Sweet potatoes are an important part of our diet. Their consumption has greatly increased in recent years, especially in Southern Africa. Sweet potatoes are an important highly nutritious food crop. Several studies and traditional history show that these tubers are important to our health. And studies show that they contain many healthful bioactive compounds. These bioactive compounds have powerful medicinal properties and health benefits. Most sweet potato health benefits are based on these compounds.
Sweet potato health benefits include reduced risks of getting:
- Rheumatoid diseases
- Kidney ailments
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Tumours of the mouth and throat
- Stomach distress
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Sweet potato health benefits
Sweet potatoes have many medicinal uses in different communities.
Akan tribes use sweet potato leaves for the treatment of several diseases.
In Ghana, sweet potato leaves are used for treating type 2 diabetes.
In Brazil, they use sweet potato leaves to treat inflammatory and infectious diseases.
People in Kanagawa Japan ear a certain sweet potato variety raw to treat anaemia, hypertension and diabetes.
All this shows that sweet potatoes can be used for different health purposes.
More specific sweet potato health benefits and medicinal properties
Medium energy density
Many people overestimate the calories contributed by sweet potatoes to their diet. They think that sweet potatoes are this huge super calorie bank. This is not entirely true because sweet potatoes have a medium energy density. A 100 g of sweet potatoes contains about 86-90 kcal of energy. Now, if you compare that to 100 g of biscuits, white rice or breakfast, this value is lower. Also, people tend to eat smaller portions of sweet potatoes than other foods. So the calories you get from sweet potatoes are not that high.
I also have a personal experience with sweet potatoes. I used to eat a lot of white rice. And I needed a full plate to feel satiated. But that satiety wouldn’t last for more than 2 hours. I would start feeling hungry again. When I switched to sweet potatoes, I would struggle to finish 3 tubers weighing about 75 g each. While my calorie intake decreased with sweet potatoes, my satiety tripled from 2 hrs to above 6 hours. That’s astonishing but realistic. The body just doesn’t digest sweet potatoes as quickly as refined grains.
Sweet potatoes have more energy per 100 g (90 kcal) than potatoes (70 kcal) but we just don’t eat sweet potatoes as much as we eat potatoes.
Less fat, more starch
Sweet potatoes have little to no saturated fat or cholesterol content. This explains why sweet potatoes are considered heart-healthy foods. Therefore, sweet potatoes present a healthier energy source that does not harm your heart.
Most of the energy in sweet potatoes comes from starch. And the starch has higher amylose to amylopectin ratio. Whilst amylose is easier to digest than amylopectin, it still has a lower effect on blood sugar levels than simple sugars. The dietary fibre content also helps complicate the digestion process. And that may be why sweet potatoes are recommended to diabetic people. Sweet potatoes are classified as low glycemic index foods as they do not cause blood sugar spikes.
The vitamins in sweet potatoes
Vitamins in sweet potatoes have many health benefits.
A 100 g of sweet potatoes have one of the highest provitamin A content in root vegetables. And for our eye health, healthy mucus membranes and skin we need adequate vitamin A. Sweet potatoes can be our source of provitamin A carotenoids.
Sweet potatoes are also a good source of the vitamin B complex. This includes the vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B9. All these vitamins are important factors in the metabolic reactions of the body. Most of them help in managing metabolic reactions.
Also read: Sweet potato nutrition facts
Vitamin C and E are very potent antioxidants. They play an important part in fighting oxidative stress and inflammation. They have an important role in your body’s antioxidant defence mechanisms. These mechanisms help in preventing premature ageing, oxidative damage and inflammatory diseases.
Phytochemicals in sweet potatoes and their health benefits
Sweet potatoes contain flavonol compounds. Some of these are important in protecting you against lung and oral cancer. Flavonoids are also an important antioxidant that helps protect from oxidative and inflammatory diseases.
Sweet potato leaves are rich in lutein. And this phytochemical is very important in preventing age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. It is also important in preventing eye damage from various forms of damaging light.
Purple fleshed sweet potatoes are rich in anthocyanins which are potent antioxidants. These compounds can help you fight inflammation and inflammatory diseases. Their activity is very important in protecting the digestive tract. They also help lower the risks posed by heavy metal damage. Additionally, they also offer protection from high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.
Phenolic compounds are abundant in sweet potatoes. They are potent antioxidants, antiallergic and anti-inflammatory compounds. They also offer liver protection. And some of them have been shown to inhibit the replication of HIV.
Sweet potatoes leaves may also give you caffeoylquinic acid derivatives. These help in preventing damage to genetic materials due to mutations. They also have anti-cancer properties.
Pharmacological sweet potato health benefits
Powerful antioxidant activities are at the forefront of sweet potato health benefits.
Sweet potatoes are not just energy sources but they contain beneficial phytochemicals. The total antioxidant properties of sweet potatoes are equal to 42.94% of those of vitamin C.
Purple fleshed sweet potatoes have higher antioxidant activities than white. This is because they have higher phenolic content than white sweet potato varieties. Also, sweet potato leaves and stem ends have the highest antioxidant activities. So, you may include these in your diet too.
In other words, sweet potatoes can help you in fighting oxidative stress and inflammation. For someone suffering from stress and inflammation-related diseases, purple sweet potatoes are the best option.
We all know that blueberries have some of the best antioxidant properties. However, studies found that purple sweet potato leaves have higher antioxidant activities than some blueberry varieties.
Antidiabetic activities of sweet potatoes
Antidiabetic activities show that sweet potatoes have a blood sugar lowering activities. They also do not cause blood sugar and insulin spikes when eaten. The antidiabetic activities of purple sweet potatoes were higher than that of diabense. Diabense is a standard drug used for diabetic treatment.
The anthocyanins of purple-fleshed sweet potatoes have been implicated in the sweet potato health benefits. Consumption of sweet potatoes and high polyphenol diets for 7 days has been shown to:
- Modulate your oxidative status
- Decrease exercise-induced oxidative damage
- Decrease release of inflammatory compounds
All these play an important part in the onset of diabetes mellitus.
Leaf hot water extracts have been shown to have blood-glucose-lowering effects.
Also, diabetics have low levels of adiponectin a protein hormone produced by fat cells. Sweet potatoes have been shown to boost adiponectin levels in persons with type 2 diabetes.
In addition to this, many studies show that sweet potato in your diet:
- Help reduce levels of diabetic markers in your body.
- Also, help improve lipids and glucose management in your body.
- Dietary white-fleshed sweet potatoes have been shown to decrease insulin resistance.
- Dietary sweet potatoes have also been associated with improved insulin sensitivity.
Anti-cancer properties of sweet potatoes
There are many sweet potato health benefits but some of them will need further scientific studies. There is a lot of evidence showing anticancer activities of several sweet potato varieties.
Purple fleshed sweet potato phytochemicals can stimulate apoptosis (death) of cancer cells. These phytochemicals also help inhibit the proliferation and growth of cancer cell masses.
Having sweet potatoes in your diet may also decrease your risks of getting several cancers which include
- Gall bladder
- Gastric carcinoma
- Colon cancers.
Several other studies also support the beneficial effects of dietary sweet potatoes in cancer.
Cardiovascular health improvement
There is limited information on the cardiovascular health improvement properties of sweet potatoes. However, sweet potatoes are lower in total fat and cholesterol content. They also have a lower glycemic index and higher satiety. This means they are less likely to overwhelm the body with sugars and fats when consumed in a balanced diet. This means they are hearty healthy foods.
Sweet potatoes also have relaxant and vasorelaxant activity on blood vessels. This may help reduce hypertension in the body.
Sweet potato leaves also have body cholesterol-lowering activities.
Antiangiogenesis activities of sweet potatoes
Angiogenesis is the process by which new blood vessels are formed. Normally this process occurs during growth in children. However, it can also occur in deep wounds and cancer cells. For cancer cells to survive they need oxygen and nutrients, so they will need to form new blood vessels as they continue to multiply.
Leaves of purple sweet potatoes can help to:
- Decrease cell proliferation,
- Cell migration and
- Tube formation.
These processes play a part in the angiogenic process, especially in cancers. In other words, these sweet potato leaves may help prevent the formation of blood vessels and the proliferation of cancer cells.
Prevention of liver toxicity
Accumulation of harmful substances can cause liver damage and liver cell death. This results in scar tissue formation and impaired functioning of your liver.
Sweet potatoes are rich in anthocyanins. These compounds help reduce the accumulation of dangerous reactive oxygen species in liver cells. They then actively reduce the death of liver cells due to intracellular toxic compounds. Therefore, sweet potato anthocyanins prevent the accumulation of toxic chemical compounds in the liver.
Liver protective effects
Sweet potato anthocyanins also help protect the liver from:
- Liver distortion
- Inflammatory cell infiltration
- Fibrous tissue formation
This is done through the synergistic effects of anthocyanins and other bioactive compounds in sweet potatoes.
Purple sweet potato anthocyanins have been shown to have protective effects on the brain. They have been shown to improve the activities of antioxidant enzymes in the body. They help in reducing age-related oxidative stress and damage which accelerate the ageing process.
If you understand technical jargon you can also read these two articles.
There are many sweet potato health benefits. However, I decided to settle for the most important ones. You have to understand that no single food is an island. This means overeating one type of food is going to harm you instead of healing you. Try to balance your diet with a wide variety of foods which you change every day if possible. This will help help you live a healthy, vibrant life that is full of vitality! And please, don’t forget the sweet potatoes!