The sweet potato has been a staple food for many cultures around the world for thousands of years. This deep orange tuber is native to Central and South America, but it has also been a popular element of many different types of cuisine in the United States for as long as the country has been around. For some families, sweet potatoes are a mainstay of holiday meals like a Thanksgiving feast. One of the reasons sweet potatoes have been popular for so long is their nutritional value and culinary versatility, but they’ve also gotten attention in recent years for having a wide variety of health benefits.
Perhaps surprisingly, the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is only distantly related to the common potato, another root vegetable eaten widely around the world. Also sometimes (erroneously) referred to as yams, sweet potatoes are known for their distinctive sweet flavor that makes them useful in both savory and sweet preparations. Yet even though the flavor and versatility make sweet potatoes so popular, they’re also densely packed with nutrients. Additionally, academic comparisons of other cultivated foods indicate that sweet potatoes are one of the most efficient crops to grow in terms of yield versus the amount of farmland required.
There are many different cultivars that exist in the world even beyond the familiar orange sweet potatoes that are the most popular. The different types often have varying colors of both the skin and flesh; there are some purple sweet potatoes, for instance, that have purple flesh and light skin and some that have purple skin and light flesh. But even with all the wonderful variety of colors and textures and tastes, they all have similar nutrient profiles and health benefits:
Nutritional value: In addition to being low calorie and low fat, sweet potatoes are an excellent source of numerous vitamins and minerals. In fact, just one sweet potato contains the entire recommended daily value of beta-carotene, a food component that the body then processes into vitamin A. They are also a good source of vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
Gut health: In recent decades, doctors have discovered that maintaining a healthy microbiome in the digestive tract can improve bowel movements and reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. The billions of helpful bacteria residing primarily in the colon are highly responsive to dietary fiber. And with 3-6 grams of fiber per unit, sweet potatoes are an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Antioxidants: One of the most sought-after components of food health is antioxidants; these chemical compounds inhibit the kind of oxidation that can create harmful free radicals. Antioxidants found in sweet potatoes like anthocyanins have been shown to slow the growth of certain types of cancer cells. Research into the cancer-fighting properties of sweet potatoes is still ongoing, but early trials in mice have been very encouraging.
Eye health: Carrots have long been associated with healthy vision, but the beta-carotene content of sweet potatoes makes them similarly beneficial. Once digested, the body converts the beta-carotene into vitamin A, a nutrient that promotes the formation of light receptors in the eyes. Moreover, the vitamin C and E content of sweet potatoes is believed to delay or prevent the development of cataracts and macular degeneration.
Brain function: The carotenoids in sweet potatoes and the anthocyanins that are especially plentiful in purple sweet potatoes are known to protect against damage from free radicals, but they are also thought to reduce inflammation. Both of these benefits are now thought to specifically improve brain function. Studies done with mice show increased learning and memory function, but more research into the effects on humans is needed. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that any diet rich in antioxidants is associated with a lower risk of mental decline and dementia.
Immune system: The color of orange sweet potatoes is due to the high quantity of beta-carotene, a compound that, as noted above, is converted to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is an important factor in overall immune function, but it is also useful for maintaining the health of the lining of the digestive tract; as the potential site of many kinds of infection, a healthy digestive lining is indirectly beneficial for maintaining good immunity.
Weight loss: The same antioxidants that can help protect against cancer are also believed to be broadly beneficial for weight loss. This is largely because of the anti-inflammatory properties of several nutrients in sweet potatoes, but they may also inhibit the growth of fat cells. Sweet potatoes also contain compounds that are known to help regulate blood sugar; this is helpful for both weight loss and obesity-related conditions like type 2 diabetes.
Because of their fibrous nature, most people cook sweet potatoes before eating them. These starchy vegetables are very versatile, however, and can be baked, boiled, fried, or steamed. Various culinary traditions around the world have invented almost endless ways to incorporate sweet potatoes into both savory and sweet dishes. One popular example is sweet potato fries or chips; they have become a healthier alternative to regular potato fries and chips at many bars and restaurants around the world.
Even beyond the nutritional value and antioxidant content of sweet potatoes, they are also a good fit as part of a weight loss plan. Though they do contain carbohydrates, it’s mostly made up of starch, fiber, and natural sugars—in other words, not the kind of carbs that are viewed as no-nos by doctors and fitness experts. Indeed, one of the most important weight loss-related features of sweet potatoes is that they are low on the glycemic index and therefore have little impact on blood sugar and insulin.
Sweet potatoes are considered by many to be a “superfood” precisely because of the many health benefits and nutritional value, so they are good for you no matter how you look at it. Research continues to show that incorporating nutrient-dense foods like sweet potatoes and other veggies into your diet is associated with improvement in blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.
Although there is evidence that sweet potatoes can be a great addition to the dietary portion of a weight loss plan, the actual process of losing weight is of course much more complicated. Indeed, many Americans put an emphasis on particular foods that are often singled out in unorthodox or fad diets as a means of losing weight. The truth is, though, that the specifics of a diet are rarely the deciding factor in whether or not a diet will be successful over the long term. Many diets are hard to sustain and inadvertently trigger the ups and downs of yo-yo dieting.
At True You Weight Loss, we help people identify and overcome the pitfalls that tend to make traditional weight loss methods frustratingly ineffective. One of the ways we do this is by offering a medical nutrition therapy program; we help you customize a diet plan and provide ongoing support and weight loss monitoring. If you would like to learn more about medical nutrition therapy or any of our non-surgical weight loss procedures, please contact us today to request a consultation.