Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes, sometimes called yams, are fleshy root vegetables with a moderately sweet, earthy flavor. Although most sweet potatoes have orange flesh, they can vary in color from orange to yellow to cream to purple. You may also see color differences in the skin of this vegetable. Orange sweet potatoes have the sweetest flavor, while other colors tend to be milder with a slightly crumbly texture.

These root vegetables — scientific name Ipomoea batatas — are native to Polynesia and Central and South America. They were likely domesticated more than 5,000 years ago and today grow worldwide.

Health Benefits

Vitamins and minerals in sweet potatoes make them a healthy choice at mealtime. Orange sweet potatoes, for example, are one of the richest sources of beta-carotene, a carotenoid known for its eye health benefits and ability to reduce cancer risks. 

Purple sweet potatoes are a good source of beta-carotene but are an even richer source of anthocyanin pigments, which act as antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation and boost your immune system. Purple sweet potatoes have about three times more anthocyanins than the average blueberry.

In addition, sweet potatoes provide you with health benefits such as:

Gastrointestinal Health

Along with anti-inflammatory properties, sweet potatoes have plenty of gut-friendly fiber. They are a mixture of soluble fiber, which can lower cholesterol and balance glucose, and insoluble fiber, which helps keep your bowels healthy and regular.

With about 6 grams of fiber in one cup of cooked sweet potato, this root vegetable already gives you 26% of your recommended daily intake. Sweet potatoes are also a good source of prebiotics like oligosaccharides, which help improve the balance of your gut bacteria and overall gut health.

Immune Support

Vitamin A (beta-carotene) and vitamin C are two of the strongest antioxidant vitamins, and they're both in rich supply in sweet potatoes. While all sweet potatoes contain vitamin A, the orange variety has substantially more of it. Beta-carotene and vitamin C help regulate your immune system and boost your body's natural protection against infections.

Heavy-Metal Protection

Orange-red to purple-fleshed sweet potatoes are rich in cyanidins and peonidins, two of the anthocyanin pigments with antioxidant properties. These antioxidants can help reduce the risk of toxicity from heavy-metal residues. Arsenic, cadmium, and mercury are the three most common metals likely to be present in the foods you eat, and eating sweet potatoes can help support your digestive system.

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More Balanced Blood Sugar

Sweet potatoes have a number of natural sugars, but even though they’re considered to be in the medium range of the glycemic index — a way of comparing the carbohydrates in foods that affect blood sugar — they have a lot of fiber that naturally slows down sugar absorption into the bloodstream. 

There are ways to prepare sweet potatoes that can lower their glycemic load, like boiling or steaming them. These are safer options if you are diabetic or otherwise need to watch your sugar intake.

Nutrition

Sweet potatoes are rich in many vitamins and minerals, with high amounts of both vitamin A and vitamin C.

This root vegetable is also a good source of:

Nutrients per Serving 

A ½-cup serving of boiled sweet potato contains:

For comparison, 130 grams of raw sweet potato (one sweet potato measuring five inches) contains:

Portion Sizes

Sweet potatoes are a healthy food source that can provide you with several benefits. Because of their higher sugar levels and high vitamin A content, you can likely enjoy them in moderation about two or three times per week. Eating these vegetables too often could lead to too much vitamin A intake or increase the potential for negative effects on your blood sugar.

How to Prepare Sweet Potatoes

The healthiest ways to prepare sweet potatoes are to steam or boil them. You can also bake, roast, or fry sweet potatoes, but you should take care to limit these preparation methods, which will cause the sugars to break down in different ways and often include extra recipe ingredients like oil, butter, or sugar.

Here are some ways to use sweet potatoes in recipes:

  • Add small cubes of sweet potatoes to a garden salad.
  • Combine boiled sweet potatoes with brown rice and black beans for a healthy veggie taco.
  • Use a slow cooker to make a stew with sweet potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas, ginger, and spices.
  • Make sweet potato hash mixed with onions, celery, and black beans.
  • Enjoy a creamy sweet-potato-and-apple soup.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 17, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Journal of Agricultural and Biological Science: “Can Anthocyanins be Part of the Metal Homeostasis Network in Plant?”Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Sweet Potatoes.”

Functional Foods in Health and Disease: “In vitro investigation of orange fleshed sweet potato prebiotic potential and its implication on human gut health.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet.”

Oregon State University, Linus Pauling Institute: “Carotenoids.”

University of Cincinnati Health: “You Are What You Eat: Choose Foods that Boost Immunity and Fight Infection.”

University of Maryland Extension: “Sweet Potato.”

University of Sydney GI Foods Database: “Sweet potato.”

The World's Healthiest Foods: “Sweet potatoes.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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