Chris Voigt is the executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, which supports and promotes the Washington state potato industry (1). On October 1st, Mr. Voigt began a two month, potato-only diet to raise awareness about the health properties of potatoes. It was partially in response to the recent decision by the federal WIC (Women, Infants and Children) low-income assistance program to remove potatoes from the list of vegetables it will pay for. Mr. Voigt's potato diet has been a media sensation, leading to widespread coverage in several countries. He maintains a website and blog called 20 Potatoes a Day.
For 60 days, Mr Voigt's diet consisted of nothing but potatoes and a small amount of cooking oil (canola and olive), with no added nutritional supplements. Based on what he has told me, I estimate that 10-15% of his calories came from fat, 10% from protein and 75-80% from high-glycemic carbohydrate. His calorie intake ranged from 1,600 kcal (first 3 weeks) to 2,200 kcal (remaining 5.5 weeks) per day. Prior to the diet, he estimated that his calorie requirement was 2,200 kcal, so he attempted to stay as close to that as possible.
Mr. Voigt has posted the results of physical examinations, including bloodwork, from the beginning, middle and end of the diet. The change he experienced during that time is nothing short of remarkable. He shed 21 pounds, his fasting glucose decreased by 10 mg/dL (104 to 94 mg/dL), his serum triglycerides dropped by nearly 50%, his HDL cholesterol increased slightly, and his calculated LDL cholesterol dropped by a stunning 41% (142 to 84 mg/dL). The changes in his HDL, triglycerides and fasting glucose are consistent with improved insulin sensitivity (2, 3), and are not consistent with a shift of LDL particle size to the dangerous "small, dense" variety (4).
What was your diet like prior to the potato diet?
My best estimate is that it was probably a little better than the average US citizen only because of a high rate of produce consumption. I generally would eat about 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. But I ate everything else too. I would eat a wide range of food, a little bit of everything, including foods that aren’t considered “healthy”.You essentially ate nothing but potatoes, fat and flavorings for two months. Can you give us an idea of how much fat you were eating? What kind of fat was it?
I averaged about 2 tablespoons of cooking oil a day over the span of the 60 days. Canola oil was used for frying and olive oil was used for roasting.
How was your digestion?
Potatoes are pretty easy on the digestive system. I actually got a lot of emails from people who suffer from severe digestive disorders and literally, potatoes are the only thing they can eat. My 60 days of potatoes was nothing compared to some folks with these digestive disorders. I was getting a lot of fiber so things were pretty regular, but not too regular :)
You lost 21 pounds during your two months of eating only potatoes. Do you have a sense of whether it came out of fat, muscle or both? For example, did your pants become looser?
Pants definitely became looser. I also noticed it in my neck size for shirts. I’m assuming most all of it was due to fat loss.
Do you think you were able to meet your calorie goal of 2,200 calories per day? Were you hungry during the diet?
I was not meeting the goal of 2,200 calories a day during the first 3 weeks of the diet. During the first three weeks of the diet I only ate until I was full. I didn’t realize that potatoes would give me such a high sense of fullness after each meal. So for those first 3 weeks, I was only consuming about 1,600 calories a day. After the third week I had lost 12 pounds and realized that I needed to change strategy. I then began to eat more potatoes despite the sense of fullness I was experiencing. So for the remaining 5 ½ weeks I was very diligent about eating the 2,200 calories. I continued to lose weight but at a slower place. I lost an additional 9 pounds over the course of those remaining 5 1/2 weeks. At the start of my diet I estimated, via a couple different on line calorie calculators, that I burn about 2,200 calories a day. Since I continued to lose weight, I’m assuming I actually burn closer to 2,800 calories a day. Something that may have also played a role in continued weight loss was the amount of resistant starch I was getting from potatoes. I ate a lot of cooked potatoes that had been refrigerated. These are generally higher in resistant starch. If I were to do the diet again, I would like to set up an experiment to gauge the effect of resistant starch.
What foods did you crave the most?
I craved mostly foods that had a “juicy crunch”, like an apple, or cucumbers, or carrots, or celery. I never acquired a taste for raw potatoes so virtually all the potatoes I consumed were cooked. No matter how you cook your potatoes, you always get that same soft cooked texture. I craved foods with a crisper texture.
How was your energy level?
My energy level was very good the entire time of the diet. I really didn’t notice a change in energy at the start of the diet so I assumed that the potato diet didn’t have a positive or negative effect on my energy level. It wasn’t until I finished the diet and started to consume other foods that I noticed my energy level has seemed to drop a bit.
How did you feel overall? Were there any unexpected effects of the diet?
I felt really good on the diet. I had lots of energy, slept good at night, and seemed to avoid the cold viruses that circulated at home and work.
The only unusual thing that occurred is what my wife told me. I’m a habitual snorer. The day I started eating only potatoes, my snoring stopped. It restarted the day I started to include other foods in my diet. I’m assuming it was just some weird coincidence but that’s what she tells me.
My doctor and I expected my cholesterol to drop but not at the level we saw. I’ve had borderline high cholesterol for the past decade. I started the diet at 214 and saw it drop to 147 at the end of 60 days. We anticipated a drop of maybe 10-25 points. It was a huge surprise to see a 67 point drop.
Your fasting glucose went from 104 mg/dL, which I consider high, to 94 mg/dL, which is on the high side for someone eating a high-carbohydrate diet, but within the clinically normal range. Do you have a family history of diabetes?
No history of diabetes. My parents are in their early eighties and their parents lived to their 70’s and 80’s with no history of type one or two diabetes.
Reading your blog posts, it seemed like you were having a hard time with the diet at first, but after a while you complained less and even seemed to enjoy it at times. Did you get used to it?
I would say that week 2 and 3 were probably the hardest. The first week was easy probably because of the novelty of the diet. Then reality set in for week 2 and 3. After that, I found my groove and it got easier. During the work week was easy but weekends, particularly Sunday’s, were the hardest. During the work week I did most of my eating at my desk so I wasn’t around a lot of other people eating or surrounded by other foods. Weekends were more difficult because I was around other people every meal and always had other foods in front of me at home.
What kinds of potatoes did you eat?
I literally ate every kind of potato I could get my hands on. I ate yellow skin/yellow flesh potatoes, red skin/white flesh, red skin/red flesh, purple skin/white flesh, purple skin/purple flesh, russet potatoes with white flesh, russet potatoes with yellow flesh, white potatoes, yellow potatoes with white flesh, purple fingerlings, yellow fingerlings, red fingerlings and numerous experimental varieties.
Did you peel them or eat the skin?
I ate the skin at least 90% of the time if not more. There is a myth that all the nutrition in a potato is in the skin or right under the skin. That’s not true, there are nutrients spread throughout the potato but most of the fiber is located in the skin.
What variety of potato is your favorite?
It really depended on the cooking method. For frying, I preferred russet potatoes. For baking, I preferred red potatoes. For mashed, I preferred yellow potatoes. For roasting, a toss-up between russets and reds.
How long did it take you after the diet ended to eat another potato?
As strange as it sounds, potatoes were my first two meals after my diet ended. I was saving my first non-potato meal for a special event that was planned at the local Head Start facility. The beef, dairy, apple, and potato producers put together a nice dinner event and nutrition workshop for all the kids and their parents at the Head Start center in Moses Lake. I still eat potatoes pretty regularly, but most of the time now I’m eating them with more than just seasonings.
Are there any other facts about potatoes you think Whole Health Source readers might find interesting?
Just a reminder that I’m not encouraging anyone to follow in my footsteps and eat just potatoes. This diet is not intended to be the next “fad” diet but was simply a bold statement to remind people that there is a tremendous amount of nutrition in a potato. There is no one food product that can meet all of your nutritional needs. I fully support a well balanced healthy diet, which potatoes can be a part of.
In 2008, the United Nations declared it to be the “Year of the Potato”. This was done to bring attention to the fact that the potato is one of the most efficient crops for developing nations to grow, as a way of delivery a high level of nutrition to growing populations, with fewer needed resources than other traditional crops. In the summer of 2010, China approved new government policies that positioned the potato as the key crop to feed its growing population. The Chinese government formed a partnership with the International Potato Center in Peru to help them facilitate this new emphasis on the potato.
Thanks Chris, for doing your experiment and taking the time to share these details with us!
In the next post, I'll give my interpretation of all this.