During the South Beach/Atkins craze (or as I like to call it, the Great Carb Castigation), carbs of all kinds were given a bad name. That means that many whole grains and vegetables were eschewed in favor of protein alternatives. We’ve come to our senses somewhat, but there’s still confusion about the merits of certain carbs, especially potatoes.
The misinformed often put potatoes in the same category as white rice (i.e., the nutrient-deficient one), but all spuds aren’t created equal. Some, like the humble sweet potato, have more benefits than many realize. In fact, making sweet potatoes a diet staple is one of the most healthful choices a person can make.
A Primer on Sweet Potatoes
Labels like sweet potatoes and yams are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. There are numerous types of sweet potatoes, but most of us are familiar with the main two—the yellow, drier variety with lightly tanned skin and the sweeter, darker-skinned kind with orange insides. People mistakenly classify the latter as a yam, but yams are bigger and less sweet.
1. They’re one of our best vitamin A sources.
Sweet potatoes were named the top superfood by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and after looking at their nutritional profile, it’s easy to see why. One medium sweet potato provides over 200 percent of our daily requirement of vitamin A. It comes in the form of beta-carotene, which gives the sweet potato its rich hue and our bodies many advantages.
Vitamin A benefits our eyesight, skin, and bones. Acting as an antioxidant, it stops the free radicals in our bodies that can contribute to aging and increase our risk for diseases like cancer. It’s also helpful in preventing infections in our digestive and urinary tracts and lungs. In fact, a 2003 study conducted at Kansas State University and published in The American Society for Nutritional Sciences found a link between vitamin A deficiency and emphysema.
2. Their other nutrients aren’t too shabby, either.
Aside from vitamin A, sweet potatoes are great sources of vitamin C (one serving meets about 66 percent of our daily requirement), copper, vitamin B6, iron, calcium, potassium, and manganese. They’re also filled with fiber—according to the U.S. Sweet Potato Council Inc., a cooked sweet potato with the skin provides more fiber than a serving of oatmeal. However, if you’re eating an un-skinned potato, make sure it’s organic to avoid chemical residue left from pesticides.
3. Sweet potatoes are easy on the stomach.
Their high starch content makes less work for the digestive system, which eliminates the cause of most stomachaches. The large amount of fiber keeps things regular and running smoothly, preventing constipation (another common stomachache cause). Plus, vitamins A, B, and C, calcium, and potassium can help ease stomach ulcers and similar issues because of their anti-inflammatory properties.
4. They’re a good carb choice for dieters and diabetics.
One uncooked, medium-sized sweet potato is about 112 calories, fat free, cholesterol free, and low sodium. Of course, that changes depending on how you prepare it, but steaming or boiling them brings out their natural sweetness with minimal caloric effect. (Just go easy on additional toppings like salt, butter, and oil.)
It ranks low on the Glycemic Index (GI) scale, especially compared to white breads and rice. The GI scale judges foods based on how much and how quickly they increase blood glucose levels. Foods on the lower end of the spectrum raise it only slightly over a long period of time.
Because its effect on blood sugar is relatively small, the sweet potato’s a good choice for diabetics who need carbs that don’t spike insulin levels. A study performed at the University of Vienna, Austria in 2003 came to the same conclusion. Among participants with type 2 diabetes, those who received high doses of white-skinned sweet potatoes showed the largest decrease in insulin resistance without a difference in body weight or other factors that might have an effect.
5. Sweet or savory, the options are endless.
For years, I thought I hated sweet potatoes because I’d only experienced them one way—covered in brown sugar and marshmallows. (Yuck.) However, they’re so versatile and naturally delicious it’s hard to find people who don’t like them in some capacity. If you’re still unconvinced about the different ways to cook up sweet potatoes, check out some of these variations.
- Leigha’s Sweet Potatoes
- Italian Sausage and Sweet Potato Fritatta
- Lip Smackin’ Sweet Potato Casserole
- Spicy Sweet Potato Quesadillas
Sweet potatoes are usually associated with Thanksgiving Day menus, but they deserve a spot on our everyday menus, too. With the host of ways they contribute to our physical well-being, it’d be a shame to limit those benefits to once a year. Don’t like ’em sweet? Get experimental with savory recipes instead. It’s in our best interest to ditch carb elimination and embrace sweet potatoes in our daily diets—our bodies (and taste buds) will thank us.