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Potatoes can make you a better athlete

But you might get a bit gassy.

Long-distance cyclists and runners are known for ingesting carbohydrate gels over the course of a race in order to refuel and improve performance during exercise. These gels are mostly made of simple sugars, both fructose and glucose, sometimes with the addition of salts or caffeine. But could other foods be substituted for these gels and have similar results?

Researchers turned to potatoes for experimentation, as these are also high in carbohydrates but with more starch than sugar. What they found is that, when high-level cyclists consume a potato puree during a race, it works “just as well as a commercial carbohydrate gel in sustaining blood glucose levels and boosting performance.”

This curious experiment (funded by the Alliance for Potato Research & Education) involved only 12 participants, so it is an extremely small sample size. All twelve people had to qualify for the study by completing a 120-minute ride followed by a time trial. Participants then followed a standardized diet for 24 hours before repeating the ride and time trial, this time fuelled by one of three methods – carbohydrate gels, potato puree, or water. During that time, the researchers measured blood glucose, core body temperature, exercise intensity, and gastrointestinal symptoms.

According to Nicholas Burd, lead study author and kinesiology professor at the University of Illinois,

“We found no differences between the performance of cyclists who got their carbohydrates by ingesting potatoes or gels at recommended amounts of about 60 grams per hour during the experiments. Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve.”

The downside, however, was that the athletes eating potatoes experienced greater bloating and flatulence than those using the gels. Burd said this may be a result of the larger volume of potatoes needed to match the glucose provided by the gels (about one cup of diced potatoes is required to get 25 grams of carbs). “Nevertheless, average GI symptoms were lower than previous studies, indicating that both (carbohydrate) conditions were well-tolerated by the majority of the study's cyclists.”

This research is interesting because it highlights the power of whole foods to fuel high-intensity exercise. Obviously whole foods are a known building block of an athlete's diet, but they're not typically used in race or competitive settings. This, Burd says, shows that “athletes may use whole-food sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to commercial products to diversify race-fueling menus.”

More vegetables and less single-use plastic packaging? We can get behind that.

But you might get a bit gassy.