Potato Diet

On May 18, I started a four-week potato-only diet. I thought it sounded interesting, and right now has been a good time in my life to try an slightly unusual eating regime. I didn’t really care about losing weight, but I am overweight, so I wouldn’t mind it if I did, either.

It’s now the first day after the four-week mark. I lost 7.8 pounds, or 4.3% of my starting weight. I feel healthy. The diet didn’t really interfere with my lifestyle, though as usual with any diet, most complaints came from people around me who said that my peculiar eating habits were inconvenient for them. I actually looked forward to meals, and not just because I was hungry. I learned to cook potatoes pretty well over the month, so if I wanted a meal to be tasty, it was. There was just enough variety that I never felt like abandoning the diet.

A typical day started with a microwaved bowl of potatoes that I’d boiled the night before and then refrigerated. Lunch was more of the same, but air-fried with about 3 tablespoons of olive oil (tossed in a bowl to coat the potatoes well). For dinner I’d grate a couple potatoes into a fry pan with 3 tbsp olive oil to make hash browns. I also experimented with air-fried french fries, scalloped potatoes (just the shape, not the cheese/cream), and shoestring potatoes.

Note that the night-before boiling is important. Supposedly, refrigerating potatoes helps increase some of their resistant starch, which is the “dietary fiber” part of the carbohydrates on nutrition labels. That means they have an even lower glycemic load, and probably end up netting fewer calories.

In the morning, I tried to skip seasoning. For lunch and dinner, I’d vary it with any combination of salt, pepper, powdered MSG, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, Kinder’s cracked pepper & lemon seasoning, Chinese five spice, McCormick Montreal Steak Seasoning, garlic powder, and onion powder. I avoided more substantial additions like sugar, soy sauce, BBQ sauce, and mayonnaise.

I bought lots of different kinds of potatoes at the store. Never sweet potatoes. I prefer russet and Yukon Gold; they’re the most flexible for different kinds of cooking. Tiny potatoes are fun, but you can’t do as much with them because it’s impractical to cut them into different shapes.

I broke the diet on five days, all tied to social events. On those days, I skipped lunch to leave room for the extra food in the evening, and if a potato-based dish were available, I’d choose that. For example, at a local movie theater I ordered a kind of poutine dish based on tater tots (a bit like this). It had a bunch of non-potato stuff like cheese, bacon, and a creamy sauce, and a lot of fry oil, but it was still based on potatoes.

I cooked for my family as I usually do, and I’d have a bite or two of the food to taste it. I also had my customary evening glass of wine or beer on most days. This was a diet, not a religion, so I didn’t worry too much about absolutely strict compliance.

I have a few theories about why the diet works, both for weight-loss and as a generally sustainable diet. First is simply that it’s hard to get enough calories from potatoes, but you definitely feel full much of the day. Even a big russet potato is only about 280 calories, which means an adult male would have to eat 10 a day to maintain body weight. So you have to (or get to) invest a fair amount of time in eating, but it’s not very effective in terms of net calorie intake.

Second is that potatoes are pretty close to junk food in a typical U.S. diet, so it was fun to be eating steak fries, hash browns, tater tots, mashed potatoes, and home fries all day long. They don’t have a very strong taste on their own, which makes it easy to vary the taste of each meal with different seasonings.

Third, I think the diet messes with your set point, particularly according to a certain hack described in The Shangri-La Diet by the late Seth Roberts. Like most foods eaten on a monotrophic diet, potatoes become pretty bland after a while. This avoids the body’s tendency to increase its set point after eating tasty food, which in modern society can be anything and everything you eat. Very tasteless food eaten within a “flavorless window” might even lower the set point. Some say the potato diet is unusual in that people tend to keep their lost weight off after ending the diet. I know lots of diets make that claim, but the set-point theory provides a mildly scientific reason why this one should succeed.

I’m going to continue the diet for five more days to make up for the break days.