Potatoes are a versatile, nutrient-dense vegetable. The dietary quality of this vegetable is intimately intertwined with its variety, size and preparation/cooking. Certain varieties of potato are healthier than others, and certain preparation and cooking methods ensure a more powerful nutritional punch from the potato.
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Availability & Varieties of Potato
According to the U.S. government's Fruits & Veggies Matter website, the most common types of potatoes at restaurants and in home gardens, farmers' markets and supermarkets are the russet, red potato and the round white. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service advises that russet potatoes are best for baking. However, sweet potatoes, which are both nutrient-dense and rich in beta carotene, can also be baked to good nutritional effect.
Scrutinize & Select
"Scrutinize to maximize" is a maxim to live by when you select a potato at the farmer's market, supermarket or from your garden. Be sure that potatoes are smooth and firm. If they're discolored -- especially if they're green -- spongy, soft or wrinkled, they are likely to be past their prime potato-eating time. Remember, however, that if a potato is accidentally left out in the sun to green, it might be salvageable after some potato skin-shedding, but this action shrinks its overall nutritional quality because most of the nutrients are directly under the skin.
Preparation & Cooking
The way you prepare a potato--whether baked, microwaved, fried, boiled or otherwise -- factors into its nutritional value. If they're baked or grilled within their skins, potatoes pack a nutrient-rich wallop. Nutritionists at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine advise the use of low-fat cooking techniques such as baking, steaming and microwaving. It is important to thoroughly wash a potato with clean tap water and a gentle vegetable scrubber before cooking it to reduce the likelihood of food-borne illness. Cut out any eyes or sprouts growing from the potato.
Whenever possible, prepare potatoes at home so you can dictate both the portion size and the toppings, as well as the skin-off or skin-on option and the variety of potato. To prepare a baked potato to its maximum nutritional potential, leave its skin on while avoiding toppings such as salt, bacon and ham and instead choosing low-fat cheeses and sour cream, broccoli, mushrooms, chives or other low-calorie pairings.
My Food-A-Pedia, a sister tool to the USDA Food Pyramid, reveals that one medium baked potato, skin on and plain but variety unspecified, provides 159 calories and 1 1/2 cups of your daily recommended 2 1/2 cups of vegetable serving in a 2,000-calorie diet. A medium, baked russet potato, weighing 173 grams, yields 12 percent of your daily value of total carbohydrate, 14 percent DV of fiber and 30 percent of your vitamin C. A baked potato, of unspecified size and variety, also yields 610 milligrams of potassium, which is more than the 422 milligrams in a medium banana, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News Nutrition/Health section.
Tools to Assess Your Food
My Food-A-Pedia, one of the many Internet-based dietary tools stuffed with data, allows a person to enter a given food, such as the search term "baked potato," and then receive an accounting of the nutritional quality of various permutations of potatoes, from a stuffed baked potato with cheese to a plain baked potato without its jacket. Other variations on this theme of potatoes enable a user to select creamy ranch dressing or reduced-calorie spread toppings. The USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference is another nutritional analysis tool. You can select a food group -- in this case, vegetables and vegetable products -- as well as keyword to enable a search. In the case of diet and well-being, knowledge is a fount of power.