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Are Sweet Potatoes Healthy? Everything You Need to Know

Sweet potatoes are a delicious and versatile root vegetable enjoyed by people worldwide. In this article, I reveal their nutritional profile, explore their health benefits, and discuss the fascinating aspect of “resistant starch.”

The video included below should prove helpful.

Nutritional Powerhouse: Sweet Potatoes and Their Health Benefits

Before I delve into the health benefits, let’s look at the impressive nutritional profile of sweet potatoes. One that is medium-sized (about 5 inches long) contains:

  • Calories: Approximately 103
  • Carbohydrates: Approximately 24 grams
  • Dietary Fiber: Approximately 4 grams
  • Sugars: Approximately 7 grams
  • Protein: Approximately 2 grams
  • Fat: Less than 1 gram
  • Vitamins and Minerals: They are rich in vitamins A and C, manganese, and potassium.

Research has established that sweet potatoes possess unique nutritional and functional properties. They contain bioactive carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, carotenoids, anthocyanins, phenolic acids, and minerals.

Here is how those nutrients laden within sweet potatoes translate into actual health benefits for your body:

  1. Blood Sugar Regulation: Surprisingly, sweet potatoes have a low glycemic index (GI), meaning they have a slower effect on blood sugar levels than regular potatoes. This is a big deal and makes them suitable for individuals concerned about blood sugar control, which is just about everyone these days.
  2. Rich in Antioxidants: They are packed with antioxidants, particularly beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is crucial in maintaining firm skin, vision, and a robust immune system.
  3. Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Some compounds in sweet potatoes, such as anthocyanins and polyphenols, have anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce the risk of chronic inflammation-related diseases. This is different from regular potatoes, which are believed to be higher in potentially inflammatory properties.
  4. High in Fiber: With a good amount of dietary fiber, they can aid in digestion and help prevent constipation. Fiber also contributes to a feeling of fullness, which can assist in weight management.
  5. Heart Health: The potassium content in sweet potatoes supports heart health by helping regulate blood pressure. Additionally, the fiber and antioxidants may reduce the risk of heart disease.

So, the various health benefits of sweet potatoes have been proven – including their antioxidative, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, antiobesity, and antiaging effects.

Resistant Starch in Sweet Potatoes

Resistant starch is a type of starch that resists digestion in the small intestine, instead passing undigested to the colon. Once in the colon, it serves as a source of nutrition for beneficial gut bacteria.

Healthy sweet potatoes prepared in a variety of delicious ways.

Due to its potential health benefits, this unique property of resistant starch in sweet potatoes has gained significant attention recently, as research has established that we may have previously underestimated the paramount importance of gut health to overall wellness.

What Is Resistant Starch?

Resistant starch is a carbohydrate that, as the name suggests, resists digestion in the stomach and small intestine. Instead, it reaches the colon in its intact form. There, it becomes food for the beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Types of Resistant Starch

There are four types of resistant starch, and sweet potatoes contain primarily the third type:

  1. RS1 (Physically Inaccessible Starch): This type is found in whole grains, seeds, and legumes. It’s physically inaccessible to digestive enzymes.
  2. RS2 (Resistant Granules): This type is found in raw potatoes, green bananas, and some other starchy foods. Cooking can break down RS2 into more digestible forms.
  3. RS3 (Retrograded Starch): This type is formed when certain starchy foods, like potatoes and rice, are cooked and cooled. The cooling process transforms the digestible starches into a resistant form. When prepared this way, they contain a notable amount of RS3, such as in potato salads or cooled and reheated dishes. The benefits of RS3 lie in its potential to support gut health.
  4. RS4 (Chemically Modified Starch): This type is synthetically created by chemically modifying starches, and it is often used in processed foods as a thickener or stabilizer. It is not naturally occurring or found in sweet potatoes or most whole foods.

To create retrograde starch, I peel and chop my sweet potatoes, boil them, drain them, then allow them to cool to room temperature (which takes about 20 minutes). Then, I store them in glass food storage containers in the refrigerator as a side dish (or salad topper) for future dinners.

I used to steam them to retain more nutrients but eventually decided it was too complicated and time-consuming. For me, boiling is easier and faster.

Health Benefits of Resistant Starch

The presence of RS3 in sweet potatoes, particularly when cooked and cooled, can offer several health benefits:

  1. Gut Health: Resistant starch acts as a prebiotic, nourishing beneficial gut bacteria. A healthy gut microbiome is associated with improved digestion, a stronger immune system, and a reduced risk of certain digestive disorders.
  2. Improved Insulin Sensitivity: Some studies suggest that consuming resistant starch may enhance insulin sensitivity, which benefits individuals with type 2 diabetes or those at risk of developing it.
  3. Weight Management: Resistant starch may promote feelings of fullness and reduce overall calorie intake, potentially assisting in weight management efforts.
  4. Reduced Colon Cancer Risk: Emerging research indicates that diets rich in resistant starch may help lower the risk of colon cancer by promoting a healthier colon environment.

To harness the benefits of resistant starch in sweet potatoes, allow them to cool after cooking and then reheat them. This process increases the RS3 content. Use them in salads or soups as a side dish.

While sweet potatoes are a fantastic source of resistant starch, it’s essential to maintain a diverse diet with various sources of fiber and prebiotics to support overall gut health. So I wouldn’t have them every single day of the year.

Sweet Potatoes VS Yams: A Common Misconception

One of the misconceptions surrounding sweet potatoes is the confusion between them and yams. While they are often used interchangeably in recipes, they are different.

Fact: True yams (Dioscorea species) are entirely different from sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), both botanically and nutritionally. True yams are a staple food in many countries, especially in Africa and parts of Asia. They are starchy, dry, and have rough, scaly skin with white, purple, or reddish flesh. True yams are not commonly found in most Western grocery stores.

Sweet potatoes are a healthy food, especially when prepared in the classic, baked way.

The Untruth: In the United States, what are typically labeled as “yams” in supermarkets are usually varieties of sweet potatoes. This labeling confusion stems from historical marketing efforts to distinguish between the firmer, orange-fleshed ones and the softer, paler-fleshed ones. To add to the confusion, the USDA permits labeling some sweet potato varieties as “yams” to differentiate them from other varieties. However, these are not true yams.

Nutritional Difference: Sweet potatoes, whether they have orange or white flesh, are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are rich in beta-carotene (which gives orange sweet potatoes their color) and have a slightly sweet flavor. On the other hand, true yams are starchier and contain fewer vitamins and less beta-carotene.

Takeaway: While sweet potatoes are nutritious and tasty, the next time you encounter “yams” in your local grocery store, be aware that you’re most likely looking at sweet potatoes. Understanding this distinction can help you make informed choices when selecting ingredients for your meals and avoid confusion about the nutritional content of these two distinct root vegetables.

Nightshades and Lectins

The topic of nightshades, lectins, and their potential impact on individuals with autoimmune issues is a subject of debate among nutritionists and medical professionals. Let’s delve into this discussion and explore the potential differences between standard white (or russet) potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Nightshades are a botanical family of plants, including tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and regular potatoes.

Some individuals with autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, may believe that nightshades exacerbate their symptoms. This belief is primarily based on the presence of compounds called lectins and alkaloids found in nightshade vegetables.

Lectins: Lectins are proteins naturally present in many plant foods, including nightshades. They can bind to specific carbohydrates in the body and may contribute to gut irritation in some individuals. Lectins are a form of plant defense mechanism to deter predators. However, cooking, soaking, or fermenting nightshade vegetables can reduce lectin levels and make them more digestible.

Alkaloids: Nightshade vegetables also contain alkaloids, such as solanine and capsaicin, which are natural pesticides. Some believe these alkaloids may contribute to inflammation or worsen autoimmune symptoms in susceptible individuals.

White (or Russet) Potatoes VS Sweet Potatoes:

Now, let’s compare standard white (or russet) potatoes with sweet potatoes in the context of lectins and their potential impact on autoimmune issues:

1. Lectin Content:

  • White Potatoes: White potatoes, particularly when eaten in raw or undercooked form, contain lectins known as solanines and chaconines, which are more concentrated in the skin.
  • Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes have a lower lectin content than white potatoes and are generally considered easier to digest.

2. Glycemic Index:

  • White Potatoes: White potatoes have a higher glycemic index than sweet potatoes, meaning they can cause a more rapid increase in blood sugar levels.
  • Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes have a lower glycemic index, which can benefit individuals concerned about blood sugar regulation.

Individual Variation: It’s essential to note that the response to nightshades, lectins, and alkaloids can vary greatly from person to person.

While some individuals with autoimmune conditions may find relief from reducing nightshade consumption, others may not experience any adverse effects.

Individuals with autoimmune issues should work with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to determine their specific dietary triggers and sensitivities.

In summary, while there are debates about nightshades, lectins, and their impact on autoimmune issues, sweet potatoes generally have a lower lectin content and a more favorable glycemic index than standard white potatoes.

However, individual responses to these foods can differ, and individuals with autoimmune conditions need to personalize their diets under the guidance of a healthcare professional to manage their health and symptoms best.

Final Thoughts on Incorporating Sweet Potatoes into Your Diet

Making sweet potatoes a regular part of your diet can be a flavorful and nutritious way to boost your health. Their unique combination of vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and the presence of resistant starch makes them a valuable addition to your meals. Check out the video:

Whether you enjoy them for their delicious taste or potential health benefits, sweet potatoes are a versatile and wholesome choice that can contribute to your overall well-being. So, don’t hesitate to savor this colorful and nutritious root vegetable in various culinary creations.

The health benefits of sweet potatoes extend to their role in promoting healthy skin, vision, and a robust immune system due to their high content of antioxidants and vitamin A. Their low glycemic index and high fiber content can aid blood sugar regulation and weight management while supporting heart health. Furthermore, their anti-inflammatory properties may help reduce the risk of chronic inflammation-related diseases.

One fascinating aspect of sweet potatoes is their resistant starch content, specifically the RS3 type formed when cooked and cooled. This resistant starch has gained attention for its potential to promote a healthy gut microbiome, which can have far-reaching effects on overall health.

Sweet potatoes have a diverse and rich chemical composition. So, are they healthy? Absolutely! They are a versatile and nutrient-packed addition to your diet, offering many benefits for your well-being.

Whether you enjoy roasted, mashed, or in a hearty stew, sweet potatoes are a tasty way to support your health and savor the goodness of nature’s bounty. Include them in your meals and reap the rewards of this remarkable root vegetable.