If you had to survive two years living off potatoes, could you do it? And more importantly, would this heavily imbalanced diet even allow for survival?
In the bestselling novel, and subsequent blockbuster hit, "The Martian", astronaut Mark Watney does just that, and I’m here to explain how.
In case you haven’t seen the film (based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir, "The Martian" is the fictional story of astronaut Mark Watney as he improvises survival strategies after being stranded on Mars. In one stroke of luck, Watney is able to grow potatoes to compensate for his dwindling vacuum-packed food supply.
You might be thinking, you can’t survive off French fries. How did he do it?
In fact, if you happen to become stranded on Mars, potatoes would be an excellent food to have in abundance as they contain vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates for energy. Specifically, potatoes are a good source of dietary fibre, vitamin C, B3, B5 and B6, manganese and phosphorus.
These vitamins contained in a potato are essential for a properly functioning body. Vitamin deficiency can lead to all sorts of problems and would be particularly harmful to an astronaut trying to MacGyver his way through engineering feats. Potatoes contain vitamin C, which is important for preventing scurvy – the deficiency disease that killed many pirates and explorers in the 1800s.
Vitamin B6 is important for a properly functioning nervous system, immune system and a healthy metabolism. If Watney didn’t consume enough B6, he’d likely experience irritability, depression, confusion and sleeplessness — not good if you’re stuck on Mars.
Now that we know potatoes contain all these vitamins, why do they have such a bad rap in North America? The reason we tend to think of potatoes as being unhealthy comes from the way they are processed in typical North American foods.
Through frying and adding salt to our potatoes to make French fries or potato chips, we strip them of their beneficial nutrients while simultaneously adding saturated fat and sodium. Watney was eating potatoes in their natural form, meaning that he was able to consume the nutrients while avoiding the unhealthy stuff we add.
Of course, not all of the nutrients that the body requires can come from potatoes. Watney would have had to break open the medicine cabinet to find iron and vitamin B12 due to the lack of meat or dark greens in his diet. While he was probably sick of potatoes by the end of his journey, Watney sure lucked out with this tasty tuber!
Yvonne Kirkpatrick is a graduate student in Laurentian University’s Science Communication program with an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Biology from the University of Guelph.