Northwest potato growers aren’t going to like the diet recommendations that they can expect to come with increasing frequency from health experts: "step away from the spuds and no one gets hurt."

That’s big news for our region’s farm economies, too, because Cascadia dominates North American potato growing almost as thoroughly as it dominates North American markets for apples and airplanes. And it’s not just Idaho; Washington often produces more potatoes than Idaho, and Oregon holds its own.

The most obvious attack comes from proponents of the Atkins Diet. They say to avoid all carbohydrates, regardless of source. To me, Atkins smells like a fad likely to pass as quickly as it came.

Over the long term, the more worrisome attack on what the French call the "apple of the earth" comes from science. Take the case of Harvard M.D. and public health professor Walter Willett, one of the world’s leading authorities on nutrition and health. He argues that potatoes are about as nutritious as lollipops and shouldn’t be thought of as health-promoting vegetables at all.

Unfortunately for spud ranchers, Willett’s got a river of evidence for his claim as wide as Idaho’s Snake River Plain.

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  • The argument comes in Willett’s already-classic 2001 book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. In it, he delivers a devastating, point-by-point critique of the US Department of Agriculture’s ubiquitous Food Guid Pyramid, shown below.

    In summary form, Willet’s critique runs:

    "The USDA Pyramid is wrong. It was built on shaky scientific ground back in 1992. Since then it has been steadily eroded by new research from all parts of the globe. Scores of large and small research projects have chipped away at the foundation (carbohydrates), the middle (meat and milk), and the apex (fats). . . . But the USDA Pyramid hasn’t really changed . . .

    "At best, the USDA Pyramid offers wishy-washy, scientifically unfounded advice on an absolutely vital topic—what to eat. At worst, the misinformation contributes to overweight, poor health, and unnecessary early deaths."

    Willett’s asides, in which he exposes the various agricultural interests that conspired to draw the USDA Pyramid as it is, are the most incendiary parts of the book. But the bulk is a summary of what nutrition research says we should eat. In fact, Willet has done what the USDA Pyramid fails to do. He builds a nutrition guide from the bricks of countless peer-reviewed, well-designed studies. If any diet will extend your life, his will. He even summarizes it in a Healthy Eating Pyramid. I’m hanging it up in my kitchen.

    Notice that daily exercise and weight control are the base of the pyramid. Notice that potatoes, along with white rice, white bread, and pasta occupy the top of the pyramid, up in the "use sparingly" zone with red meat, butter, and sweets. Notice that plant oils (but not partially hydrogenated ones!) occupy the bottom of the pyramid along with whole grains. (For "white-flour vegetarians" like me, this is going to take some work!) The Pyramid says that eating sardines is better for you than eating pancakes or baguettes. It says that the oil in which potato chips are cooked is better for you than the potato. It says that there’s a bigger health difference between whole grain bread and white bread than there is between collard greens and a three-egg omelet. It’s a huge change from the USDA guide that adorns cereal boxes and has become the conventional wisdom about what to eat—and, according to Willet, has helped to push obesity to epidemic levels.

    While you wait your turn to take Willett’s book out of the library, you can find a more detailed summary of his Healthy Eating Pyramid here.

    All this new information definitely puts new meaning to the Idaho-born Shoshone Chief Washakie‘s repudiation of the white man’s agriculture and sedentary lifestyle in the 1860’s, "God damn a potato!"