Although they're soft and creamy enough to be put in pies and called dessert, sweet potatoes are also a surprisingly nutritious vegetable.
For a humble root vegetable, the sweet potato sure does have a lot going for it. The orange tuber packs 438% of your daily value of infection-fighting vitamin A and, like carrots, sweet potatoes are a major source of skin-protecting beta-carotene. While bananas are often touted as the go-to source of potassium, a medium sweet potato has 28% more potassium than a banana.
Some sweet potato history
- Sweet potatoes have been grown in Central and South America for at least 10,000 years by the Inca and Aztecs. Sweet potato samples have been found in the Neolithic Period and perhaps to the end of the last Ice Age, or 8000 B.C. in Peru according to the National Potato Center.
- Christopher Columbus took sweet potatoes to Spain after his first voyage in 1492 introducing them to the gardens of Europe.
- History mystery: Polynesians were growing sweet potatoes as early as 1200 A.D.
- Spanish explorers are said to have taken the sweet potato to the Philippines and East Indies. Then they made their way to India, China and Malaya by Portuguese voyagers in the late 16th century and the 17th and 18th centuries.
- They were grown in Virginia in 1648 and perhaps earlier, and then were taken to New England in 1764.
And now that we know where our beloved sweet potato comes from here are the health benefits:
They are high in vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 helps reduce the chemical homocysteine in our bodies. Homocysteine has been linked with degenerative diseases, including heart attacks.
They are a good source of vitamin C
Forget about oranges — one sweet potato contains 35 percent of your daily dose of vitamin C. While most people know that vitamin C is important to help ward off cold and flu viruses, few people are aware that this crucial vitamin plays an important role in bone and tooth formation, digestion, and blood cell formation. It helps accelerate wound healing, produces collagen which helps maintain skin’s youthful elasticity, and is essential to helping us cope with stress. It even appears to help protect our body against toxins that may be linked to cancer.
They are a good source of vitamin D
Vitamin D is critical for immune system and overall health at this time of year. Both a vitamin and a hormone, vitamin D is primarily made in our bodies as a result of getting adequate sunlight. You may have heard about seasonal affective disorder (or SAD, as it is also called), which is linked to inadequate sunlight and therefore a vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D plays an important role in our energy levels, moods, and helps to build healthy bones, heart, nerves, skin, and teeth, and it supports the thyroid gland.
They 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.
They are a source of potassium
Believe it or not, sweet potatoes have more potassium than bananas. Potassium is one of the important electrolytes that help regulate heartbeat and nerve signals. Like the other electrolytes, potassium performs many essential functions, some of which include relaxing muscle contractions, reducing swelling, and protecting and controlling the activity of the kidneys.
They contain iron and support a healthy immune system
Most people are aware that we need the mineral iron to have adequate energy, but iron plays other important roles in our body, including red and white blood cell production, resistance to stress, proper immune functioning, and the metabolizing of protein, among other things.
They are a good source of choline
Sweet potatoes are a good source of choline, a micronutrient in the B-vitamin family. While choline is readily available in meat and eggs, good plant-based sources are harder to come by — but sweet potato can be counted as one of them. Choline helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning and memory, among other things, but it is also important in reducing chronic inflammation.
Sweet potatoes are a good source of magnesium, which is the relaxation and anti-stress mineral
Magnesium is necessary for healthy artery, blood, bone, heart, muscle, and nerve function, yet experts estimate that approximately 80 percent of the population in North America may be deficient in this important mineral.
They are an excellent source of fiber to keep your digestion running and help beat disease
One medium sweet potato with skin provides roughly between 4 to 6 grams of fiber, which doesn’t make them the highest fiber source from the plant world, but they pack a nice punch and are commonly included with foods recommended as good sources of the stuff. The National Institute of Medicine set the Dietary Reference Intake for fiber at 21 to 25 grams a day for women while men should get 30 to 38 grams per day. Most people don’t reach these levels. Fiber appears to reduce the risk of developing various conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, diverticular disease and constipation.
Sweet potatoes help ward off cancer
Their rich orange color indicates that they are high in carotenoids like beta carotene and other carotenoids, which is the precursor to vitamin A in your body.
Studies at Harvard University of more than 124,000 people showed a 32 percent reduction in risk of lung cancer in people who consumed a variety of carotenoid-rich foods as part of their regular diet.
Another study of women who had completed treatment for early stage breast cancer conducted by researchers at Women’s Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) found that women with the highest blood concentrations of carotenoids had the least likelihood of cancer recurrence.
Meanwhile, a Japanese study revealed that beta carotene may decrease the risk of colon cancer. Sweet potatoes have the highest amount of beta carotene of all fruits and vegetables.
They’re a prize for the eyes
All that beta carotene is great for the eyes as well. Ophthalmologist Jill Koury, M.D., says that vitamin A deficiency causes the outer segments of the eye's photoreceptors to deteriorate, damaging normal vision. Sweet potato’s high antioxidant levels from vitamins C and E are also very kind to the eyes and may prevent degenerative damage.
Carotenoids help boost our immunity to disease, they are powerful antioxidants that help ward off cancer and protect against the effects of aging.
They could help conquer PMS blues
While huge amounts of manganese aren’t healthy, experts estimate that up to 37 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended dietary intake (RDI) of manganese in their diet. Along with promoting good bone health, one study found that boosting manganese intake from 1 mg to 5.6 mg of dietary manganese per day helped women with PMS to have fewer mood swings and cramps.
They are a boon for childbearing
Plant-based iron, like that found in sweet potatoes, can potentially promote fertility, according to the Harvard Medical School. The vitamin A from sweet potato’s beta carotene is also important for hormonal health during pregnancy and lactation.
Reduce the chances of stomach ulcers
Not only are sweet potatoes great for curing digestive issues, but they are also known to be an ideal preventative measure against stomach ulcers due to the presence of B-complex vitamins, beta carotene, vitamin C, calcium and potassium — all substances that have healing power when it comes to curing stomach ulcers.
Functional Foods in Health and Disease did a study in 2012 on how effective sweet potatoes were in healing an ulcer. The sweet potato had a potent ulcer healing effect!
They help control diabetes
Sweet potatoes rank low on the glycemic index scale and current research suggests that they may have a chance at decreasing the frequency of low blood sugar and insulin resistance episodes that occur in people with diabetes. The high levels of fiber also assist with type 1 diabetics to decrease blood glucose levels and individuals with type 2 diabetics could have more stable blood sugar, insulin and lipid levels.
Sweet potatoes do not cause blood sugar spikes
Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet-tasting but their natural sugars are slowly released into the bloodstream, helping to ensure a balanced and regular source of energy, without the blood sugar spikes linked to fatigue and weight gain.
Sweet potato, apart from vitamins A & C, also contains vitamin E, which is known to be beneficial for the health of the skin. It improves the complexion, thus providing flawless skin. These vitamins (A, C & E) comprised together are known to be ‘beauty food’ for the skin.