There's a reason we all immediately think of vitamin C when considering ways to boost our immune health. "Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant stabilizing free radicals, thus helping to prevent cellular damage," explains Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, founder of Street Smart Nutrition. "Vitamin C has been shown to help support and bolster the body's immune system. It also boosts your body's ability to produce collagen, which is a major component of muscle tissue. Collagen supports iron absorption, while also helping to heal wounds and even keeping your gums healthy."
As children, many of our parents or caregivers immediately reached for citrus fruits or juice when considering vitamin C-rich foods, and they were right to do so (oranges, for instance, are a great source of vitamin C). That being said, our knowledge about the benefits of vitamin C, as well as the foods it's found in, has greatly expanded in recent years.
The best part about this wider array of immune-boosting options—other than how happy they make our taste buds (sorry, OJ)—is that many of them, including potatoes, provide many other nutrients and benefits when we eat them. "This is especially true when comparing these whole foods to targeted vitamin C supplements," adds Harbstreet.
This bang-for-your-buck mentality is what's known as nutrient density: Foods that pack the maximum amount of good-for-you nutrients per energy content or weight are considered nutrient dense. "Research suggests that potatoes are one of the vegetables offering the most nutrients per dollar (along with sweet potatoes and carrots) on eight important nutrients, including potassium, fiber, protein, vitamins C and E, calcium, iron, and magnesium," says Harbstreet. Potatoes are a food with one of the highest levels of potassium, providing 15 percent of the daily value per serving. In addition, they have 7 percent of the daily value of dietary fiber per serving. "If you are looking to amp up the fiber content of your daily diet, potatoes are one of the least expensive sources of fiber out there," she adds.
Equally important: A medium 5.3-ounce potato contributes 30 percent of your recommended daily value of vitamin C, which is 27 milligrams of vitamin C. This is more than the vitamin C content of one medium tomato (27 percent of the recommended daily value) or a medium sweet potato (20 percent of the recommended daily value). "Potatoes contribute significantly to your daily vitamin C requirements," Harbstreet says.
Surprised? So were we. But the benefits of potatoes surpass their affordability and immune-boosting nutritional benefits—they also present a widely available, accessible option for those looking to consume more fresh produce. "Many Americans are struggling with food insecurity and are not meeting recommendations for vegetable intake. I encourage variety in food choices, especially budget-friendly or inexpensive options that are available throughout the seasons. There's a pervasive myth that nourishing foods or a healthy eating style is expensive, and that's not necessarily true. Potatoes are a prime example of that," says Harbstreet. "We tend to think of them as a carb or starch and therefore should be limited, but they're incredibly nutritious." You can also typically find fresh potatoes at a good price year-round, or enjoy their nutrition benefits in frozen or dehydrated forms.
Final Words on Potatoes for Immunity
"Immunity and immune health are complex, but you don't need to be a health expert to take small steps to supporting better health and immunity," explains Harbstreet. Adding additional servings of vegetables each day addresses several challenges. First, there's the fact that most Americans aren't consuming the recommended number of servings. Second, a diet that includes a variety of plant foods provides beneficial fiber (prebiotics) for gut health, which plays a key role in overall immune health. And finally, according to Harbstreet, consuming more vegetables is linked to better mood and mental well-being, which is often overlooked aspect of maintaining a strong immune system. "At the end of the day, potatoes are a nutrient-dense vegetable that provides the energy, potassium, and vitamin C you need to perform your best and fuel your day," she concludes.