Health and Wellness

Is a potato a vegetable? There's no 'straightforward answer,' says nutritionist

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Whether or not a potato is a vegetable depends on who you ask.

Back in 2011, nutrition experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health worked with researchers at Harvard Health Publications to create an eating plan for optimal health.

Harvard's Healthy Eating Plate — or the "Harvard Diet" — suggests you prioritize vegetables and fruits for half of each meal. The other half should optimize whole grains and healthy proteins.

But if you're following this plan, you might want to consider cutting potatoes out of your diet entirely.

"A potato is not a vegetable from a nutrition point of view," Lilian Cheung, lecturer of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells CNBC Make It.

"Potatoes almost behave like a refined carbohydrate. It increases your blood sugar."

Harvard's school of public health compares potatoes' effects on blood sugar to that of a can of cola or a handful of jelly beans. Research also suggests the starchy tuber may be responsible for an increased risk in obesity and diabetes.

But not all nutritionists share the same sentiment about potatoes.

Is a potato a vegetable?

Potatoes should absolutely be considered a vegetable, according to Felicia Porrazza, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Pennsylvania.

"Thinking about what a vegetable really is, a potato does fall under that. It's just a starchy one," says Porrazza. Vegetables are "the edible portion of a plant," she adds, and tubers like potatoes fit that description.

Botanically, potatoes are only vegetables because there isn't any other category for them, says Dr. Qi Sun, associate professor in the departments of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

But, "for us [at Harvard's school of public health], vegetables mean healthy plant-based foods," says Sun.

"You can't call a potato a healthy type of vegetable."

But it's worth noting that potatoes are complex, Porrazza adds. They can raise your blood sugar levels, but they also have great nutrients in them like potassium, fiber and vitamins C and B6.

I wouldn't necessarily consider it a vegetable like you would consider something else a vegetable, but I would more classify it as a starchy plant-food.
Diana Ushay
Registered dietitian

For Diana Ushay, registered dietitian at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Erica Leon Nutrition, "there's not a straightforward answer," because potatoes are extremely different from traditional vegetables like celery or broccoli.

"I wouldn't necessarily consider it a vegetable like you would consider something else a vegetable, but I would more classify it as a starchy plant-food."

For most meals, a potato should not be the only plant-based food on your plate and should be accompanied by a green vegetable, Ushay adds.

Still, "potatoes are affordable. They do have a lot of nutrients, and we should make space for them in our diet. Just because they're not a 'vegetable' doesn't mean they shouldn't be included."

5 ways to get the most out of what potatoes have to offer

Balancing your plate is the key to avoiding a major spike in blood sugar from starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, says Porrazza. But, how you cook them also matters.

So, put down the potato chips, and heed these potato tips:

  1. Keep the skin on to get more fiber.
  2. Pair potatoes with non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and lean proteins like white fish or tofu.
  3. Avoid processing them down too much with heavy creams and butter. Opt for herbs and olive oil instead.
  4. Don't boil them, unless you plan to also use its broth in your meal, to avoid lowering its nutritional value. Consider steaming them to get a similar texture.
  5. If you enjoy fries, make them from scratch at home.

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