Sweet potatoes, also known as the yam, are sweet-tasting, starchy root vegetables.
You will hear people swear by them as a ‘healthy’ alternative’ to carb-filled regular potatoes. There is something to this – though as you will see below, it is not as clear cut as the ‘yam-fans’ would have you believe.
Just like a normal potato, it has a brown skin. But is very different in terms of colour, with a striking orange look. Variations get even more colourful – with yellow, red, white, and even pink tones. Surprisingly, they are only a distant relative to a standard potato. Sweet potato and regular spuds come from completely different families of vegetables. They are both considered root vegetables.
Below is a long list of the health benefits of the humble yam. Note that some of these are specific to colours / varieties of sweet potato. These vegetables are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and fibre – giving them multiple ways to boost your health.
Importantly, they are lower on the glycaemic index than regular potatoes. This means your body breaks them down into sugar slower – avoiding the insulin spikes which can lead to insulin resistance and eventually diabetes.
Sweet potatoes contain antioxidants which can help protect against cancers. Test tube research has shown that Anthocyanins, a group of antioxidants found in purple sweet potatoes, can slow the development of several types of cancer. They include including bladder, breast, colon, and stomach cancer. Sweet potato peels and orange sweet potatoes have also shown similar properties in tests.
Yams can increase brain function. The purple yam pops up again as a vegetable that can improve the function of the brain. Tests have shown that the anthocyanins can reduce brain inflammation, as well as improving the learning and memory of mice.
Beta carotene is found in orange sweet potatoes (the most popular variant). This is easily converted into vitamin A when you eat them. In turn, vitamin A has a critical role in supporting your immune system – a core component of a healthy body.
As well as the healthy amount of vitamin A, yams are also a source for both Vitamin E and Vitamin C. Vitamin E has been shown to increase the amount of hair for anyone suffering from hair loss. This is due to antioxidant properties that can reduce oxidative stress. Vitamin C is important for healthy skin. It is frequently used dermatological treatments, combatting the effects of photoaging, hyperpigmentation and a barrier against the effects of UV light. The combination of both Vitamin C and Vitamin E will also reduce the risk of skin cancer, as well as giving you young looking skin.
There are two ingredients in sweet potatoes that will boost fertility. First, the Vitamin A, which has already been mentioned. Vitamin A has been shown to play a key role in improving reproductive performance (in research on animals). They also contain a healthy dose of Iron, which has shown to increase fertility – anaemia (lack of iron) is a common cause of infertility.
Our good friend Vitamin A pops up again. This is proven to be a key factor in good vision. The vitamin is essential in the formation of pigments that are responsible for absorbing light. It is also crucial in maintaining the correct structure of the retina. On top of these benefits, vitamin A from Sweet potatoes will also decrease the risk of other eye diseases. The combination of Vitamin C and Vitamin E pops up again. This time as a boost to the fight against oxidative stress, which can lead to cataracts.
Sweet potatoes are high in fibre, which is traditionally seen as a key factor for a healthy digestive system. A standard sweet potato is also considered to be one of your five-a-day. This is certainly not the case when you eat a standard potato of the same size. You also get a high level of plant sterols which are good for the prevention of ulcers.
Sweet potatoes are low on the glycaemic index. This means that they release sugar into the bloodstream slowly as your body breaks them down. This steady release ensures that blood sugar levels are controlled more easily by your insulin response. Constant spikes in insulin that come from high GI carbs breaking down quickly into glucose (for example from bread or breakfast cereals) is leads to insulin resistance.
The fibre in sweet potatoes and the high levels of magnesium are both positives for digestive health.
While the list of health benefits above is impressive – a lot of the boost comes from substituting regular spuds. Those high-GI, starchy carbs are unhealthy in multiple ways. Regular potatoes break down quickly into glucose, spiking your blood sugar and causing that well-known crash as your body tries to break it down with a huge insulin spike.
Another striking comparison is when it comes to Vitamin A. Standard potatoes contain around 0.1% of the daily recommended Vitamin A. Conversely, an equivalent amount of sweet potato provides the full daily intake. There are also higher levels of Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium in sweet potatoes. You also intake more fibre when eating a sweet potato.
To be fair to the humble spud, there is slightly more potassium when consuming a standard potato over a sweet one.
Best of all, sweet potatoes are easy to cook, delicious and versatile. Try them just once, and you will become a yam-fan!
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