Potatoes are practical and delish, but they’ve gotten a bit of a bad rap, nutritionally speaking. Sweet potatoes have swooped in as a trendy tater alternative, and so began the sweet potato vs. potato health debate.
But are sweet potatoes truly healthier than potatoes? Registered dietician and nutrition consultant Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet, and registered dietician Sonya Angelone, spokesperson for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, get to the root of this dietary dilemma.
What makes sweet potatoes healthy?
Sweet potatoes pack a lot of nutrients to back up their superfood status. “Sweet potatoes have several health benefits, including anti-inflammatory nutrients and blood sugar-regulating nutrients,” says Angelone.
The colour largely determines how much beta carotene is in a sweet tuber, she adds: A brighter, deeper orange hue signals more of the nutrient, which your body turns into vitamin A.
“If you are solely looking for vitamin A, then a sweet potato is your pick, hands down,” says Gans. And you should be seeking out the nutrient: “Vitamin A may help keep your skin, bones and eyes healthy,” Gans adds. “Also, it works as a cell-protecting antioxidant… Sweet potatoes have 10% of recommended vitamin A, as well as vitamin C, B6, potassium and manganese.” In fact, a medium potato contains twice as much potassium as a medium banana.
Sweet potato (medium size) nutrition info:
- Calories: 103 g
- Carbohydrates: 24 g
- Sugar: 7 g
- Fat: 0 g
- Fibre: 4 g
- Protein: 2 g
- Vitamin A: 1096 µg
- Vitamin C: 22 mg
- Vitamin B6: 0.33 mg
- Potassium: 542 mg
SOURCE: USDA Nutrient Database
How about regular potatoes — are they healthy?
Potatoes are a starch, which may give you a knee-jerk negative reaction — but it’s time to get over that once and for all, according to the nutritionists I spoke with. “They do get a bad rap, but I believe that it is unfounded,” says Gans. “Just because a food has starch, that certainly doesn’t make it unhealthy. It is simply a form of carbohydrate.” (Btw, sweet potatoes contain starch, too.)
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The starch in potatoes is a resistant starch, which helps regulate blood-sugar levels and contributes to satiety. Plus, potatoes actually top the satiety index (a handy measure of how full people feel after eating specific foods) as the number-one most filling food. “Basically, starch is a concentrated source of glucose, which gets broken down for energy and stored in your muscles as glycogen, or turned into fat,” says Angelone. “Starch can be a concentrated source of calories, and it is important to avoid eating more calories from starch or any other food than you burn through activity and exercise, if you want to avoid weight gain.”
Each potato variation has different vitamins and minerals. “Purple potatoes have different phytonutrients, which have been shown to lower blood pressure,” says Angelone.
Light-coloured spuds, like russet potatoes, have plenty of vitamins, too. “White potatoes meet more than 10% of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C, B6, folate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese,” says Gans.
Russet potato (medium size) nutrition info:
- Calories: 168
- Carbohydrates: 38 g
- Sugar: 1 g
- Fat: 0.2 g (o g sat fat)
- Fibre: 3 g
- Protein: 5 g
- Vitamin B6: .735 mg
- Vitamin C: 12 mg
- Magnesium: 49 mg
- Potassium: 888 mg
SOURCE: USDA Nutrient Database
So which is healthier — potatoes or sweet potatoes?
If you put sweet potatoes and potatoes in the ring and let them duke it out, it would be a fair fight. Both types of taters are healthy in their own right, and sweet potatoes and potatoes are very similar on nutrition stats.
Both contain vitamins with a head-to-toe impact and are covered in fibre-rich skin. “Vitamin A is important for eye health, vitamin C for a healthy immune system, B6 is needed for metabolism and our nervous system, and potassium is associated with regulating blood pressure,” says Gans.
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Angelone says sweet potatoes may have a slight edge on potatoes due to the antioxidant beta carotene. “Eating a diet rich in antioxidants has been shown to decrease risk for chronic diseases,” she says.
White potatoes do come out ahead on protein content, though. “A medium white potato has about 2 grams more per serving of protein than a sweet potato,” says Gans. Plus, white potatoes have slightly less sugar than sweet potatoes as expected, but that’s NBD. “I wouldn’t be concerned at all about the sugar in any potato – it is naturally occurring not added!” says Gans.
Great, now what’s the healthiest way to cook them?
What you do or don’t do with spuds in the kitchen can actually negate all those health benefits in both sweet potatoes and potatoes.
Some popular potato cooking methods, like frying, can diminish the heat-sensitive phytochemicals in the spuds. “The vitamin C content of potatoes will decrease since vitamin C is sensitive to heat and will degrade with higher temperatures,” says Angelone.
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That doesn’t mean you have to eat them raw. “Steaming or boiling sweet potatoes seem to preserve the nutrients,” says Angelone. “Boiling sweet potatoes has been shown to have a more positive impact on blood-sugar regulation.” Still, water-soluble folate and B vitamins can leach into boiling water, which means you won’t be consuming them. The solution: Don’t overcook potatoes.
Also, Angelone recommends pairing sweet potatoes with a little fat to help your body absorb more of the all-star antioxidant beta carotene. That’s not an excuse to pile on the sour cream and butter, though. (Sorry, loaded baked potato fans.) Instead, opt for some baked sweet potato fries with olive oil or a lightened-up sweet potato gratin.
While many of the vitamins and minerals are concentrated in the flesh, the skin has benefits, too. “The skin has a little bit more of the fibre and iron specifically,” says Gans. The skin also helps preserve the vitamins that can leach out during boiling — yet another reason to leave it on.
The bottom line: While sweet potatoes have a slight edge on white potatoes because they contain more antioxidants, both options are nutrition-packed picks — as long as you don’t fry them.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthsa.co.za
Image credit: iStock