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.
My DIY rejuvenating sweet potato scrub
To do this scrub, you’ll need:
- 1/2 cup of organic sweet potato
- 1 tablespoon of coarse sea salt
- 1/4 cup of mashed avocado
- 1/4 teaspoon of organic turmeric powder
- 2 tablespoons of milk kefir
- 1 teaspoon of raw honey
Just mix everything and enjoy!
How about diabetes and weight loss?
Many websites claim that sweet potatoes can help control diabetes and may even promote weight loss. Well, these are over-simplified statements. You see, these websites are referring to a study in which the sweet potato was found to have beneficial effects on blood sugar and HbA1c levels of the participants. However, what the authors of these websites fail to highlight is that:
- The researchers used the white-skinned sweet potato known as Ipomoea batatas which is typically grown only in Japan.
- The researchers didn’t use the whole sweet potato – instead they used an extract of the sweet potato’s peel known as Caiapo.
More research is needed to determine whether the Beauregard sweet potato variety can help manage blood sugar levels.
Regarding weight loss, it is true that substituting wheat-containing products or other refined foods with some sweet potato can help facilitate weight loss. However, simply eating more sweet potatoes without changing anything else in your diet is unlikely to promote weight loss.
Are sweet potatoes safe for everyone?
If you have any of the following health issues, you may want to limit your intake of sweet potatoes. Discuss with your healthcare provider to determine how much you can eat.
If your blood levels of potassium are high (a condition known as hyperkalemia), besides seeing a doctor, you would want to limit your intake of foods rich in potassium such as sweet potatoes until your levels return to normal. That’s because hyperkalemia can cause the heart to beat irregularly and can lead to a heart attack.
Tip to reduce the potassium content of the sweet potato: You could also cut the sweet potato into small pieces and soak them in water before boiling to allow the potassium to leach out in the water.
2. Insulin sensitivity issues
Like many other foods, the standard American sweet potato has been bred for sweetness – 100g contains about 6.5g of sugar (compare this to grapes which contain 15.5g of sugar per 100g). In a way, these tubers are half fruit, half starch.
What this means is that consuming sweet potatoes could send your blood sugar levels on a roller-coaster especially if you have insulin sensitivity issues such as PCOS, pre-diabetes, diabetes or insulin resistance (this is often the case in individuals with excess fat around the organs). However, many of my patients with pretty good insulin sensitivity also experience sharp increases in their blood sugar levels after consuming sweet potatoes.
Do sweet potatoes adversely affect blood sugar balance?
Eating carbs will increase your blood sugar levels. However, these should return below 110mg/dl one hour after eating the meal. If your blood sugar levels remain high or if they rise a lot after eating small amounts of carbs, you might want to limit your carb intake and/or accompany the carb with quality fats and proteins.
To find out how much sweet potato you can eat in one sitting, try the following experiment:
Day 1: Check your fasting blood sugar before eating 50g of plain sweet potato. Check your blood sugar levels again 30 minutes after finishing the sweet potato. Repeat the measurement 30 minutes later to see if your levels have dropped to normal.
Day 2: Repeat the same experiment with 75g of plain sweet potato.
Day 3: Repeat the same experiment with 100g of plain sweet potato.
Your blood sugar levels are unlikely to increase proportionally as you increase the amount of sweet potato you eat. Some of my patients found that they could eat up to 75g of sweet potato without much increase in their blood sugar levels. However, their blood sugar levels skyrocketed with 100g of sweet potato.
- I also ask my patients to check their blood sugar levels after eating a mixed meal (e.g. some sweet potato fried in butter and served with beef steak and green veggies). In most cases, they find out that they can tolerate larger amounts of sweet potato when it is combined with other ingredients.
- Those who feel sluggish, sleepy and tired after eating sweet potatoes will greatly benefit from trying the experiment above.
3. Food sensitivities
If you suffer from any of the following, you might want to go easy with sweet potatoes:
- Fructose malabsorption or small bowel infections – As mentioned above, the standard sweet potato is quite rich in fructose. In individuals with fructose malabsorption or small bowel infections, consuming sweet potato could lead to painful osmotic diarrhea (since fructose attracts water). Or they could experience bloating and flatulence as the fructose is feasted upon by the bacteria in the gut.
- Increased intestinal permeability, autoimmune disorders, autism, ADHD and depression – Sweet potatoes are rich in oxalates, substances produced by the plant to protect itself against predators. In a healthy gut, oxalates are easily degraded by the bacteria oxalobacter formingenes. However, levels of these bacteria are greatly diminished in cases of leaky gut or after regular antibiotic therapy and as much as 50% of the oxalates may be absorbed. This can cause kidney stones, bladder stones, vulvodynia (pain in and outside the vagina), chronic fatigue and can worsen fibromyalgia and Zellweger syndrome.
- Colonic infections – Individuals with infections of the colon may experience adverse reactions when they consume large amounts of fiber.
Before we move to the recipe section, make sure you know how to:
- Choose sweet potatoes – Select firm ones that have no bruises, soft spots or cracks. You also want to avoid those with mold or fungus not only because they’re gross but sweet potatoes tend to generate a class of toxins known as phytoalexins when attacked by fungus and mold.
- Store sweet potatoes – Uncooked sweet potatoes can be kept in a dark, cool and ventilated place (not in the fridge) for up to 10 days.
My favorite ways of prepping sweet potatoes
- Steaming – This is my go-to method when I’m running against the clock. After scrubbing the sweet potato under running water, I steam it whole for about 30 minutes. The skin comes off easily once you let the sweet potato cool. At times, I also peel and chop the sweet potato first before steaming for around 10 minutes. You can serve this steamed goody with beef strips and a salad or mash the sweet potato and toss it with onions sautéed in garlic-butter. I also love adding grass-fed cheddar and herbs to the mashed sweet potato.
- Baking – After scrubbing the sweet potato, poke a few holes in it using a fork or a knife. Bake at 350 – 375F (175 – 190C) for about 45 minutes or until the fork goes in easily. I also like to brush the sweet potato with thyme-infused coconut oil before popping it into the oven.
- Frying – After washing and peeling the sweet potato, cut it into small cubes (I usually prefer tiny cubes since they take less time to cook and are way crunchier). Season with salt and pepper. Melt some grass-fed butter, clarified butter or coconut oil in a pan and sauté the sweet potato until golden brown. This tastes amazing when hot.
- Making noodles – You can use a spiralizer to make sweet potato noodles but since I don’t have one, I use the technique in the video below instead.
There are many individuals who use the microwave for cooking sweet potatoes but I’m just not comfortable using that appliance when it is as easy to steam it.
Feel like going on a sweet potato adventure? Get ready to impress your taste buds with the following recipes.
12 Oh-So Easy sweet potato recipes
Remember when I said sweet potatoes were versatile? Just scroll through the mouth-watering recipes below to see what I meant. Bonus: all these recipes are gluten-free and soy-free and come with easy modifications to make them even healthier.
If there’s one thing you absolutely need to try for breakfast, it’s a warm stack of super fluffy sweet potato pancakes. For those of you who, like me, don’t really want to cook in the morning, here’s some good news: you can make these in advance and reheat on a pan or in a toaster.
- Steam the sweet potato instead of microwaving it.
- Add 1 teaspoon of raw cocoa for chocolate pancakes.
- Use grass-fed butter instead of virgin coconut oil for yummy, crispy edges.
In the comment section, someone mentioned substituting the coconut flour with arrowroot or tapioca flour – keep in mind that these are from ground starchy tubers and thus, will add to the carbohydrate content of these pancakes. You would want to avoid this if you have insulin sensitivity issues.
These burgers are a great way to have greens in the morning. Plus the spinach and coconut oil give the burgers a nice nutty twist. Any kind of green leafy veggie will work great in this recipe.
- Instead of flaxseed and water, you can use one beaten organic egg.
- For extra protein, serve the burgers with some leftover chicken, turkey or beef strips.
- Have some extra minced chicken on hand? Add this to the mixture before forming the burgers.
The thing I like the most about this recipe is that you can cook extra sweet potato hash for dinner and keep some for breakfast. You just have to fry an egg and you have a hearty, antioxidant-packed breakfast that will keep you going for hours.
- If you can tolerate cheese, try cooking the egg with some emmental cheese – the melted cheese gives a terrific boost to this recipe.
- Don’t have kale on hand? Just use some spinach or baby bok choy instead. Or you could sauté some broccoli in grass-fed butter and garlic.
Lunch and dinner ideas
During my undergraduate years, I had so much canned salmon that I swore I would never eat that thing again. But salmon cakes changed my mind.
If you do make this recipe, make sure to get a BPA-free brand.
Sweet potato and cauliflower soup
Feeling like having some comfort food? Try this recipe – filled with tender chunks of cauliflower, this soup will warm you to the bones. Bonus: cauliflowers are naturally rich in vitamin C.
- Instead of boiling the sweet potato, I usually toss it with garlic, onion and grass-fed butter or virgin coconut oil before placing it in the oven until it becomes golden brown. I then transfer the sweet potato to a pot of boiling water and home-made coconut milk (and follow the recipe from there).
This may look like a complicated recipe but it really isn’t – you can make it in only 30 minutes! Give it a try – made from spiralized sweet potato, this Pad Thai is loaded with flavor.
- For extra protein, add some sautéed beef or chicken. This will also help prevent your blood glucose levels from increasing too much.
- If you don’t like sunflower seed butter, use coconut butter instead.
- Add a little bit of coconut aminos for extra flavor.
Photo: Lexi’s Clean Kitchen
To be honest, this is not a mere football Sunday snack – it’s actually really filling. But hey, guys eat a lot and with sweet potatoes as the base, these nachos will achieve their intended role: feeding a group of guys during game time.
Sweet potato hummus
This recipe will come in handy when you want to impress your guests with a party snack that is Paleo compliant.
Sweet potato chips
It’s crazy how many recipes for sweet potato chips you can find online. However, most of them use pro-inflammatory vegetable oils. But not this particular recipe.
Chips made from sweet potatoes may sound weird but once you know how to make them, these. Are. So. Addictive!
Sweet potato for dessert? Who knew? This mousse will satisfy all your chocolate cravings (plus it’s so pretty to look at)!
P.S. It is commonly believed that sweet potatoes are a source of vitamin D but according to the USDA nutrient database, these tubers do not contain any sunshine vitamin.
These brownies don’t just look pretty, they’re A-MA-ZING as well! And if you want to make them more festive, chop some frozen cherries and pistachios and sprinkle on the brownies before refrigerating them.
Sweet potato bites
Looking for a quick and healthy pre-workout snack? Try this recipe – once the ‘casserole’ has cooled down at room temperature on a rack, cut it into bite-size pieces and store in an airtight jar.
Have you tried any other sweet potato recipe? Share in the comments below or on our facebook page.