Read a dozen books on paleo dieting or "ancestral health." Go ahead, I'll wait here.
All done? Okay. What you may have noticed is that most of these books say that potatoes are not paleo and shouldn't be eaten. A couple might say they're okay anyway after tough workouts, even though they "aren't paleo."
And one or two sources will say that sweet potatoes are okay, but not white potatoes. That's usually based on the rather outdated glycemic index, or that one poorly done (but widely circulated) study that used French fries and potato chips to conclude that "white potatoes are bad."
So what's the real deal? Well, let's first figure out if potatoes were something eaten by our caveman ancestors.
Evolutionary scientists discovered a long time ago that the human race experienced rapid brain growth and an accompanying uptick in intelligence at a certain point in history. This is typically attributed to the discovery of fire and figuring out how to use it for cooking meat.
"Sorry, Grog, I tripped and dropped some monkey meat into the campfire. Now, dude, this is gonna sound crazy, but I ate it! Now I'm going to invent barbecue sauce and open a chain of fast-casual caves..."
Yep, pretty sure that's exactly how it happened.
But in recent years, scientists have also found a link between human brain development and starches, primarily the tubers – veggies in the potato family – that were available to hunter-gatherers.
A study published in The Quarterly Review of Biology put it all together. Here's the gist:
- An evolutionary multiplication of human salivary amylase genes happened somewhere around a million years ago. The scientists noted: "Salivary amylase genes are usually present in many copies (average 6) in humans, but in only 2 copies in other primates. This increases the amount of salivary amylase produced and so increases the ability to digest starch."
- The brain uses up a whole lot of blood glucose, and carbs are the most efficient source.
- When cooked, starches lose their crystalline structure and become easy to digest.
- All the above slowly lead to better fueled brains, which grew over generations and generations until someone with one of those big brains invented the internet and sex robots.
Now, the idea behind paleo is to get rid of highly-processed modern foods and get back to the ways of Grandpa Grog – to eating foods that our physiology evolved to handle during our evolution.
Well then, based on the study and what we know about the evolution of the salivary amylase gene, we evolved a long, long time ago to handle starchier vegetables like potatoes and yams.
So, paleo people, relax and have a baked potato with your green veggies and venison. Just skip the artificial bacon bits.
- Hardy K et al. The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution. Q Rev Biol. 2015 Sep;90(3):251-68. PubMed.