We've got a love-hate relationship with the potato. It's America's top vegetable crop and we gobble 116 pounds of spuds per person each year. Yet carbophobes demonize potatoes as starchy, fattening blood-sugar boosters.

If you're avoiding them these days, you're missing out, says nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RDN, author of “Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspiration.”

A medium baked potato, with its skin, is a nutritionally virtuous, fat-free package with 4.5 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, 25 percent of your daily vitamin C needs and a whopping 952 milligrams of potassium (a nutrient that helps regulate blood pressure) — all for just 168 calories.

"That's completely acceptable and very nutritious," says Tallmadge.

But what about claims that eating spuds leads to weight gain? Tallmadge says the issue isn't the potato, but what we do to it.

"In America, most potatoes are eaten as French fries or potato chips, and these are very fattening versions of potatoes," Tallmadge says. To make matters worse, those fries and chips are often accompanied by other calorie bombs, like burgers and soda.

In contrast, Tallmadge points to Sweden, where potatoes are a dietary staple and the people are comparatively slim. "They eat potatoes every day — often more than once a day," she notes. But, she adds, Swedes typically enjoy their spuds in small portions, usually boiled and served alongside grilled, steamed, cured, smoked or sautéed fish.

They may be on to something. A preliminary new study from McGill University suggests that a substance found in potatoes may actually help prevent obesity.

And what about potatoes' starchy reputation? Turns out, they're a decent source of resistant starch, a form of insoluble fiber also found in legumes and bananas that's good for healthy digestion, blood sugar and even cholesterol. But again, how you prepare them makes a difference. A recent study found that baked potatoes have more resistant starch than boiled, and cooking then chilling spuds helps boost their resistant starch.

If you love your spuds, here's how to make them part of a healthy diet:

  • Cook them right. Baking, steaming or microwaving preserves the most nutrients in potatoes.
  • Eat them with the skin on. That's where most of the nutrients, especially fiber, are concentrated.
  • Enjoy different varieties. Good ol’ russets are great, but also try Yukon golds and other types, which offer additional nutrients. Purple potatoes are bursting with anthocyanins — the same antioxidant phytochemicals found in blueberries. Sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene (though, botanically speaking, they're not in the same family as other potatoes).

Whichever type you enjoy, store potatoes in a cool, dry place (where they'll keep for several weeks) and never in the refrigerator or in direct light. Exposure to light or moisture can increase levels of a naturally occurring, bitter-tasting toxin called solanine, which can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. But if you spot any green patches, just cut them away and enjoy the rest of the spud.

Alison Ashton is a freelance food writer, recipe developer and Cordon Bleu-trained chef based on Los Angeles.