“I basically have the diet of a 19th century Irish navy, apart from the liter of stout a day. It’s meat and potatoes and bread and cheese: those are my four food groups.” – Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter)
As I grew up in Ireland, we ate a lot of potatoes. They were generally boiled, I remember. That certainly made them healthier than having them as French fries which makes up about 33 percent of the total amount of traditional spuds eaten in the USA!
I guess we were eating a pretty healthy diet. But sweet potatoes (Convolvulaceae, and named botanically as Ipomoea batatas) were a whole new ball game for me, so I began to wonder if they were as good. Certainly, they have been around for more than 10,000 years and have been found in ancient settlements in Peruvian caves.
Just to get your taste buds going, here is a great recipe for sweet potato fries (and they are baked in the oven, so really healthy).
As I did more research, I discovered lots of health secrets. This is where my investigation led me.
1. A great source of Vitamin A
I soon learned that both the normal type of potatoes (white or red skinned) have very similar nutrients to the sweet potato (American potato). But in regards to Vitamin A, the sweet potato wins hands down. For each 100 gram portion, the sweet potato contains 19,218 international units of Vitamin A, while the traditional potato only has 10 of these units. Vitamin A is crucial for maintaining healthy eyesight and boosting our immune system. Other sources are orange, yellow and green vegetables.
2. Lots of antioxidants
Antioxidants fight off the free radicals which can damage our cells. These are the toxic byproducts of oxidation which is vital for cell formation. They are a pretty nasty lot as they are linked to all sorts of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and even certain types of cancer. The most effective way to counteract these is to ramp up your supply of antioxidants. Sweet potatoes are ideal as they contain beta-carotene, chlorogenic acid and polyphenols. Go for the more colorful purple ones as they contain many more antioxidants.
3. Stop those sugar spikes
If you eat simple carbs and not much protein, your blood sugar levels rise and give you a burst of energy. The only problem is that it will lead to a sugar crash later on. This results in lethargy and a bad mood. In order to keep blood sugar levels fairly steady, one of the best solutions is to eat sweet potatoes. They are low on the glycemic index which reduces the load on the pancreas. This can help to prevent diabetes in the long run.
4. No cholesterol
The big issue in keeping your cholesterol levels healthy is to reduce the amount of bad fats in your diet. Baked, steamed or boiled sweet potatoes are ideal in that they contain about 100 calories (medium sized potato), two grams of protein and only .17 of fat. There is no cholesterol. The secret is, of course, not to add sour cream, mayonnaise, butter or other tempting delights. Much better to add spices and /or chiles.
5. Vital vitamin B6
We have already mentioned the fact that there are lots of vitamins, nutrients and minerals in sweet potatoes. One of these vitamins is B6 which plays a vital role in helping you to digest protein, maintain brain function and also the nervous system. This vitamin also helps to keep the deadly homocysteine chemical at bay which can lead to heart disease and other conditions such as osteoporosis and dementia.
6. Vitamin C for great skin
The wonderful benefits of vitamin C are well known. But it is also useful for making collagen which helps to bind skin cells together and keep skin smooth and supple. In addition, it helps to heal wounds, and may be a preventive agent against cancer. Just to give you an idea, take a 200 grams sweet potato and 52 percent of that will be Vitamin C.
7. Don’t forget the top greens
The actual green leaves from the sweet potato are also a marvelous source of essential nutrients. In fact, they contain more vitamins C, K, iron and potassium than the potato itself.
You can find them in the markets alongside the other greens such as kale, spinach and collards. A good way to cook them is to braise them with onion. The great advantage is that they are not bitter and are more tender. They are not only highly nutritious but may prevent cancer cell growth.
8. Color is important
We mentioned above that the more colorful varieties (orange and purple) have more antioxidants. But there is also another reason why this is important for feeding the planet in the future. The actual color extract when used to add to other foods is remarkably stable. That would remove the necessity of using synthetic coloring for future food production.
Not sure whether sweet potatoes are really worth all the hassle? Just think that the nutritional value of a sweet potato is far more than broccoli. In fact, just 4 ounces of this great tuber provides 20 mg of magnesium, 348 mg of potassium plus calcium, folic acid, 25 mg of vitamin C and of course tons of vitamin A. To get the same amount of nutrients from broccoli, you would have to prepare 16 cups!
Featured photo credit: Sweet Potato Hummus/ Vegan Baking via flickr.com