I'm always on the lookout for a good hack. Whether it's trying butter in my coffee in the morning for sustained energy (didn't work), writing while using binaural beats for increased focus (kind of works?), or taking a cold shower every morning and then running up a hill in lieu of a longer workout (works, but not for the feint of heart), I am 100% open to trying new things that might improve my life.
So, when I heard about a book called "The Potato Hack" on one of my favorite health podcasts, my ears perked up. Author Tim Steele described how his three- to five-day diet eating nothing but potatoes helped him take back control of his health.
I know -- I have a spotty history with some food fads. But before you tune out, let me assure you this is nothing like a juice cleanse peddled by a reality TV star. It is not intended for people who want to starve themselves to look good on the runway. This is a short-term diet in which you eat until you're full, and you consume one of the most nutrient-dense foods on Earth: potatoes.
And since I'm always on the lookout for ways to save on my grocery bill, I was interested in this diet from a frugality standpoint. Potatoes are dirt cheap. If I mix a few potato-only weeks into my year, maybe I'll end up with a few hundred dollars more to invest by the end of it.
At the very least, I hope this article can serve as a defense of the much maligned, humble potato. Far from being a scourge that raises blood sugar and packs on fat, the potato can be a cheap, healthy meal option.
The Potato Hack
I wanted to learn more about all things spud-related, so I reached out to Tim Steele to get the lowdown on his potato-hack plan and how he came to espouse it.
"I was obese with metabolic syndrome at age 44," Steele says. Around that time, he started dieting in earnest -- but he didn't like all the restrictions and found he would quickly regain weight when he fell off the wagon.
"I was looking for a better way of losing weight and for a long-term maintenance plan," Steele says. "At the time, Chris Voigt, Washington State's potato commissioner, had just completed a 60-day 'potato-only' publicity stunt in which he lost 21 pounds and had improved markers of health. I thought, 'Why not?' and gave it a shot."
Yes, Washington State has a potato commissioner. But even more surprising, Steele discovered that an all-potato diet really worked. "I lost about 10 pounds in two weeks, and found I could easily lose five pounds a week eating just potatoes," he says.
But if you were hoping to lose weight with a diet of French fries and bacon-and-cheddar-smothered baked potatoes, think again. The basic protocol of the potato hack, Steele says, is, "Eat potatoes, plainly cooked without oil, served without garnish."
That may sound bland, but Steele lays out dozens of recipes and other ways to mix up that simple formula in his book. "I call one of my favorites 'PBD,' or potatoes by day. Just as it sounds, eat nothing but plain potatoes for breakfast and lunch, and then a sensible dinner. This can be done very long-term, months even, to lose and maintain weight."
With a good non-stick pan, Steele says, potatoes can be 'fried' without oil. His favorite go-to dish is hash browns, prepared in a ceramic pan, cooked until crispy, and served with salt and vinegar. "People often find they like these 'no-oil' recipes better than the way they usually prepare potatoes," he says.
So how does the potato hack diet work in practice? "The basic hack is usually done in three- to five-day increments, separated by days or weeks of normal eating," Steele says. After that, he says, if you eat sensibly, you're unlikely to regain the three to five pounds you lost doing the hack. "In fact, many people end up losing more when they return to their normal diet with a new appreciation for hunger and a knowledge that they're not metabolically broken," Steele says.
Is It Healthy?
The potato often gets a bad rap, but it's not the poor spud's fault. It's more about the company it keeps -- like vegetable oil.
"Potatoes have taken some very hard hits lately," Steele says. Just this month, a story went viral saying four servings of potatoes per week leads to high blood pressure. "This story has since been refuted by many, many nutritionists and scientists," Steele says. "It also included fried potatoes, and only looked at a simple correlation. Yet, the story is out there, getting lots of publicity."
The biggest problem, Steele says, is that potatoes are mostly eaten as French fries and potato chips. "Potatoes have become a delivery vehicle for oils and fats, and this need not be the case," he says. "Potatoes can be prepared in very healthy ways: baked and served with just a bit of butter or sour cream, for instance, oven-baked French fries, or mashed potatoes made with milk -- or better yet, broth."
Another recent study showed that when kids are given unlimited access to mashed potatoes at meals, they eat 25% less food overall. The study concluded, "Potatoes provide valuable shortfall nutrients for children as well as adults including potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, iron and fiber, and bioactive phenolics. Potato is also a source of high-quality protein and has favorable ratios of high nutrient-to-energy density and protein calories-to-total calories."
One common misconception is that potatoes are bad for blood sugar, but Steele says that's not the case at all. "In fact, an all-potato diet was once a cure for diabetes," he says. "Some very diet-savvy people may say, 'Potatoes are a high glycemic food! That's bad!' But study after study, and personal observation, shows that the glycemic index is wildly exaggerated and not a good predictor of the healthfulness of the food."
It Saves Money, Too
Whether or not you go all-in on the potato hack diet, the potato is a cheap, nutritious staple to help bulk up your grocery haul on the cheap - and that's something anyone can appreciate.
In fact, in terms of nutrients per dollar, the potato reigns supreme. A 2013 study determined that, when building a school lunch program, potatoes presented the best value in terms of nutrients. "They measured things like fiber, vitamins, and minerals," Steele says. "Beans came in close behind."
Most people trying the potato hack eat about 10 to 15 pounds of potatoes during their three- to five-day stint, Steele says. "It's rare to spend $15 for five days of potato hacking," he says. "Even the most expensive organic heirloom potatoes in a supermarket are under $1 per pound."
Fifteen bucks compares quite favorably with the cost of some other diet plans -- not to mention the average American's weekly food budget. Steele calls the potato hack the cheapest diet you'll ever try. "There are no hidden costs or follow-on products or supplements needed," he adds. By comparison, popular diet plans such as Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Medifast, and Jenny Craig cost upwards of $65 a week for special food and sometimes tack on additional "support fees."
"Most of these programs require you to buy only their specially formulated -- mostly fake, highly processed -- foods, and a whole slew of supplements," Steele says. "The potato hack uses only whole, real food packed with nutrition, at a fraction of the cost."
Tips to Get Started
Thinking of giving the potato hack a try? Steele offers the following suggestions:
- Expect to go through three to five pounds of potatoes per day. For planning purposes at the grocery store, Steele says you can figure on eating three to five pounds of potatoes per day of the hack.
- Mix it up. Steele also recommends buying a variety of different potatoes so you don't burn out on one type. "Try cooking in inventive ways: hash browns, oven fries, waffles, cold, roasted -- don't just try to eat cold, boiled potatoes," he says.
- Prep some potatoes before you begin. "Cook about five pounds the morning you start or the day before, and keep it in the fridge," Steele suggests. "That way, you'll always have some cooked spuds on hand."
- Make a game out of it. "Try to make a game out of it by seeing how long you can go -- but three to five days is enough," he says. "You can expect to lose three to five pounds in those three to five days, but don't freak out if it's not linear," Steele says. "Weigh in at the beginning and end of the program, rather than several times a day."
- Don't starve yourself. Finally, Steele says, don't purposely try to limit how much you eat, and don't try stretching your stomach either. "Just eat until full each meal and have a potato snack if you’re still hungry," he says. "I hear people say all the time, 'I only ate two small potatoes, I was starving, and I lost no weight!' Well, that's not the potato hack, my friend, that's called starvation."
I decided to put my money where my mouth is and give the potato hack a try. For three days, I ate nothing but spuds.
The best part for me was something that Steele doesn't talk about much: It really helped me save my "decision energy." I loved never having to think about meal prep, planning, or execution. I boiled and baked a ton of potatoes, and I ate them when I got hungry. No staring at the fridge for minutes on end trying to decide whether that lettuce is salvageable, or wondering if I have the energy to throw together a burger. I could just grab a potato and get on with my life. I felt like this style of eating made me more productive overall.
I can also confirm that this diet makes it almost impossible to overeat. I didn't end one meal clutching my stomach, wishing I could go back in time and not have that pint of ice cream. I felt light and energized for the majority of the three days.
As a downside, I will say that Steele might be slightly underestimating the craving factor. After just a day, I really wanted some protein. Even when you're technically filling yourself up, it still takes a lot of discipline not to want a bite of that string cheese your girlfriend is eating. And after three days, I was straight up daydreaming about steak.
Still, I am glad I tried it, and I wouldn't hesitate to give it another go if I feel like my diet is off track.
For those looking for a cheap and simple way to get a little leaner -- and to save some serious money in the process --Steele's potato hack could be worth a try. One final note: Don't be deterred by people calling you weird. If anything, it's weird to eat processed foods with ingredients that require a PhD in chemistry to pronounce.