In recent years, sweet potatoes have become a favored alternative to potatoes for health-conscious eaters for some reason. I’ve been noticing sweet potatoes more and more on the menus of trendy/healthy/locavore oriented restaurants as an alternative to potatoes.
A typical appraisal comes from Time’s Health magazine website:
“It’s no surprise that sweet potatoes are at the top of nearly everyone’s healthiest foods list.”
EatingWell. com proclaims,
“The sweet potato is a nutritional powerhouse. Deemed a ‘superfood’ by many nutritionists, sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber and potassium, plus phytochemicals like lutein and zeaxanthin, which promote eye health. ” (Appropriately, if you click on the nutritionists link on this quote it takes you to an Amazon.com listing of pull-up diapers!)
Please note that any article that takes the term superfood seriously should be dismissed as frivolous. Stop reading immediately and never revisit the source.
The Cleveland Clinic website provides a comparison of the two vegetables and determines that sweet potatoes win the nutritional battle by “knock-out”. (This site also claims that sweet potatoes are far better than yams, a claim I have not had time to research)
Somehow, the idea that a sweeter, tastier vegetable is better for me than its not-so-sweet relative made no sense to me.
Call me skeptical.
Are they a healthier choice than regular potatoes or is this all driven by marketing hype?
There are some minor differences in the nutrient content of SP and P:
Sweet potatoes have six times more sugar and 50% more fiber than regular potatoes. Sources that proclaim SP healthier like to focus on the large amount of Vitamin A. However, we don’t necessarily need more Vitamin A in our diet and nothing suggests these minor differences are of any importance in our overall health.
Potatoes have their own PR machine which will regale you with the wonders of spuds:
“It’s a surprise for many to discover one medium potato (5.3 oz) with the skin contains:
10 percent of the daily value of B6;
Trace amounts of thiamine, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and zinc…and all this for just 110 calories and no fat, sodium or cholesterol.
More potassium (620 mg) than even bananas, spinach, or broccoli;
45 percent of the daily value for vitamin C
The potato people would also like you to know that:
Potatoes are a vegetable. The popular tuber counts toward the total recommended servings of vegetables. One medium-sized potato (5.3 oz.) counts as 1 cup of starchy vegetables.
On the other hand, the Harvard School of Public health has decided potatoes are not a vegetable:
“However, potatoes don’t count as a vegetable on Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate because they are high in carbohydrate – and in particular, the kind of carbohydrate that the body digests rapidly, causing blood sugar and insulin to surge and then dip (in scientific terms, they have a high glycemic load).”
There isn’t much good evidence that the glycemic load is something we should be focusing on with diet (see here) but the Harvard people like to point to observational studies that show that people who increased their consumption of french fries and baked or mashed potatoes gained more weight over time.
All observational studies try to control for confounding factors in their analysis, but in the case of food consumption it is particularly difficult because it is highly likely that those individuals who are eating french fries are also engaging in other lifestyle choices that are perceived as unhealthy.
The large observational study, which found that increased consumption of potato chips and potatoes was associated with the biggest weight gain, classifies yams or sweet potatoes as a vegetable (along with tomato juice (which is mostly sugar)and tomato sauce). Vegetables were associated with a small loss of weight over time.
The sweet potato gets to hide amongst all the arguably really healthy vegetables (like chard and brussel sprouts and kale) that those who are truly dedicated to a healthy lifestyle have embraced with enthusiasm. This group also exercises optimally, avoids eating junk food and processed food, and engages in other subtle behaviors that the observational study did not measure.
Why Might Potatoes Be Associated with Obesity?
I view potatoes as a ubiquitous, cheap and quickly prepared food that allows the rapid and easy accumulation of excess calories. The average American consumes 120 pounds of potatoes per year compared to only about 5 pounds of sweet potatoes.
French fries, a staple of fast food throughout the world, when consumed hot, combine many of the sensory elements that lead to overeating. When done properly, the frying process adds a wonderful crispness to the outside, and when combined with the warm, perfectly cooked potato on the inside, the result is irresistible.
A large order of McDonald’s french fries contains 510 calories, suddenly triple the number in a medium potato, but it only costs $2.19 and is available virtually instantaneously.
Chances are those who are consuming the McDonald’s french fries are saving further money and preparation time by combining it with a Big Mac (590 calories) and a medium Coke (210 calories). This Value Meal #1 only costs $5.69 but contains 1300 calories.
Even if you are avoiding fast food, french fries and potato chips are ubiqitous. For some reason, most restaurant breakfasts which are not pancake or waffle oriented are presented with a side of potatoes. Sandwiches always seem to come with an order of potato chips. Hamburgers are served with fries. Steaks with mashed potatoes.
For most meals that contain a potato side, up to half of the total calories are coming from the spuds.
You have to make a concerted effort to not consume some form of potato when you are eating out, and when you do that, you are now importantly paying attention more to total calories than to macronutrient content of meals.
Your other choice is to not consume all of the french fries, potato chips, grilled potatoes or mashed potatoes that are presented as a side, but many individuals feel compelled to finish everything on their plate.
If sweet potatoes were as ubiquitous as potatoes and became a staple of fast food restaurants and a side for any and all dishes (and if they were separated out from the rest of vegetable world), I suspect they would also be associated with weight gain.
If, on the other hand, potatoes were not markers of fast, tasty, and easily prepared and consumed food and were only eaten at trendy locavore restaurants or prepared at home, I think they would no longer be associated with obesity.
Looking at the two on strictly nutritional or scientific grounds, it is not possible to choose one over the other.
If you are overweight and ready to lose weight, cutting out the potatoes when eating out will eliminate a lot of the carbohydrates and calories you consume. But don’t think that substituting sweet potato fries is a magical solution.
I yam what I yam,
For a Michael Pollan video on the evil of McDonald’s french fries for other reasons take a look at: