The Potato Hack

I just finished boiling about 5 lbs. of red potatoes, eyes and blemishes removed but much of the skin intact.

They're now sitting in two good-sized containers in the fridge. I'll carry one of them to work tomorrow and those cold potatoes, with a bit of salt, are all I'll eat till suppertime, when I eat a normal meal with my wife.

That style of cold-potato eating is called PBD -- or "Potatoes by Day" -- as found in Tim Steele's book The Potato Hack. The book is quite well-written, with a dip into an 1880's article on the efficacy of potato diets, the history of potatoes, the science of potatoes, and recipes.

The actual Potato Hack is eating only cold or reheated potatoes for 3 days straight. Some people can lose from a quarter to a half pound a day on this regimen.

I've tried the hack twice and could only make it a day and half before I caved. Despite cutting the experiment short, I lost 3 pounds on the first hack, so I will testify to its weight-loss effect. Unfortunately, I was also swept away by incredible hunger pangs and thoughts of food distracted me for hours.

For whatever reason, I find the PBD variation easier to deal with. In communication with Steele on his web site, he suggested I vary up the potatoes for different times of day or meals. So cold boiled potatoes for lunch, perhaps, with maybe baked potatoes or baked russet wedges alongside mashed Yukon golds for supper. I've not tried that but it's a good idea.

The goal of the hack is not to eat only potatoes for ever and ever, though there's a guy who kept a video diary on YouTube where he ate only spuds for an entire year. Yikes. The goal is simply to "reset" your digestive system, give it a break from the standard American diet, and then go on with your life. The way I use the PBD hack is to establish a stable eating habit during the early part of the week, when my will power is strongest and when I can leverage the power of routine. Even if I don't lose any weight, I can easily maintain where I am.

One of the first things people ask me when I talk about the hack is, "I thought potatoes were high on the glycemic index and the starch turns to sugar in your body."

That was my belief too. But Steele makes the point in his book that, while cooked potatoes do indeed act like that, cooled potatoes do not. The cooked starch cools to become "resistant starch" -- basically fiber -- and so one should not experience a glycemic spike from the cooked then cooled potatoes. Reheating cooled potatoes can reduce some of the resistant starch, but when they're cooled again more resistant starch is created.

Steele goes into quite a lot of detail on resistant starch and its favorable properties in supporting better gut health. I was impressed by his research and presentation of the scientific literature.

I first heard of The Potato Hack via the Critical MAS site, where MAS has helpfully collected all of his potato-related posts into a single Best Of page.

MAS made several points that swayed me to try it. One was that potatoes are noted for their high satiety -- you will "feel full" faster with potatoes.

One of MAS's more compelling arguments is that eating plain cold boiled potatoes severs the flavor reward connection in our brains. One of the reasons we mindlessly eat more than we need to is because we crave a variety of flavors and textures. By eating unexciting cold potatoes, you're taking in calories, feeling full, but not reinforcing the flavor-reward connection. You'll likely stop eating sooner when the body feels sated rather than eating to discomfort or regret.

One of the key ideas I picked up from Tim Ferris' slow-carb diet (SCD) was that we already eat the same few dishes anyway, week in and week out. When I did the SCD, I ate the same lunch at work Mon-Thu of microwaved lentils, veg, and poached chicken breasts or thighs, with some apple cider vinegar and Tabasco splashed on. For months. I appreciated not having to think about what I'd do for lunch that day. My wife really dislikes eating the same meal more than twice in a row, but for whatever reason, I have no problem with it.

So taking my cold boiled potatoes to work tomorrow suits me just fine. I will not go hungry but I'll also consume far fewer calories than I would on a normal eating day. It's simplicity itself, and a hack I still find interesting and fun to do.