Sweet Potatoes: Health Benefits, Risks & Nutrition Facts
Although they're soft and creamy enough to be put in pies and called dessert, sweet potatoes are also a surprisingly nutritious vegetable.
"Sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A, vitamin B5, B6, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and, due to their orange color, are high in carotenoids," said San Diego-based nutritionist Laura Flores. Plus, they're fat-free, relatively low in sodium and have fewer calories than white potatoes — although they do have more sugar.
Sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of vitamin A; a large one contains more than 100 percent of the daily recommended intake, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Vitamin A is an antioxidant powerhouse, and is linked to anti-aging benefits, cancer prevention and the maintenance of good eyesight, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Although the orange variety is the most common in the United States, sweet potatoes also come in white, yellow, pink and purple varieties, according to the Library of Congress. While the orange and yellow types contain the most vitamin A, the purple sort is an excellent way to get antioxidants, the Cleveland Clinic reports.
Here are the nutrition facts for sweet potatoes, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food labeling through the National Labeling and Education Act:
So it's clear that while sweet potato pie might be soul food, sweet potatoes themselves are a whole-body vegetable.
Sweet potatoes are a great source of B6 vitamins, which are brilliant at breaking down homocysteine, a substance that contributes to the hardening of blood vessels and arteries, according to the Harvard University School of Public Health. Sweet potatoes' potassium content is also helpful for your heart, as it lowers blood pressure by maintaining fluid balance, as explained by the American Heart Association. Potassium is also an important electrolyte that helps regulate your heartbeat.
Controlling blood sugar and maintaining energy
For as sweet as they are, sweet potatoes have a low glycemic index (which means they release sugar slowly into the bloodstream). "Sweet potatoes — unlike other starchy foods that elevate blood sugar rapidly after [they're consumed] due to their metabolism into sugar — will help steady the levels of blood sugar," Flores said. This means you won't get blood-sugar spikes, but you will get a steady amount of energy. Flores noted that this regulation occurs even in people with type 2 diabetes.
Furthermore, the Beauregard sweet potato, an orange-skinned variety grown in North Carolina, is similar to a white-skinned variety used in Japan to make a dietary supplement called Caiapo, which is marketed to control blood glucose in people with diabetes, according to an article in Perspectives, the magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University.
Researchers have found that the Beauregard "has essentially the same protein patterns" as Caiapo. Therefore, consuming sweet potatoes, or extracts from sweet potatoes, may help control blood glucose, and may someday provide a less expensive treatment with fewer side effects, said Jon Allen, a professor of food science at North Carolina State University.
As if that weren't sweet enough, sweet potatoes are a terrific source of manganese, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Manganese helps the body metabolize carbohydrates and thus maintain healthy blood sugar levels, and it can even stabilize your appetite. It also helps the body utilize antioxidants.
According to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, sweet potatoes contain magnesium, the go-to mineral for destressing. It promotes relaxation, calmness and a good mood, as well as artery, blood, bone, muscle and nerve health, according to Psychology Today.
Immunity and anti-inflammatory properties
"Due to the color-pigmented vitamins, sweet potatoes are high in anti-inflammatory benefits," Flores said. One sweet potato contains about half of the daily recommended intake of vitamin C. Vitamins A and E also support a healthy immune system and are powerful disease-fighting antioxidants. While orange sweet potatoes contain more vitamin A, purple sweet potatoes are packed with the antioxidant anthocyanin, which is responsible for red, blue and purple colors in fruits and vegetables. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, pigment-related antioxidants have anti-inflammatory properties, which are beneficial to overall health and help mitigate inflammatory disorders.
Skin and hair
Vitamin A may help protect against sun damage, according to a 2004 study in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, and vitamins C and E are well-known for their beauty benefits. They encourage healthy, glowing skin and collagen growth.