Supercharge your kid's gut health with the potato

If our hunter-gatherer ancestors had smartphones, they would hopefully have been as obsessed with taking pictures of their food as we are. We would then be able to look through the archives and quickly see that their diets were dominated by fibre. "Let's grab a bunch of leaves and tubers and go"! 

I'm grateful we are blessed with more culinary abundance in modern times (leaving us with more than enough of a caloric surplus to snap pics of our food and a few other things) but if there's one thing the modern diet could use more of, it's fibre. It is believed that hunter-gatherers consumed north of 80 g of fibre a day and the average Western diet is at around 15 g at best.

Why the fuss around fibre?

Dietary fibre, found in plants, has two important functions. Insoluble fibre bulks up our stool and ensures digestive regularity. Soluble fibre, on the other hand, serves as food for the bacteria in our guts, who ferment it and produce a host of beneficial compounds that positively impact digestion, nutrient absorption and our overall vitality*. In fact, scientific evidence now suggests that our microbial ecosystem, known as our 'microbiome', influences myriad aspects of our health, including immune function, metabolism and even our mood! 

Resistant starch - a very special kind of bacterial grub

In addition to soluble and insoluble fibre, resistant starch is a type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested by our stomach or small intestine (hence, resistant) but serves as fodder for the good bugs inhabiting our colon. Based on a spate of recent scientific research, resistant starch is emerging as a superfood for our microbiome, functioning like soluble fermentable fibre and having far reaching effects on our health and wellbeing. This is where the humble spud comes in. 

Cooked and cooled potatoes have resistant starch

Potatoes contain resistant starch in the form of amylose. Cooking renders this starch digestible by us but when cooled, the starch becomes resistant to digestion and can instead be enjoyed by our bacterial friends in the colon. These bacteria chow down on the resistant starch found in that creamy potato salad and produce a very important molecule called butyrate and this, ladies and gentleman, is where the magic is at (I knew we'd get there eventually phew).

Butyrate whaaaaaaa?

Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid produced by bacterial fermentation of resistant starch. It turns out that the cells lining our colon LOVE butyrate! So the good bacteria eat the resistant starch, spew out butyrate which then nourishes our colon and you know what they say, happy colon happy health!

Here are 5 wonderful things butyrate does for us:

1) Butyrate feeds the cells lining our colon, promoting a strong intestinal barrier between our gut and our circulation. A robust and leak-proof gut lining keeps toxins out of our blood stream. 

2) Butyrate activates anti-inflammatory T cells in the gut in mice. This could be the mechanism by which resistant starch is thought to be protective against colon cancer and other inflammatory bowel diseases although well designed human trials remain to be conducted. 

3) Butyrate is absorbed into the blood stream and exerts anti-inflammatory effects on distal organs like the liver. 

4) Butyrate improves insulin sensitivity, metabolic rate and lowers fat storage - in animal studies, butyrate reduced weight gain and increased metabolic rate in response to an unhealthy, high fat diet diet. In a small human trial, resistant starch + protein increased satiety and reduced fat buildup. 

5) Butyrate reduces the amount of DNA adducts (mutations) formed upon consumption of large quantities of red meat, acting as a potential anti-cancer agent.  

So there you have it folks. The humble spud, cooked, cooled and eaten just like our ancestors would have done, offers rich fodder for our bacterial inhabitants, who then go on and make wonderful compounds like butyrate that do all sorts of amazing things for our health. 

I wouldn't blame you if all you want to eat from now is potato salad but I want to close with my usual message. Diversity and moderation in diet are key! A recent study showed that high doses of resistant starch in mice led to weight loss but also increased anxiety! Whether or not that will translate to humans is unclear but I think the moral of the story is simple. Eat cooked and cold potatoes as part of your diet. They're great for you. Eat other things too. 

Let's get cooking!

*It still blows my mind to think that we are staggeringly outnumbered by bacteria in our own bodies with about 10 bacterial cells for every 1 human cell. An interesting thought when it comes to the existential question of 'who we really are' and more importantly, 'WHO'S really eating when we're chowing down on that cheese burger'?! 

RECIPE

Potato Salmon Salad
Baby led weaning, 12 months+ 

Loosely inspired by the traditional salade nicoise, this cold potato, veggie and salmon salad with a honey sweetened vinaigrette was the first salad toddler EVER ate so I had to share it here. This versatile option allows the incorporation of cooked and cooled potatoes into your kid's diet in a healthy and fun way. You can serve it with one of the suggested dressings as a traditional salad or as finger food with a side of our favourite hummus or any veggie dip your family loves. 

Yield
2 toddler servings

Ingredients
For the salad
4 oz salmon filet, preferably wild
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt to taste
6 small waxy potatoes (like new potatoes)
16 French green beans (haricots verts), ends trimmed
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 small cucumber, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
2 small radish, finely sliced (optional)
1 teaspoon chopped parsley (optional)

For the dressing
Option 1: Tahini Honey

1 small clove garlic crushed (optional)
1 tablespoon tahini
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1-2 teaspoons honey depending on sweetness desired (skip for babies under 12 months)
salt and pepper to taste

Option 2: Honey Dijon
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1.5 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 teaspoons honey depending on sweetness desired (skip for babies under 12 months)
salt and pepper to taste

Method
Preheat the oven to 375 F / 180 C. 

Season the salmon with salt and paprika and cook in the preheated oven for 18 minutes until flaking. Finish with a 2 minute broil on high heat. Remove and set aside to cool. 

While the salmon is cooking, cook the potatoes until knife-tender either by boiling, steaming or using my favourite method, a pressure cooker (the low amount of water required and quick cooking ensures optimal preservation of nutrients). Allow the potatoes to cool. 

Steam the green beans until tender. Set aside to cool. 

Peel and slice the cooled potatoes and flake the salmon. Arrange in a bowl with the remaining veggies and garnish with freshly chopped parsley if your kids will tolerate it. Serve with the dressing on the side or mixed in, depending on preference. Feel free to add other veggies (avocados, peppers, carrots) and even a hard boiled egg to up the protein ante. Makes for a great lunch box option as well.