Rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals, find out why these starchy, sweet root vegetables are so good for you and discover the best ways to cook them.
What is a sweet potato?
The sweet potato is a starchy, sweet-tasting root vegetable. They have a thin, brown skin on the outside with coloured flesh inside – most commonly orange in colour, but other varieties are white, purple or yellow. You can eat sweet potatoes whole or peeled, and the leaves of the plant are edible, too.
They may both be called 'potatoes', but sweet and white potatoes are not actually related. Botanically, the sweet potato belongs to the bindweed or morning glory family, whereas the white potato sits in the nightshade family.
Nutritional value of sweet potato
Sweet potatoes are a rich source of fibre as well as containing an array of vitamins and minerals including iron, calcium, selenium, and they're a good source of most of our B vitamins and vitamin C. One of the key nutritional benefits of sweet potato is that they're high in an antioxidant known as beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A once consumed. Add a drizzle of olive oil just before serving to increase your absorption of beneficial beta-carotene.
Can sweet potatoes help reduce the risk of cancer?
While there are no single 'superfoods' that can prevent cancer and certain risk factors for cancer are unrelated to diet, there is evidence that eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of cancer. Fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants, compounds that help defend the body against damage by 'free radicals'. Studies have suggested that the antioxidants in the peel of sweet potatoes in particular, and especially purple sweet potato, may help reduce this oxidation process, thereby reducing the risk of cancer. To get the most nutrition from your sweet potatoes, don't peel – simply scrub well before cooking.
A study in Asia also found that diets high in vitamin-A rich vegetables, including sweet potato leaves, may provide potential protection from lung cancer.
Are sweet potatoes good for digestion?
Sweet potatoes are high in fibre, which has been shown to promote a healthy digestive system. Much of the research so far has been conducted on animals, but it would appear that the high phytosterol content of sweet potatoes does have a protective effect on the digestive system and may be important in the prevention and management of duodenal and gastric ulcers, including those due to NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen).
Discover more digestive health recipes and tips.
Are sweet potatoes good for helping to manage type 2 diabetes?
This is an area that needs more research, but some studies have shown that moderate consumption of sweet potato and sweet potato leaves may improve blood sugar regulation in type 2 diabetes. However, until more evidence is available no recommendations can be made at this time.
Discover 10 top tips to manage diabetes from Diabetes UK.
Are sweet potatoes good for eye health?
A study by Food & Nutrition Research found that purple sweet potatoes contain a specific group of antioxidants also known as anthocyanins which have been shown to be beneficial to the eyes.
Discover more about anthocyanins in purple foods.
Are sweet potatoes safe for everyone to eat?
On the whole, sweet potatoes are an excellent addition to a balanced diet. However, they do contain something known as oxalates which binds calcium and other minerals. Too many oxalates in the diet may cause kidney stones and so should be eaten in moderation if you have existing kidney stones or are at high risk of developing them. If you are concerned, check with your GP.
How does cooking affect the nutritional value of sweet potato?
Cooking sweet potato does reduce its beta-carotene levels, although boiling appears to have a higher retention compared to baking. The good news, however, is that cooking sweet potato appears to increase its vitamin C content.
Healthy sweet potato recipes
Sweet potato, coconut & lemongrass soup with coriander sambal
Sweet potato dhal with curried vegetables
Moroccan chicken with sweet potato mash
Spinach, sweet potato & lentil dhal
Jerk sweet potato & black bean curry
Spiced chicken, spinach & sweet potato stew
All our healthy sweet potato recipes
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This article was reviewed on 7th November 2019 by Kerry Torrens.
Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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