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Potatoes, in general, are a staple side dish, during the holidays and beyond. They’re starchy and filling — plus, when topped with a little butter and cinnamon (like with sweet potatoes) or sour cream and chives (a favorite white potato topping) — they’re absolutely delicious. But how do you know which potato to choose when you want to be more health conscious? If sweet potatoes are typically your go-to, you might be wondering whether or not they’re actually good for you.
Between being confused for a yam and being pitted against a white potato, sweet potatoes tend to be misunderstood. But when it comes to the health benefits of sweet potatoes, this root vegetable is a stand out. Despite often being used interchangeably in everyday language, sweet potatoes, and yams are two distinct species of tubers with unique characteristics. Yams, native to Africa and Asia, are starchy and less sweet, with a thick, rough, dark skin. They can grow extremely large, even up to 5 feet in length. On the other hand, sweet potatoes, originating from Central and South America, are smaller with smooth, thin skin that can vary in color. Sweet potatoes are notably higher in beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A, and are generally sweeter than yams.
Sweet potatoes and white potatoes aren’t one and the same either. Yes, both are starchy veggies. But white potatoes have a light, creamy flavor and a slightly grainy texture. They are excellent sources of potassium and vitamin C, although they have less fiber and vitamin A compared to sweet potatoes. But what’s healthier for you? As a registered dietitian, I’ve broken down everything you need to know about the benefits of sweet potatoes.
Sweet Potato Nutrition
Sweet potatoes have an impressive nutrition profile. Here are the nutrition facts for a medium-sized baked sweet potato, with skin, according to the USDA:
- Calories: 103
- Fat: 0g
- Sodium: 41mg
- Carbohydrates: 24g
- Fiber: 4g
- Sugar: 7g
- Protein: 2g
- Calcium: 43mg (3% DV)
- Potassium: 542mg (9% DV)
- Vitamin C: 22mg (4% DV)
- Vitamin A RAE: 1,096 micrograms (283% DV)
Sweet potatoes are also a rich source of plant compounds like lutein. Lutein is a type of carotenoid that is beneficial for eye health and may help prevent diseases such as age-related macular degeneration. Purple sweet potatoes (not ube — that’s a purple yam!) are a source of anthocyanins, a flavonoid with antioxidant properties. Anthocyanins have been linked with improved brain function and reduced inflammation.
Sweet Potatoes vs. White Potatoes
The great debate over whether a sweet potato or a white potato is a better choice has stood the test of time. The truth is, both have unique features that make them a healthy choice in their own rite.
While both sweet and white potatoes are nutrient-rich, there are key differences in their nutritional profiles that may influence your dietary choice. Sweet potatoes hold a significant edge in terms of vitamin A, providing well over 100% of the daily value per serving, compared to the modest 1% offered by white potatoes. Conversely, white potatoes lead the pack in potassium, an essential nutrient for heart and kidney functions, and vitamin B6, vital for brain development and function. Both contain fiber, vitamin C, and carbs, along with other important nutrients.
Some key nutritional differences between the two are as follows, per the USDA:
- Calories: 130
- Sugar: 3g
- Vitamin C: 21.8 mg (25% DV)
- Potassium: 620mg
- Fiber: 4g
- Calories: 103
- Sugar: 7g
- Vitamin C: 22.3 mg (4% DV)
- Potassium: 542mg
- Fiber: 4g
The Health Benefits of Sweet Potato
Most Americans aren’t eating enough produce daily (the CDC suggests only around 10% of us are meeting the mark). So, including sweet potato in a balanced diet can help you reach your quota. Eating more vegetables is linked to a slew of health benefits, including better heart health and a reduced risk of certain cancers.
When it comes to sweet potato intake specifically, there are some impressive benefits you may reap if you eat them as a part of a balanced diet.
Are There Any Risks to Eating Sweet Potato?
Eating sweet potatoes comes with very little risk, but there are some factors to remember when you are enjoying them.
“Sweet potatoes contain high amounts of potassium and oxalates. For the average person, this is not a concern. Still, if you have a history of calcium-oxalate kidney stones or have impaired kidney function, speak to a registered dietitian before adding large amounts of sweet potatoes to your diet,” Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD, and author of The Easy Diabetes Cookbook, told POPSUGAR.
Some precautions don’t have anything to do with eating a sweet potato, per se, but more about how people may eat them. While eating a baked sweet potato along with a balanced meal can support a healthy lifestyle, only eating your sweet taters topped with loads of butter and sugary marshmallows may not help you reach your health goals. Once in a while, it is okay, though (we promise we are not taking away your mama’s sweet potato casserole).
So Are Sweet Potatoes Good For You?
“Sweet potatoes are packed with nutrients including beta carotene, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. All these nutrients play important roles in overall health,” Sarah Anzlovar, Intuitive Eating Dietitian for Moms, told POPSUGAR.
Yet, while the nutritional profile of sweet potatoes is impressive, that doesn’t mean that eating them gives you a hall pass to not pay attention to the rest of the foods you are consuming, the exercise you are participating in, or the stress management you are practicing. While sweet potatoes are good for you, it’ important to focus on your overall diet and lifestyle to support your health.