You know that Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”? The one about how you may find yourself in a shotgun shack or a large automobile or a beautiful house (with a beautiful wife) and you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
I thought a lot about that song during my week eating nothing but potatoes. Because for a lot of my week eating nothing but potatoes, I felt like a stranger in a strange, bland land. The kind of strange, bland land in which I found myself, at one point, slicing into a cold boiled potato and asking myself, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
But let me back up—way up—and explain why I was eating nothing but potatoes for a week. See, there’s this guy in Australia. His name is Andrew Taylor. In 2016, he ate only potatoes. For the entire year. In doing so, he dropped more than 100 pounds. He became happier. (Taylor, who says he was clinically depressed, felt so good that he stopped taking his antidepressants.) His joint pain disappeared. He began sleeping better. In short, the diet massively changed him for the better.
I begin to feel stronger. Fuller. More filled with iron. But also sorta heavy. It’s like my body is going through changes. Like that Eminem song. Or that Peter Brady song. I feel myself becoming a kind of potato superhero. Potato Man.
“Eating only potatoes has improved my life in more ways than I could ever imagine,” he told news.com.au.
Taylor’s success story made headlines around the world. If you Google “Andrew Taylor potatoes,” you can find articles about him in every publication from the New York Post to Cosmopolitan. He even launched his own website, Spud Fit, and now coaches other people through a similar diet.
I first heard about Taylor via a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update joke. (The joke was something like, “A man in Australian ate nothing but potatoes for an entire year. He lost over a hundred pounds and was able to go off his antidepressants and is now dead.”)
Simultaneously to learning of Taylor, I continued to learn that I was getting fat. Now, to be clear, I’m not obese. I’m 6’3”, and if you saw me, you’d probably think I was a tall, thin person. But I know the real story. Because I know what’s under the clothes. I’ve got a sizable belly, legit love handles and way too much lower back fat. Quite frankly, I don’t like how I look with my shirt off. And it didn’t always used to be this way.
For various reasons, I’ve packed on lots of weight in the past year and a half. I’ve gone from 190 to 220 pounds. The biggest factors: I started taking an antidepressant, generic Lexapro. One of its side effects is weight gain. Also, I don’t go to the gym very often these days. (I’ve been working longer hours, which has made it more difficult for me to drag my ass to my local Planet Fitness. Plus, the heavier you get, the less fun it is to work out because you can’t run very far or do as many pull-ups and burpees, etc.)
So after reading about Taylor and his amazing results, I decided to try the all-potato diet for a week. Here’s how it went…
I wake up, urinate and step on the scale: 218 pounds. I bypass my usual breakfast of Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds and instead pick up two orders of home fries at my local bodega. (Bodega guy: “Just home fries?” Me: “Just home fries.” Bodega guy: “You want ketchup?” Me: “Uh, sure.”)
The thing about the all-potato diet is, you have to set the ground rules. You have to ask yourself, What counts as just potatoes? What is off-limits? I quickly decide I can have potatoes, prepared any way I like, with simple spices like salt and pepper and basic condiments like ketchup. But no cheese. No chili. No onions. No peppers. Not much butter. Not much milk. And no eggs. So mashed potatoes are OK, but potato salad is not.
As for beverages, I decide I can have any “thin” drink (orange juice, water, coffee), but no “thick” drinks, like milkshakes or smoothies. You gotta draw the line somewhere.
In the afternoon I go to the gym. I lift pretty heavy. (For me, anyway.) I do squats with dumbbells. I run on the treadmill. I bike.
Then I go home and eat an all-potato meal that my girlfriend Claudia has lovingly prepared for me. The meal consists of mashed sweet potatoes with a side of diced-up baked potatoes. I sprinkle the diced-up baked potatoes on top of the mashed sweet potatoes. The flavors work well together. It’s pretty damn good!
For dinner we go to the movies and I eat French fries. My first all-potato day is in the books and apart from a slight headache, I’m feeling good.
I wake up, pee and step on the scale: 220.5 pounds. Uh-oh. Instead of losing weight, I am gaining it. Which makes sense. Potatoes have a lot of carbs, and it’s not like I am holding back.
For breakfast I eat more of the diced baked potatoes. For lunch, I have another meal that Claudia has made for me—diced baked red potatoes with rosemary, straight out of the oven. For a snack, I have some potato pancakes that Claudia has whipped up for me.
Finally for dinner, I walk into McDonald’s and ask for two orders of large fries. (I was going to order only one, but I am starving, so I get two.) They are delicious, but afterwards I don’t feel very good. In fact, all day I have felt antsy, impatient and irritable, and these fries have only made things worse. But on the positive side, I also feel fueled by a bit more testosterone. (Which could be due to the previous day’s gym workout.)
Before going to sleep, I hop on the computer and do a little work. First, I submit a query to a website called Help A Reporter Out (HARO), requesting to speak with registered dietitians about my potato experiment.
Second, I track down Andrew Taylor’s email address and shoot him a message. I ask him for tips on sticking to the program, what he found most difficult about his potato year, and if he ate many French fries, potato chips and home fries during his 12-month potato stint.
Then I go to bed and hope I feel better in the morning.
Unfortunately, I do not feel any better in the morning. I wake up with heartburn, as if my body is still digesting all those fries. My blood-sugar level feels unhealthy. It’s almost like I can feel my blood thickening. I also feel gray inside. And sluggish all over. I think this must be what Morgan Spurlock felt like during Super Size Me.
I look up the nutritional facts for McDonald’s fries. They’re not good. A large order of fries contains 498 calories and 66 grams of carbs, which is 22 percent of the daily value. And I had two servings of those.
I am not losing any weight, either. The scale shows 219 pounds.
But there is some good news: As I eat some mashed sweet potatoes and diced baked potatoes for breakfast (delicious), I see that my inbox is full.
I have gotten inundated with responses to my HARO request. Many registered dietitians wish to speak with me. Some leave their comments directly in their emails. Most of them are opposed to what I’m doing. “Eating just one food, no matter what it is, eliminates the other food groups and can’t be a good idea,” writes Shari Portnoy, RD, of FoodLabelNutrition.com.
“Potatoes do not have adequate protein or omega-3 fatty acids,” writes Dr. Barry Sears of the Inflammation Research Foundation nonprofit. “Without this, you will lose muscle mass and have a difficult time mounting an appropriate immune response.”
“Potatoes are a GMO [genetically modified organism],” writes Karen Brennan, an herbalist for TruFoodsNutrition.com. “Unless you are eating only organic potatoes, not only is this diet deficient in nutrients, but now you are filling up your body with toxins.”
The most negative response is from a registered dietitian in New Jersey named Ryan Whitcomb. “I’m not a fan of this idea for numerous reasons and I worry that others will try to replicate what [Andrew Taylor] did,” Whitcomb tells me. “Rapid weight loss like that can oxidize cholesterol, increasing the chances of a heart attack or other heart problem. The other issue with rapid weight loss is the flooding of the bloodstream with toxic chemicals and metals that have been stored away in the fatty tissue.”
Still, not everyone is hating. I receive a long, encouraging message from Carol Meerschaert, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Pennsylvania.
“An all-anything diet will help you lose weight because you get taste fatigue and will eat less,” writes Meerschaert. “If you had to choose one food, potato is not a bad one. I had a nutrition professor who had a one-question final in grad school: ‘If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one food, what should it be?’ The correct answer was potato. Potatoes have vitamin C, which is the first nutrient you’d run out of—so congrats, you can avoid scurvy. They are a great source of potassium, too (25 percent DV). The carbs will give you energy and spare protein. They have a good amount of fiber. Bottom line: I would not recommend it as a way of life, but to kick-start a new year and some weight loss, you could do worse.”
“With a lot of diets, like the high-protein diet, you’ll lose weight but you’ll look like crap. With the potato diet, you’ll get younger-looking and more handsome.” —Dr. John McDougall, author of The Starch Solution
I read this and think: Maybe I’m not crazy after all. I also set up interviews with two other promising sources for later in the week.
But buried among the HARO responses, I notice the best email of all. It’s a reply from the Spud King himself, Andrew Taylor. Overall the Australian is very cheerful and positive. He begins with a friendly “G’day Shawn” and answers each of my questions thoroughly.
As far as advice for my week, he says: “Most important is to be prepared. Always have potatoes with you so that you never have to go hungry. We make bad choices when we are hungry! When you’re craving other foods, just acknowledge the craving is there and then fill up on spuds.”
As far as French fries, potato chips and home fries, Taylor says these items are strictly forbidden. “Oil is a very bad idea, especially deep-frying, which is extremely unhealthy and very high in calories. I don’t eat any oil at all, ever.” In other words, bye-bye, McDonald’s. Which, honestly, is a relief. Those fries made me feel like crap.
Taylor also notes that the first two weeks were the most difficult for him. “They were very hard to get through, but since then I’ve really just been in a groove and it’s been much easier than I thought it would be.”
I immediately send Taylor a thank you email with a couple of follow-up questions. (I ask whether the potatoes improved his sex drive—which is an area I could use help with—and whether he’s still on the diet.)
The rest of the day I eat mashed sweet potatoes, potato pancakes, and microwavable Ore-Ida mashed potatoes. I find myself in a weird state where I feel perpetual heartburn but I also crave more potatoes. As the night goes on, I begin to feel stronger. Fuller. More filled with iron. But also sorta heavy. It’s like my body is going through changes. Like that Eminem song. Or that Peter Brady song. I feel myself becoming a kind of potato superhero. Potato Man.
Maybe I’m just hallucinating. Or maybe I am realizing my destiny. Perhaps I am meant to eat potatoes for the rest of my life. This may be it for me. Some people wear the same thing every day of their life. Maybe I will eat the same thing. This is my destiny, I think. This weird diet. This is my new food uniform.
I wake up to see that Andrew Taylor has answered my questions. He says he is no longer eating just potatoes, as of 2017. “I plan to continue eating a lot of potatoes forever,” he tells me, “but also incorporating plenty of veggies, fruits, grains and legumes so that I’m eating what’s known as a whole foods, plant-based diet.”
Regarding my question about his sex drive, he writes, “My sex drive was already good and I didn’t notice any increase in that, but I did definitely notice an increase in… let’s just say ‘performance’!”
Following Taylor’s previous advice, I decide to keep it super simple with my potato prep the rest of the week. For breakfast I boil four potatoes, slice them up and eat them with salt, pepper and Old Bay. They’re not bad! I feel satisfied. They’re not tough on the stomach either. No grease! I feel much better than the day before.
After breakfast I walk to the corner bodega and buy two five-pound bags of Russet Burbank potatoes from Shelley, Idaho. Each bag costs $3 and contains about 15 potatoes. I do the math. Each boiled-potato meal is costing me about 80 cents. Which must make it the best deal in Brooklyn. So in addition to all the other benefits of potatoes, they’re also a money saver.
In the afternoon I get on the phone with Dr. John McDougall, a physician, nutrition expert and the author of many books, including The Starch Solution and The Healthiest Diet on the Planet. This guy is a major potato advocate. He starts by telling me about how the Incas, back in the 13th century, ate basically all potatoes. They would freeze-dry them and store them for up to 10 years.
“The potato has been the worldwide pillar of nutrition for thousands of documented years,” McDougall tells me. “Potatoes are an amazing plant part. They’re a really rugged plant. You can grow them at high or low altitudes, in dry or wet climates. People can live on potatoes alone. That’s been proven naturally and in experiments. Andrew Taylor is not the first person to do this. And there’s nothing reckless that he—or you—is doing.”
McDougall also points out some other benefits of potatoes that I hadn’t considered. He says my cholesterol will decrease. I’ll get stronger.(“Potatoes are a great muscle-builder. They’re loaded with protein.”) I’ll gain endurance. And I’ll look more attractive.
“With a lot of diets, like the high-protein diet, you’ll lose weight but you’ll look like crap,” says McDougall. “With the potato diet, you’ll get younger-looking and more handsome.”
He does say that I should take a B-12 pill at least once a week. (“This is something you have to do on any vegan diet.”) And he recommends I stick with boiled potatoes and get an Instant Pot to prepare them more quickly.
“What about French fries?” I ask. His tone quickly changes. He begins to scold me.
“If you’re eating French fries, then you’re not doing the potato diet,” he says. “You’re going from 4/10ths grams of fat to 40 grams of fat. There’s no comparison. I don’t even consider those potatoes. You need to deal with potatoes—boiled, baked and mashed.”
When McDougall settles down from his anti-French fry rant, he brings up a couple of additional advantages of potatoes.
“It’ll clear up your skin,” he says. “You’ll also smell better because you’re not consuming any sulfur from animal fat. So with an all-potato diet, you get rid of body odor.”
Finally, he points out that potatoes are better for the environment. “The livestock industry is destroying planet Earth, with all of the greenhouse gas production. On an acre of land, growing potatoes produces 20 times the calories and proteins of raising cattle. It’s far better for the planet. So there’s also a moral issue here.”
When I get off the phone after half an hour, I email Taylor and ask if he smelled better and had better skin during his potato year. Then I boil five potatoes and eat them with salt, pepper and Old Bay. They’re not delicious, but they’re satisfying. And it feels good to eat simply for a change.
I wake up with a rumbling stomach, so I walk to the bodega. The man behind the counter is slicing meat. For a second I fantasize about a turkey-and-Swiss sandwich. Or maybe a Reuben. Or maybe just positioning my mouth under that slicer and swallowing whatever falls off of it. Roast beef, pastrami, ham. I realize this is the longest I’ve gone without meat in more than 30 years.
I feel fine though. I shake off my meat fantasy and ask for two orders of home fries. (Yeah, I know: The doctor told me not to eat anything with grease, but whatever. I feel like home fries are healthier than French fries, even if they’re not.)
I check my inbox and see that I’ve got a new message from Andrew. He has responded to my questions about smelling better and having clearer skin. God bless that Aussie. He writes: “Yes, I’ve definitely found that I smell better. I don’t use deodorant anymore and most of the time my farts don’t smell either! My skin has changed a lot, too. My wife says I have a pregnant glow.”
In the afternoon I get on the phone with Rachele Dependahl, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Cedars-Sinai Medical Group in Beverly Hills, California. Dependahl isn’t quite as rah-rah about my potato diet as McDougall, but she’s close. “The potato has a complete protein profile,” she tells me. “It’s very high in potassium. Higher than a banana. They’re good for your blood sugar. They’re great for vitamin C and fiber. You should definitely eat the skin because that’s where a lot of nutrients are. In the short term, I think an all-potato diet is fine. It’s probably not something you want to do long-term. But anytime something resonates for you—if you find it interesting—it’s a success.”
Dependahl compares the all-potato diet to a type of intermittent fasting, which is becoming more popular in this country. And she says it could be a good way to kick-start weight loss (which is the same thing Meerschaert had written to me). “I always tell my patients, success isn’t really if you can get the weight off; it’s if you can keep it off,” Dependahl says. “If you want to do this for a while, go for it. But then you are probably going to want to switch to something you can do long-term.”
Dependahl also lets me in on a little insider info. She says that potatoes help create a healthy gut environment. That’s been proven. But there is growing research that potatoes might help prevent chronic diseases like colon cancer. And they might boost your immune system and metabolism. She said the best way to get the immune system and metabolism benefits is to cook the potatoes (boil them or bake them), then cool them in the fridge, and then eat them cold.
Before going to bed that night, I boil five potatoes and put them in the fridge.
I wake up feeling good, partly because I know my potato week is nearly finished. After a breakfast of hot boiled potatoes, I go to the gym. I begin lifting weights. The dumbbells go up a bit more easily. I feel a bit more energized while doing my squats. Then I step on the treadmill. I peek at a Taco Bell commercial on a nearby TV. It nearly throws me off my game. I feel a mighty urge for a Double Stacked taco. Or anything with cheese.
But I shake off this desire and keep jogging. I feel lighter, faster. In the gym’s locker room, I stare at my face. It looks slightly thinner. I am not losing weight, but the weight seems to be redistributing. My shoulders and arms look more defined. I am pleased.
When I get home I pull out the bowl of potatoes from the fridge that I had boiled a day earlier, per Dependahl’s instructions. I drop the potatoes on a plate and proceed to eat them cold with just salt and pepper.
That’s when I realize that the appeal of a cold potato is dramatically less than that of a hot potato. I think: “It’s bad enough I’m eating only potatoes. Now I’m gonna eat cold potatoes? Screw this.” After finishing my first frigid potato. I heat up the others in the microwave. They go down much easier.
Before going to bed that night, I brush my teeth. I have been looking forward to the taste of my minty toothpaste for hours, and it does not let me down. You know you’re depriving yourself of sweets when you start to look forward to brushing your teeth.
I wake up, urinate and step on the scale: 218 pounds. I will not lose weight on this diet. Not this week, anyway. Still, I feel good. Strong like bull.
I study myself in the bathroom mirror. In addition to the more defined upper-body muscles, I think I notice a bit of that “pregnant glow” Andrew mentioned.
After a breakfast of boiled potatoes and a lunch of home fries, I go to the gym. I hit the fly machine. Fairly hard. Both sides, front and reverse. Then I move to the treadmill. I feel better than I’ve felt in months. Lighter. More energized. I run a mile, interval style. It’s not easy, but it’s noticeably easier. I feel more athletic. More fluid. More springy. I run a mile and a half and then skip around and gallop for another mile, burning a total of 300 calories. I crush that workout like it’s a bunch of, well, you know. Then I reward myself with a fruit punch Gatorade. Its electrolyte-filled sweetness tastes extra luscious.
As I bask in the glow of my best workout in months, I realize that my joints aren’t bothering me. My ankles and knees feel better than they’ve felt in close to a year.
For dinner—my victory meal—Claudia and I go to Junior’s restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. I order four different types of potatoes. Mashed potatoes, a baked potato, a potato pancake and French fries. (They were out of hash browns.) I eat most of it. (The potato pancake was a little too breaded for me.)
I look around the restaurant and start to think big picture. I think about how as humans we’re making the world worse. In so many ways. We’re hurting the planet with what we produce. We’re hurting our bodies with what we consume. We’re hurting our brains with the video games we play and the phones we never put down. Perhaps we need to get back to basics. Because the basics are all we need. Natural foods. Natural ingredients.
Maybe if we all ate nothing but potatoes, the world would be a better place. We would have less obesity. Less cancer. Fewer skin problems. Fewer depression issues. Less crankiness. Maybe potatoes are the answer to all of our civilization’s problems. It’s the answer to our future as a society. It was right there in front of us, all along. Right there in the ground. Go ahead, call me old fashioned. The all-potato diet symbolizes a return to a simpler, cleaner, purer life.
Thinking these thoughts, I start to feel hopeful about my own future. Maybe with the help of potatoes I can shed these antidepressants I’m tethered to, just like Taylor did. Which reminds me of something McDougall told me. It’s not that potatoes directly improve everything in your life. They don’t necessarily raise your testosterone level and your sex drive and your happiness. But they do replace the things that damage it. “Being on drugs, like blood pressure pills or antidepressants, kills your sex drive,” says McDougall. “Potatoes help return your health and get you off the drugs that are hurting you.”
Before this week, I thought the all-potato diet was just a gimmick. I thought at the stroke of midnight on Day 7, I would reward myself with a greasy half-pound cheeseburger. But now I’m a potato believer. I think they could solve a lot of problems. With potatoes as my copilot, I’m gonna transform my body and ditch my antidepressants.
Look out, Andrew Taylor. I’m coming for you. There’s a new Spud King in town.