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Potato Eating Protest

60 Days, 1,200 Potatoes

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Categories: Healthy Eating

Chris Voigt in front of 1,200 potatoesGot a favorite food? Something you love so much, it's almost like a belief? Chances are your fanaticism still won't hold a candle to that of Chris Voigt. The spud-loving executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission has pledged to eat nothing but potatoes (20 a day!) for two months -- a project he started on October 1 and will wrap up on November 29.

Thanks to America's ongoing low-carb craze, potatoes haven't exactly been getting a good rap in recent years. Their glycemic index -- the measure of how fast their carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream -- is comparatively high, about 76 for a baked Russet. (For context, white rice is at 64; brown rice, 55; and beans and lentils are all under 30.)

Problems such as weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes have long been associated with foods that fall on the high side of this scale. Moreover, precisely because our bodies can process them so fast, they don't keep us full very long. They give us a quick energy boost, to be sure, but they're not good for lasting satiety or stamina.

That being said, there's a lot to like about potatoes. They're an impressively rich source of a breadth of vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, folate and (in their skin) fiber. Eat enough of them, and they can even be a complete source of protein. In fact, the potato's diversity of benefits is considered so impressive that the United Nations has recently been promoting it as a powerful tool to help fight world hunger.

Notably, too, some potatoes, especially heirloom varieties, can also have a lower glycemic index than the big, baking kinds we're used to -- cooked right (and serve chilled, which lowers the GI by several points), they can rival that of some whole grains.

It's these health properties that Voigt hopes to highlight in his campaign. If his Facebook page and website are any indication, it's working. Recently, he's even gotten some videotaped words of encouragement from Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire. AOL Health talked to Voigt about his experiment -- from how he's compensating for these deficiencies to what he's learning and appreciating along the way.

AOL Health: How did you come up with the idea?

Chris Voigt: There is a scene in the movie "Stand by Me," where these little boys are hanging out around the campfire having those great conversations that little boys have, and one of them asks, "If you could only have one food item for the rest of your life, what would it be?" That was the inspiration for my potato-only diet. In the movie, they said cherry-flavored Pez, but I picked potatoes.

AOL Health: Why 20?

CV: I used an online calorie calculator, typing in my height and weight and activity level. It told me that I need to eat 2,200 calories to maintain my current weight. There are 110 calories in an average potato, so divide 2,200 total calories by 110 calories of a single potato and you get 20.

AOL Health: How are you preparing them?

CV: I am the Bubba Gump of the potato world. I've had them every possible way -- boiled, baked, mashed, grilled, roasted, juiced, blended, fried, etc. In an effort to avoid the boredom of eating the same thing every meal, creativity is key.

AOL Health: What are the risks of eating just potatoes?

CV: Obviously it's not healthy to eat just one food product because there is nothing that can meet all of your nutritional needs. But if you were to pick one food, potatoes are a good choice. I'm confident I can go 60 days without negative impacts to my health, but what is not known is how long I could go beyond that. It could be another 60 days, another 120, 30, who knows?

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin so I've got a storehouse of vitamin A in me. As I burn through my fat, the vitamin A is accessible. But once I lose that supply, I'm out. I think I should be good for at least 60 days. I cover potassium below; as long as your kidneys work, they can easily remove an excess dietary potassium from your blood. A lot of people have speculated about my blood sugar levels going off the chart. I haven't seen that yet. They are very similar to what my pre-diet physical revealed.

AOL Health: What did you and your doctor discuss before starting?

CV: We discussed the diet, and I had him speculate on what my health would look like at the end of 60 days. Obviously no doctor in his right mind would endorse a diet like this but he told me I should be fine at the end. He only had two concerns. One was protein. He was concerned that I wouldn't be getting enough protein but after doing the math and seeing that I would be getting 116 percent of the RDA for protein, he was satisfied.

The other concern was that he wanted to make sure my kidneys were functioning properly before going on this diet. Potatoes are naturally high in potassium, which is great for your health. But people with kidney disease cannot regulate their blood potassium levels very well. My tests came back as normal kidney function so I got a green light for the diet.

AOL Health: On your blog, you say you've lost some weight. How's your energy?

CV: My energy level is great. I really haven't notice any differences in anything other than my sensible weight loss. No weird side effects; I'm sleeping good. Nothing has really changed, as far as I can tell.

AOL Health: What are some of the biggest potato misnomers out there?

CV: That potatoes are just starch or carbohydrates. That carbohydrates are bad. I'll be exceeding the FDA's recommended daily allowances for 13 different nutrients. Also, [another myth is] that all the vitamins are in the skins. That's not true. Vitamins and minerals are throughout the entire potato, but most of the fiber is within the skin.

AOL Health: Favorite (and most surprising) potato benefits?

CV: Research shows that potatoes rate high in satiety. They are low in calories and make you feel full, so they are a great food product for people trying to lose weight. They have more potassium than a banana and supply almost 50 percent of your vitamin C. Also no fat, no cholesterol and no sodium.

AOL Health: You just met with some scientists who are working on a superpotato to discuss the antioxidant benefits and strong nutritional value of wild potatoes.

CV: Potatoes are already a good source of antioxidants. But our scientists are finding that some of the colored flesh varieties are an incredible source. Particularly deep purple potatoes. They are working through traditional breeding to get some of those antioxidant properties into other potato varieties.
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