction you can find them here: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/my-books-and-reviews-2019-2020/
Thank you for dropping in today and your feedback and questions are very welcome.. thanks Sally.