Sweet Potatoes 101 - Why & How to Add This Superfood to Your Diet

by Rebecca Jacobs

Sweet potatoes are a paleo-dieters go-to when craving something carb-heavy yet healthy.

They are also a great substitute for regular old white potatoes as they are incredibly nutrient-dense and pack in three grams of fiber per 3.5-ounce serving.

Sweet potatoes happen to be one of the best complex carbohydrate-rich foods to add to your diet, which we talk more about in our post all about macronutrients here.

Not only are sweet potatoes nutritious, but they are delicious, and they make a wonderful addition to a well-balanced diet.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about sweet potatoes, plus some recipes to help you get started with adding this orange veggie into your diet.

What are Sweet Potatoes?

Sweet potatoes are an underground root veggie, aka tuber, and are actually quite different from white potatoes. They are part of the morning glory plant family, and they are native to South as well as Central America.

And, while the most commonly enjoyed sweet potato is the standard orange kind you find at your local grocery store, you may also find purple sweet potatoes as well as yellow, red, and pink varieties.

Are Sweet Potatoes a Vegetable?

Many people wonder if they can count a sweet potato towards their daily vegetable intake, and the answer is yes, sweet potatoes are considered a vegetable. In fact, as we talked about before, they are a root vegetable that are available at your local grocery store year-round, allowing them to be a regular part of your diet.  

Sweet Potato Fast Facts

    • Shockingly enough, sweet potatoes may have been enjoyed millions of years ago! Evidence has found that the morning glory plant family, originated in North America 35 million years ago.
    • While research has always pointed to sweet potatoes originating in America, new research is now looking at the possibility that they may have been around in Asia first, possibly even 52 million years ago.

Sweet Potato vs. Yams

A common misconception is that sweet potatoes and yams are the same thing and that the term can be used interchangeably. However, they are quite different. For one, sweet potatoes and yams come from two different plant families.

While sweet potatoes come from the morning glory plant family, yams are related to lilies as well as grasses and originated in Asia and Africa.

Sweet potatoes also have a smoother outer skin than yams. Another big difference is that you can find sweet potatoes in any local grocery store, but true yams can really only be found at specialty stores that carry international foods.

Why am I seeing yams at the grocery store?

If you’re scratching your head thinking that you see the term “yam” when you grab a bag of sweet potatoes from the store each week, you definitely aren’t seeing things. However, these aren’t authentic yams.

The mislabeling happens because there are two varieties of sweet potatoes which include firm sweet potatoes and soft sweet potatoes, which describes how tender they are once cooked.

The soft varieties are labeled as “yams” such as Garnet or Jewel yams. However, these are really just different varieties of sweet potatoes that picked up this label to differentiate between the soft and hard sweet potato varieties.

7 Benefits of Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are so incredibly nutrient-dense that it’s hard to deny what they may be able to do to help support our overall health.

Here are eight benefits of sweet potatoes, and reasons you may want to consider adding them to your diet.

Helps reduce cancer risk:

One of the most impressive health benefits of sweet potatoes is their rich antioxidant content. Antioxidants like carotenoids are abundantly found in sweet potatoes, which have been linked to a reduced risk of cancer.

Helps Prevent Vitamin A Deficiency:

Since one sweet potato is enough to satisfy your daily recommended vitamin A requirements, regular sweet potato consumption is a great way to help prevent vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency happens to be the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, and can lead to night blindness in pregnant women. Not getting enough vitamin A can also negatively affect the immune system, increasing your risk of illness.

May Help Support Healthy Blood Pressure Readings:

High blood pressure is a silent killer as it’s a huge risk factor for cardiovascular disease and the foods you eat play a big role in managing blood pressure. Sweet potatoes are rich in potassium and magnesium, both of which are beneficial for heart health. If you have high blood pressure, pass on the salt, and choose other fresh herbs and spices like rosemary and garlic when cooking your sweet potatoes.

Gut health:

Due to sweet potatoes rich fiber content, they happen to be an excellent vegetable choice for gut health. Getting enough fiber in your diet helps to prevent constipation by keeping bowel movements regular. A fiber-rich diet is also important for feeding the healthy bacteria in the gut to help aid digestion and keep pathogenic bacteria at bay.

Immune Health:

This root vegetable happens to be an excellent source of vitamin C, an important vitamin for supporting a strong immune system. In one medium sweet potato, you can pack in approximately 30% of your daily recommended intake. So, load up on sweet potatoes during cold and flu season to keep your immune system in tip-top shape.

Brain Function:

Sweet potatoes are rich in choline and manganese, two nutrients that are essential for brain health. Purple sweet potatoes are also rich in anthocyanins, which are what give these potatoes that beautiful purple color. These anthocyanins have also been known to hold memory-boosting benefits.

Healthy Vision:

One of the most talked about health benefits of sweet potatoes happens to be their ability to help support healthy vision. Sweet potatoes are rich in beta carotene, which can then be converted to vitamin A, which is essential for vision health. Sweet potatoes are such an amazing source of vitamin A that a 3.5-ounce serving is enough to satisfy the recommended daily amount of vitamin A.

Bonus Health Tip!

For an added bonus, try adding some healthy fat to your sweet potato to increase the absorption of this fat-soluble vitamin. Try drizzling some melted coconut, olive, or avocado oil over your cubed sweet potato, or serve with some grass-fed ghee.

Sweet Potato Nutrition

This nutrient-dense vegetable is an excellent source of potassium, magnesium, b-vitamins, and dietary fiber. And, while they are a carb-heavy vegetable, the fiber content helps to slow the release of those carbs to help prevent a sudden blood sugar spike.

In addition to being a rich source of vitamins and minerals, sweet potatoes also contain an impressive amount of protein for a vegetable offering about two grams of plant-based protein per one medium sweet potato.

Nutritional Breakdown (1 medium sweet potato):

Calories: 115

Carbs: 27g

Fiber: 3.8g

Protein: 2.1g

Fat: 0.2g

How to Add Sweet Potatoes to Your Diet

Sweet potatoes are a nutritious and delicious vegetable with easy ways to enjoy them.  

Here are some creative ways to get this nutrient-dense vegetable into your diet:

    • Boiled and snacked on with some melted coconut oil and a sprinkle of nutritional yeast.
    • Boiled and blended into a smoothie.
    • Baked into a grain-free almond flour muffin.
    • Whisked into coconut flour pancakes.
    • Made into sweet potato fries.
    • Used in place of regular mashed potatoes.
    • Cooked, cubed, and added to salads.

How to Buy Sweet Potatoes

Buying Tip #1 Consider your options

When shopping for sweet potatoes, you will want to decide which variety you want. If you want a sweet potato that is softer when cooked, you will want to choose a garnet or Jewel variety, which remember, will likely be labeled as a “yam.”

Buying Tip #2 Pick the healthiest potato

If you are looking for a sweet potato that will add in a powerful punch of antioxidants, go for a purple sweet potato which contains nearly 150% more antioxidants than blueberries!

Buying Tip #3 Watch out for bruising

Once you decide which sweet potato to select, you will also want to look for any bruising or wrinkled outer skin. You want the outer skin to be smooth and avoid any sweet potatoes with any dents, bruises, or sprouts growing from them.

How to Store Sweet Potatoes

Now it’s time to store your sweet potatoes until you are ready to enjoy them.

    • Store them in a cool and dry place for optimal freshness.
    • Avoid washing or rinsing your sweet potatoes before storing them to avoid any mold growth or to help prevent them from rotting before you are ready to use them.
    • If the outside of your sweet potatoes are noticeably dirty, simply wipe them with a dry cloth to remove the dirt.
    • Keep them away from certain fruits and vegetables that may cause sprouting due to the gasses they let off. These foods include onions, bananas, and apples.

If properly stored, you can expect your sweet potatoes to last for 1-2 weeks, so be sure to add them to your recipes as soon as possible.

Boiling Your Sweet Potato Preserves More Nutrients

No matter how you cook your vegetables, some of the nutrients will be lost in the process. The good news is that there is one cooking method that preserves the nutrients better than others.

Boiling sweet potatoes has been found to be more beneficial when it comes to preserving vitamin A. Boiling sweet potatoes has also been found to support a more positive impact on the glycemic index and the effect sweet potatoes have on blood sugar.

And, don’t forget to add some fat to your sweet potatoes to help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamin A. It only takes about 3-5 grams of fat to help support better absorption.

How to Grow Sweet Potatoes

If you want to grow your own sweet potatoes at home, the good news is that these root veggies don’t require a green thumb. With just a little bit of maintenance, you can grow your own sweet potatoes and have them available throughout the year.

The most important thing to know is that sweet potatoes aren’t grown like other fruits or vegetables. They are grown from slips which are shoots that come from mature sweet potatoes. You can order these slips from a reputable plant seed supplier to start growing your own.

If you already have an herb or vegetable garden, sweet potatoes make a wonderful nutrient-dense fairly low maintenance addition to your garden.

5 Sweet Potato Recipes

The Bottom Line

Sweet potatoes are loaded with nutritional value and provide a really easy and delicious way to bulk up your daily vegetable intake.

Notoriously known for their impressive vitamin A content, sweet potatoes offer so much more. From supporting gut health, to increasing your antioxidant intake, and supporting chronic disease prevention, sweet potatoes are a no-brainer addition to a balanced diet.