High in antioxidants and even cancer fighting nutrients, sweet potatoes are a vital component of an optimal diet.
During the holiday season, it’s incredibly easy to drown in the high-fat gluttony of turkey and mashed potatoes covered in gravy and apple pie topped with a mountain of ice cream. Health conscious dietary choices are often thrown to the wayside in favor of guilty pleasure meals for two months, which is a long time.
But is there a food that fits perfectly into the delicious spread of holiday meals while also fulfilling the body’s need for super nutrition?
Sweet potatoes are not just the orange vegetables that sit beneath a bed of marshmallows on Thanksgiving Day; this superfood’s color actually ranges from white and yellow, to red, purple, or brown. In any color, sweet potatoes deliver incredible health benefits. They can be prepared in various ways, and the complex carbohydrate is low in calories, rich in antioxidants, high in vitamins and minerals (including Vitamin A, C, Manganese and Potassium), and high in fiber.
Perhaps the icing on the cake—or maybe the cinnamon on the sweet potato—is sweet potatoes’ newly discovered role as a cancer fighting food.
“Antioxidant” has become a buzzword recently in nutritional health, but what exactly does an antioxidant do? In general terms, antioxidants prevent the oxidation of cells in the body. The oxidation of cells creates free radicals, which steal electrons from other molecules and cause damage. In short, antioxidants maintain cellular health by prohibiting oxidation. While all antioxidants prohibit cell damage, each type of antioxidant targets specific cells.
Sweet potatoes are especially high in carotenoid antioxidants—specifically beta-carotene, which has been linked to improvements in eye health. Purple sweet potatoes—known to be the most nutrient rich type of sweet potato because of their deep purple color—get their color from anthocyanin pigments that are not prevalent in other colors of sweet potatoes. Responsible for providing the unique color, anthocyanins also have important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that specifically target digestive tract problems.
Additionally, including a small dose of fat with a sweet potato may actually increase its antioxidant properties. To maximize the amount of beta-carotene digested into the bloodstream, it is recommended that a sweet potato dish is prepared with 3-5 grams of fat.
Other Health Benefits
The benefits of sweet potatoes do not stop at antioxidation; sweet potatoes are extremely high in other key nutrients:
Vitamin C—Known to decrease duration of common colds and improve skin health
Potassium—Controls blood pressure and can decrease risk of heart disease
Manganese—Important for growth, metabolism and development
Vitamin B6—Helps to convert food into energy
Vitamin E—A fat-soluble antioxidant that prevents oxidative damage
Sweet potatoes are incredibly versatile and can be prepared in many ways. The preparation methods affect the taste of the potatoes by adding sweetness or saltiness, but can also affect the absorption of nutrients. Studies have found that steaming and boiling are the most effective ways to maximize the natural nutrients.
As mentioned above, sweet potatoes contain anthocyanins that deliver vital antioxidant properties. In just two minutes of steaming sweet potatoes, nearly all peroxidase enzymes, which break down the anthocyanins, are deactivated. With the powerful enzymes removed, the anthocyanins are free to use their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties uninhibited.
Perhaps the only downside of sweet potatoes are their high natural sugar levels that tend to lead to a high glycemic index. Instead of roasting the vegetable, boiling it will significantly decrease the effect on blood sugar and glycemic index.
Known as a superfood primarily because of their low-calorie, high-antioxidant properties, sweet potatoes may be especially super because of their cancer fighting proteins.
In an article highlighting the health benefits of sweet potatoes in relation to their low cost, Dr. Michael Greger writes, “It turns out that 80% of the protein in sweet potatoes is a type of protease inhibitor with potential anticancer effects.” Greger cites studies proving sweet potatoes’ effectiveness in combating both tongue and colon cancer. The special class of proteins that is abundant in sweet potatoes is absorbed into the bloodstream intact, and the proteins have the ability to slow the growth of cancer cells and decrease cancer cell migration and invasion.
Julie Lanford, a registered dietitian in oncology for a nonprofit cancer company in North Carolina, highlights the cancer fighting carotenoids that are especially abundant in darker varieties of sweet potatoes. According to Lanford, more than 600 different carotenoids have been discovered in dark sweet potatoes, and they are all cancer fighters. In addition to the cancer fighting aspects that naturally occur in sweet potatoes, Lanford encourages the addition of even more carotenoids through spices like cinnamon and chili powder that are both delicious and nutritious.
Often lost on a table of decadence, sweet potatoes are a necessity for anyone who is looking to combine taste and health. With a list of nutrients that holistically attack bodily deficiencies, the vegetable of many different color varieties is a true superfood in every sense of the word. Add in the recent exploration of its cancer prohibiting qualities, and the sweet potato becomes an essential part of every wholesome and nutritiously complete diet.