Peak Performance

The misunderstood potato and its role in athletics

Published online: Feb 28, 2017
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This article appears in the March 2017 issue of Potato Grower

I have spent the better part of my career combating health and nutrition misinformation on a national level. However, this is not an article on the food or nutritional value of the potato. This is well-documented and known by every grower. This article will focus on what most growers are likely to forget—how clueless many of the potential consumers of your product are regarding its benefits and the need for an ongoing public education program.

Growers often find themselves perplexed by the standard misconceptions consumers may embrace about their products (in this case, the potato) and how to overcome them. What may seem as common sense to the grower can be entirely foreign to the consumer. This is a concept I must remind myself of every night I step into the classroom to teach my beginning nutrition course to college students. Because of my familiarity with my subject, as well as agriculture, I must constantly remind myself that those who sit in front of me are for the most part naïve, indoctrinated and misinformed, largely due to the quagmire of misinformation they are exposed to in the national media, health and fitness magazines and junk science reported by major universities and published in peer-reviewed journals. Most consumers also have a complete disconnect from standard agricultural practices. All of this makes them very easy to exploit with misinformation and junk science.

There is one issue I would like to address regarding the potato and its metabolism, or its ability to raise blood sugar levels when consumed by itself (glycemic index), for which it is often demonized. Ironically, potatoes’ effect on blood sugar when consumed alone is a positive selling point for the athletic community. However, as stated above, even though this point is clearly a commonsense issue to me, or any well-informed professional who oversees any athletic training program, this is not always the case with the public and even some professionals. Growers must remind themselves of the constant need to educate the consumer as well as the professional.

As an example, why would a Major League Baseball strength coach, at the time with the Toronto Blue Jays, publish a paper in a professional peer-reviewed journal for strength coaches telling athletes, “You should always try to avoid high-glycemic carbohydrates, regardless of the time of day, like white bread, potatoes, etc.” The only logical answer is his apparent misunderstanding of some very basic muscle metabolism issues. Let me illustrate why his advice is poor.

In the graph at right, the left vertical line represents sugar (glycogen) stored in muscle tissue. The bottom horizontal line represents the amount of time an athlete may train in hours per day. You will notice the rectangular black box to the left represents a two-hour training session. Directly above that box at the top of the vertical line you will notice the number 120, which simply is indicating that if this training day represented, say, Monday, the first training day of the week, the athlete would have a full storage capacity of glycogen (sugar) in his or her muscle tissue. Over the course of that training session, the diagonal lines dropping down from 120 are indicating the stored muscle sugar the athlete is depleting from storage. If you follow the low-carbohydrate diet line, you will notice that by the end of the third or fourth training session of the week, the athlete has essentially run out of gas (sugar), because he or she has failed to consume the appropriate amount of high-carbohydrate foods, such as potatoes, between training sessions, and performance and development will be hindered.

If you follow the high carbohydrate line, you will notice that by the third or fourth training session, the athlete continues to have plenty of fuel (sugar) available to perform at peak level as well as maintain physical development because he has consumed the appropriate amount of carbohydrates, such as the potato, between training sessions. 

It is commonsense, and well-established, that athletes who train hard need a significant amount of carbohydrates, including those with a purported high glycemic index load, over the course of the day to replenish the lost sugar in muscle tissue. The potato is simply one of the top-tier foods an athlete should be consuming, not avoiding. The rise in blood sugar does initiate a rise in insulin, but this is normal as well as necessary for this population group. The insulin must be present to trigger the muscle tissue to take up the blood sugar and restore what has been depleted during the training session. The insulin also increases the muscle tissue cells to increase the uptake of amino acids (protein) as well. This is normal metabolism. So, the potatoes assist in both maintaining the energy demands of the athlete as well as their physical development by providing the needed carbohydrate as well as protein from other foods.

Even the sport supplement industry knows most athletes do not need more protein in their diets to perform well; they need more carbohydrates, which are typically lacking. For example, one of the slides I use during coaches’ clinics shows a popular “protein” drink used by many high school athletes. The front label clearly indicates the product is marketed as a protein supplement to perpetuate the myth that athletes need more protein than they already consume, which is normally false. The manufacturer of this product is aware of this, as indicated by the ingredient label on the back of the container, which most athletes, especially at the high school level, would never read. The ingredient label clearly states that 80 percent of the 290 calories of the product is from carbohydrates (sugar) and only 10 grams of protein (40 calories) is provided per serving. Does the athlete feel better after consuming this product? Yes, but it is directly related to the carbohydrate in the product, not the protein. The athlete would be far better off consuming several potatoes after training sessions, with their additional nutrient value, than the so-called “protein” drink.


David Lightsey is the author of Muscles, Speed, and Lies: What the Sport Supplement Industry Does Not Want Athletes or Consumers to Know. For the last 30 years, he has been a food and nutrition science advisor for the National Council Against Health Fraud as well as Quackwatch, combating health and nutrition misinformation on a national level.