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As the head of the Washington State Potato Commission, it’s the job of Chris Voigt to promote the spud as a nutritious, cost-effective, easy-to-grow vegetable that should be part of a well-balanced diet.
To hammer home his message, Voigt ate nothing but potatoes between Oct. 1 and Dec. 1. He had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner — about 20 potatoes per day prepared in a variety of ways.
“No toppings, no sour cream, no butter. It was literally just potatoes and seasoning, and oil for cooking,” Voigt told TODAY’s Matt Lauer on Thursday.
Voigt boiled his potatoes, marinated them, mashed them, sautéed them. His wife even made potato ice cream.
“That was a failure, big time. It was like artificial, chocolate-flavored mashed potato,” Voigt said, grimacing at the memory.
People who have lost weight on one of those low-carb, no potatoes or pasta diets, might expect to gain weight following Voigt’s plan. He actually lost 21 pounds and dropped his cholesterol level by 67 points to a healthier level.
Voigt said he merely wanted to “debunk the myths” about the potato and return it as a staple to a well-balanced meal plan.
“This is not the new fad diet. It was really to make a bold statement, to remind people that the potato is truly healthy and nutritious,” he said.
Appearing on TODAY with Voigt, nutritionist Cynthia Sass agreed that the starch potatoes provide is an important part of any diet. “Potatoes are an incredibly nutritious food, but eating them exclusively for 60 days can lead to long-term side effects,” she said.
As for the positive effects Voigt reported, Sass cautioned people not to attempt any extreme diet without consulting a physician, as Voigt did.
“Anytime you do limit calories and lose weight, your cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure will come down, no matter how you lose that weight,” she said.
Making a statement
Promoting weight loss wasn’t actually what Voigt started out to do when he began his diet on Oct. 1. He was hoping to draw attention to federal proposals to bar or limit potatoes in some programs, arguing that potatoes are high in nutrients.
“The people who know me closely know I'm a huge introvert, so this is kind of out of my comfort zone, being front and center,” he said. “But this is also part of my job, so I embrace it and welcome it.”
Potatoes are the only vegetable not allowed for purchase under the federal Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC. The U.S. Department of Agriculture employed the change under an interim rule following a recommendation by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
The institute also called for the USDA-backed school lunch program to limit use of potatoes. The USDA is expected to release its school lunch menu proposals by the end of the year.
That program subsidizes lunch and breakfast for nearly 32 million needy kids in most public schools and many private ones, and those schools must follow guidelines on what they serve.
“If we are successful in convincing USDA to put potatoes in the programs, then I’d call it a 100 percent success,” Voigt said. “But it’s been great that the publicity and the general awareness the public has now and how it’s drawn some attention to the nutritional value of potatoes. I just consider that gravy.”
During his diet, which drew media attention from around the world, Voigt repeatedly noted that potatoes have more potassium than bananas, and that one serving provides roughly 45 percent of the daily recommended value for vitamin C. They also offer some fiber and other minerals and vitamins.
Voigt underwent a physical Monday, the last day of the diet. His weight dropped from 197 pounds to 176 pounds and his cholesterol level fell 67 points. Voigt said he and his doctor were both shocked.
“I’ve been struggling being borderline high cholesterol for four or five years,” he said. “We were thinking maybe a 20-point drop, but this is 60-some points.”
His doctor also advised him to go slow incorporating other foods into his diet.
Voigt’s first big meal Tuesday: tacos and fajitas, fruit and — yes, that’s right — grilled potatoes at a Head Start event for children and their parents.