If you’ve never seen The Martian before — spoiler alert — Matt Damon’s character is forced to subsist on Mars for 18 months on a diet consisting of nothing but potatoes. He nearly starves to death relying solely on those potatoes for sustenance.
Why do I bring this up?
Because we’re about to discover very quickly just how many calories can be added to a potato — and how many nutrients can go missing — when an unholy amount of decadence and oil are thrown into the mix during their preparation.
With that out of the way, let’s get to ranking potato-based products on just how exactly (un)healthy they are for you…
10) French Fries. I know, you’re shocked. When you take a potato, fry it and add some salt to it, you essentially obliterate all of the micronutrient value you started out with, while adding a bunch of oily fat. Is it delicious? Undeniably. Is it good for you? Yeah, right. A serving from most restaurants will usually hit you with somewhere between 300 and 600 calories of crispy, golden awfulness, and somewhere between 10 percent and 30 percent of your daily allotment of sodium.
Oh, and did I mention that all of the micronutrient content is gone? This is the poster child for empty calories in an edible form.
9) Sweet Potato Fries. You thought sweet potatoes would rank much higher on this list, didn’t you? Well, I hate to break it to you (even though I’ve already broken it to you before), but substituting sweet potato fries for French fries usually means taking everything contained within regular fries, adding a few more calories to it, sometimes a lot more sodium and also a sizeable chunk of vitamin A to help your eyeballs feel safe. All this means is that your eyesight will improve enough to more clearly watch as the rest of you suffers.
8) Potato Pancakes. I truly wish I could rank these higher, and if we were ranking them solely on a per-serving basis, they wouldn’t fare too poorly. However, we have to presume that you’re not going to eat just one pancake (Seriously, who does that?). If we assume that you’re going to eat at least three, the sodium level starts to tread into eyebrow-raising territory. We also need to take note of the cholesterol level, which is a non-factor in essentially all other potato-based creations, but which climbs to menacing levels quite rapidly in pancake form. By the time you’ve had five of these, you’re almost close to the point where you would have been better off with French fries.
7) Hash Browns. Honestly, this is just another way to fry up a potato, sap it of all of its nutrients and sometimes pack it full of even more salt per serving than you’d get from French fries. The only redemptive element to the hash brown in comparison to its fried cousins is that portions of hash browns are often tightly contained and controlled, reducing the likelihood that you’re going to slide a further 300 calories into your mouth just because you’re bored, or because you feel the need to empty the entire plate before the server removes it from your view.
6) Potato Skins. We’re talking about the snackable bags of fried potato skin snacks here, and not the loaded version with cheese, bacon and sour cream — that would be unfairly stacking the deck and skewing our ranking scheme. The fact that potato skins have slightly fewer calories than regular potato chips, along with a decent amount of vitamin D contained within them, is quickly offset by a comparable reduction in the amount of included protein and an increase in the quantity of sodium being consumed.
5) Potato Chips. Quite frankly, potato chips wouldn’t be quite so bad if you could exercise some restraint. They perform shockingly well in comparison to some of the other potato options when it comes to vitamin content — by which I mean potato chips actually have some. Okay… a very little bit. Again, nobody eats just one serving of potato chips, or even two. In fact, the true standard bag of Lays Potato Chips won’t let you off the leash before you’ve piled more than 400 calories, 400 milligrams of sodium and one-third of your recommended daily fat intake into your body.
4) Tater Tots. Napoleon Dynamite was right not to want to share his tots with the jerk who bullied him, even though Napoleon’s pants probably soaked up a lot of the grease contained within them as a result of their wearer’s unhygienic food-storage practices. Even when tots don’t get to infuse the lining of your zippered pants with their oil, they’re actually soaked with less unhealthy fat than many of their peers, while delivering respectable levels of macronutrients. Again, we’re grading on a bit of a curve here, but they’re better than nothing, and objectively better than their close relative, the hash brown.
3) Potato Bread. I know what you’re thinking, but we aren’t inserting the word “sweet” in front of the word “potato.” Regular potato bread is low in fat, with two slices of it essentially mirroring traditional sandwich bread in terms of its overall macronutrient and micronutrient content. Now, if you wanted to turn this into sweet potato bread, it could plummet straight to the bottom of the rankings as we could bake variations that would transform it, for all intents and purposes, into an unfrosted piece of cake.
2) Baked Potato. After everything else we’ve just evaluated, a plain ol’ baked potato comes across as a boring, blank slate. But as far as blank slates go, it’s a relatively nutrient dense carbohydrate with several vitamins and minerals and plenty of potassium. Incredibly, even if you decided to load up one of these otherwise benign and healthy side dishes with cheese, sour cream, butter and salt, it won’t quite send it cascading down our rankings quite the way you might expect.
1) Baked Sweet Potato. I hate that I’m forced to give the sweet potato zealots what they want and deliver a ranking that’s so on-trend, but no amount of my own personal prejudice can prevent the sweet potato from securing the top spot. Not only does it replicate nearly everything that makes a typical baked potato an attractive, low-calorie way to score some carbs on a near one-to-one basis, but it’s also the most efficient way you can ever go about acquiring vitamin A short of injecting it directly into your bloodstream, which is a practice we vehemently oppose… unless you happen to be a cow.