Are Thanksgiving Mashed Potatoes A Performance Enhancer? (Probably Not…)

November 26, 2019 | Nutrition

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • A research study shows that potato puree can be as effective as packaged carbohydrate gels to fuel endurance athletes during competition
  • However, at a typical Thanksgiving meal the average American will consume more than 3000 calories from a variety of sources, negating any health benefits from any one food group

There will be a lot of mashed potatoes consumed at Thanksgiving meals across America this week. I came across a research study suggesting that potato puree is as effective as an energy gel in promoting performance improvements in endurance cycling. Is it possible that mashed potatoes are also performance enhancers? Probably not, especially when they’re accompanied by 3000 calories of turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and bread. 🙂

Potato Puree As A Carbohydrate Source For Athletes

A potato is a starch, and a starch is a form of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates do play a role in short-term energy supply, particularly for relatively short duration sports. However, there is evidence that some types of carbohydrates are strong contributors to long-term health problems such as metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes, and heart disease.

Consuming a carbohydrate gel is a common strategy for endurance athletes, as the gel is a small and lightweight packet, easy on the stomach, with fast absorption and availability. Marathoners and triathletes are particularly fond of the gels.

This study published a few weeks ago in the Journal of Applied Physiology examined potato puree as a potential whole food alternative to manufactured gels as an energy source for endurance athletes.

The researchers recruited 12 participants who were healthy and experienced riders, averaging 165 miles per week on their bikes. To qualify for the study, the cyclists had to reach a specific threshold for aerobic fitness and complete a 120-minute cycling challenge followed by a time trial.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions during the study.  They would consume either water alone, a commercially available carbohydrate gel or an equivalent amount of carbohydrates obtained from potatoes.

The researchers standardized what the 12 cyclists ate for 24 hours before repeating the 120-minute cycling challenge and time trial, which was designed to mirror typical race conditions. Throughout the exercise, the team measured participants’ blood glucose, core body temperature, exercise intensity, gastric emptying and gastrointestinal symptoms. The researchers also measured concentrations of blood lactate.

“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.”

So What Does That Mean?

 It means that there are other sources of fast acting carbohydrates available for athletes who wish to consider sources other than packaged gels. But it seems awfully impractical to have pouches of potato puree in your go-pack in an Ironman.

Getting back to the question of whether mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner could be considered a performance enhancer, the answer is unfortunately “no”. The average American will consume upwards of an astounding 3000 to 4500 calories at a single Thanksgiving dinner, which for most people is about 50% higher than their entire daily metabolic needs. So have a great time with family and friends, eat up and enjoy. The diet begins tomorrow.




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