Once upon a time in Mauritius (my island), people used to love eating sweet potatoes with butter and some herb chutney. And then we became ‘health conscious’ and started eating more rice and bread instead because, you know, whole grains…
Today, when I advise my patients to try and substitute some of the rice or wheat-containing products they consume with sweet potato they’re like ‘But that’s fattening and unhealthy!’
Okay, I have to agree that most of our sweet potato recipes spell trouble for our health. But that’s because of the other ingredients used in the recipe (read shovels of sugar and buckets of vegetable oil).
As you’ll discover in this article, sweet potatoes can be health allies and do make scrumptious healthy recipes unless you have certain health issues. I’ll also share one of my favorite natural home-made scrubs with you.
(Geeky?) fun facts about the sweet potato
Did you know that sweet potatoes aren’t even potatoes? Although they share a similar name, potatoes and sweet potatoes come from different families, the Solanaceae family and the Convolvulaceae family respectively.
And guess what? Sweet potato relics have been found as long ago as 8,000 BC! The sweet potato was introduced in Europe by Christopher Colombus in 1492 after his first journey to North America.
There are over 400 varieties of sweet potatoes! Often called yams, the most common sweet potatoes are:
- The Purple yam –True to its name, this variety has a deep purple skin and flesh. It doesn’t taste very sweet and is pretty dry inside.
- The Japanese yam – Although this variety has a purple skin, its flesh is whitish and turns golden when baked. It is very sweet and remains quite firm when baked.
- The Jewel yam – With an orange, copper colored skin, the jewel yam has a quite sweet, deep orange flesh that remains fairly firm when cooked.
- The Garnet yam – Mildly sweet and pretty moist inside, this variety has a reddish, dark orange skin with a deep orange flesh.
- The Hannah yam – It has a cream colored and pretty smooth skin with a cream-whitish colored flesh that turns pale yellow when baked. This variety is sweet and remains quite firm and dry when cooked.
Want to find out more about the different varieties of sweet potatoes? Have a blast on this page.
Top 6 health benefits of the sweet potato
Besides being very versatile (check out the recipe corner at the end of this article), sweet potatoes come with an impressive health resume.
1. Food for the brain
Sweet potatoes get their amazing color from all the beta carotene they contain. (In the body, beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A [retinol]). In one study, researchers found that supplementing with this vitamin for a year helped men perform significantly better in general cognitive tests compared to those who received a placebo. The vitamin also helped improve the participants’ verbal memory.
Research also indicates that optimal serum levels of beta carotene can help protect individuals against cognitive decline especially genetically susceptible individuals with the APOE 4 allele.
Now, I’m not saying you should start popping beta carotene pills – you would benefit much more from substituting refined carbs (such as rice, bread, pasta, donuts etc.) with some sweet potato. That’s because, like all real foods, the sweet potato contains other nutrients besides beta-carotene – all these nutrients work together to exert health benefits that you will not reap from supplements.
Sweet potatoes also contain anthocyanins, potent antioxidants that can enhance cognitive function and stop the brain’s degeneration.
2. Promotes heart health
Got heart issues (I mean complications like hypertension)? Then give your heart some love in the form of sweet potatoes. Naturally rich in potassium, the sweet potato can be consumed as part of a heart-healthy diet. It is now well known that the mineral potassium is crucial to heart function – in fact, individuals with low potassium levels are at higher risk of stroke and hypertension.
3. Powerful tool against certain cancers
Were you aware that the rates of kidney cancer are much higher in Northern Europe and North America compared to Asia? Well, after considering medical history, body composition, diet and lifestyle habits; it appears that Asians consume sweet potatoes more regularly – this dietary pattern could offer protection against cancer.
That’s not all; researchers have found that sweet potato greens also possess potent cancer protective properties. In a lab study, an extract of the leaves stopped the growth and progression of prostate cancer cells by up to 75% in mice.
4. Good for your eyes
Rich in vitamins A, C and E, sweet potatoes have been shown to support eye health and prevent degenerative damage.
5. Reduces inflammation
If you’ve read my previous articles, you already know that inflammation is the root cause of many chronic diseases. So it would make sense to consume an anti-inflammatory diet as often as you can. Well, it turns out that the sweet potato has an inflammation factor of +228 per half cup (this shows strong anti-inflammatory properties). Compare this to the potato which has an inflammation factor of -255.5 per cup (this indicates moderate inflammatory properties).
6. Natural skin rejuvenator
Have you ever checked the ingredients in your skin care products? If you have, then you’ve probably noticed that they usually contain retinol (a form of vitamin A) and/or retinoic acid (derived from retinol). As mentioned earlier, sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A which has been found to shield the skin from UV rays and thus delay skin aging and prevent sunburn. That’s not all; vitamin A is also involved in the production of collagen and glycosaminoglycan, two substances which support the skin’s structure and keep it tighter, making wrinkles less visible.
Sweet potatoes are also great sources of:
- Vitamin C which is also essential in the synthesis of healthy collagen.
- Vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects the skin against free radicals which speed up wrinkle formation. This vitamin also regulates the synthesis of melanin, a skin pigment that protects the skin against sun damage.
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