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Vestal: A bold statement, made one potato at a time

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

But now – 21 days and 420 potatoes later – Chris Voigt must wonder. Voigt, head of the Washington Potato Commission, has gone on a much-publicized all-potato stunt diet for 60 days – a “message to the USDA” that potatoes are nutritionally sound.

Baked, mashed, fried, roasted. Baked, mashed, fried, roasted. Baked, mashed, fried, roasted.

“The diet’s going well,” Voigt said Thursday in an interview from his Moses Lake office. “The only thing I occasionally struggle with is the mental game of it. … Maybe 30 percent of the time, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Boy that piece of pizza looks really good.’ About 10 percent of the time, I think, ‘What in the world did I sign up for?’ ”

Here’s what he signed up for: Eating nothing but potatoes – with some seasonings and the occasional frying oil – for 60 days. That’s 20 spuds every day.

“The monotony of eating potatoes can be tough,” he said. “But nutritionally I’m doing pretty well.”

Which was his point to begin with – potato promotion. As an American staple, the potato has lost some steam. The U.S. Potato Board last year released data showing that as a component of a “traditional” meal, potatoes declined by 20 percent between 1997 and 2007. Meanwhile, the federal government is looking to block or reduce the use of potatoes in federal nutrition programs.

Those proposals are based on the idea that people need to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables; potatoes are still our most-eaten vegetable, though that’s often in the form of french fries and potato chips.

Voigt wants to remind us that they’re a good source of potassium, vitamin C, fiber (at least in the skin), protein and other nutrients.

This should matter to us here in the nation’s spud vortex. Idaho and Washington are Nos. 1 and 2 among potato-producing states. And it’s a strange time to go ostracizing a vegetable in America: Most of us have two servings of fruits or vegetables a day, compared to the recommended five.

“We do want people to have five fruits and vegetables a day – not 20 potatoes – but certainly one of those could be a potato,” said SeAnne Safaii-Fabiano, a registered dietitian and professor at the University of Idaho in Coeur d’Alene.

I went to Safaii-Fabiano to check the nutritional soundness of Voigt’s project. She did her analytical magic and found that a diet of 20 potatoes a day provides more overall nutrition, and fewer gaps, than you might think – so long as you’re not eating french fries and potato chips, and you are eating the skin.

“I really want to make it clear that there is not a dietitian I know who would recommend eating potatoes all day long, because there would eventually be deficiencies – but over a 60-day period, those deficiencies” would probably not show up, she said.

The all-potato diet would leave you short on vitamins A, E and B-12, and calcium, Safaii-Fabiano said. But spuds eaten in vast amounts provide the other nutritional requirements, including protein, she said.

Voigt does allow himself the occasional chip or fry. He and other potato industry leaders tend to dance around the health ramifications of the country’s love of fried potatoes – saying there are no unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets. But some foods are healthier than others, and there’s a lot of difference between a french fry and a baked potato with a dash of salt.

One has the power to enslave and enfatten a nation. The other is jail food.

Guess which one’s good for you?

When he started the diet, Voigt found himself losing weight rapidly. Since potatoes are considered a “nutrient-dense” food, as well as a “density-dense” food, you really have to cram them in to get enough calories. The upside: He’s down about 12 pounds.

But he’s not promoting the all-potato diet for weight loss or any other reason.

“Quite frankly, I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “But I felt like I had to make a bold statement.”

He’s had taters every possible way and a few ways that sound impossible: a potato “lasagna” with crispy baked strips of potato layered with creamy mashed potatoes. He even tried to make gravy with chicken bouillon and potato starch – and won’t be trying it again, he said.

“People are asking for recipes,” he said incredulously. “I’m like, ‘Oh, people. The stuff I’m eating, I would never recommend.’ ”

On Thursday, Voigt woke up to a breakfast of fried russet potatoes. Lunch was going to be leftover Yukon golds, mashed with a bit of chicken bouillon, and maybe some Tabasco sauce. For a snack there were roasted new potatoes with rosemary, dipped in a soy-ginger sauce.

“Tonight for dinner, my wife said she’s going to surprise me,” he said. “So I have no idea what it’s going to be.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com.