Sweet Potatoes vs. White Potatoes: The Healthiest Option

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By: Sammy Cusimano

The holidays are here once again! With all the delicious food dishes that will be served this season, it is helpful to know which choices are the healthiest. Perhaps one of the most common questions people ponder, while aiming to prepare more health-conscious holiday meals, is whether to use sweet or white potatoes as a side dish. The debate over the nutritional value of sweet potatoes compared to white potatoes continues. Although each of these holiday dinner table staples contains a healthy amount of much-needed nutrients, the content of vitamins, carbohydrates and calories do differ. The truth is both sweet and white potatoes each have their own unique nutritional strengths.

Sweet potatoes have gotten a healthy reputation, in recent years, because of their lower calorie content than white potatoes. While white potatoes contain about 120 calories, sweet potatoes only have about 100 calories. The carbohydrate content of both sweet and white potatoes is fairly close. Sweet potatoes have slightly fewer carbohydrates (24 grams) compared to white potatoes (28 grams).

Both types of potatoes have about the same amount of protein and fiber (2-4 grams), with no fat or cholesterol. Sweet and white potatoes are also both packed with vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C, potassium and vitamin B6 are prevalent in each type of potato. Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A and beta carotene, while white potatoes contain magnesium, phosphorous, niacin and manganese.

For years, many health and fitness enthusiasts have either avoided white potatoes or written off all potatoes to prevent any weight gain due to carbohydrate intake. Contrary to popular belief, the carbs in potatoes are not the culprit of weight gain for anyone who eats a well-balanced diet, with an active, fitness-oriented lifestyle. The carbohydrates contained within both white and sweet potatoes are starch and fiber. Each of these will thankfully help you stay lean and healthy.

In contrast to other carbohydrate sources, starch and fiber do not actually digest in the body. Rather, they ferment in the gut. This process produces short-chain fatty acids that provide a host of health benefits. Short-chain fatty acids have been linked to a decrease in colon cancer, with the added benefit of stimulating blood flow to the colon. These same fatty acids keep you feeling full for a longer period of time, while also acting as fuel for healthy gut bacteria and mucosa cells. Short-chain fatty acids also decrease inflammation, prevent the body from absorbing toxins, inhibit disease-causing bacteria and increase the absorption and circulation of minerals and nutrients.

Potatoes have generally received a bad reputation over the years because many of the dishes prepared with potatoes as the main ingredient are high fat/high calorie choices. Many potato-based foods are fried in greasy oil, covered in butter or heavily accented with sour cream. When potatoes are cooked in a nutritionally sound way, the health benefits can be fully redeemed. For example, replacing high-calorie cooking oil and salt with olive oil and herbs is an effective way to start enjoying the nutritional value of potatoes with no guilt or reservations.

Sweet potatoes and white potatoes, surprisingly enough, come from separate plant families. They are actually distantly related despite both being root vegetables. While sweet potatoes are part of the morning glory family (Convolvulacae), white potatoes are considered nightshades (Solanaceae). Sweet potatoes are altogether different than yams. They are commonly confused because of some similarities; however, there are clear differences between the two vegetables. Yams are related to the same family as lily flowers. Their skin is typically tougher than a sweet potato, and their flesh ranges in color. It can be purple, red or white. Sweet potatoes have a firmer skin than yams. Although many sweet potatoes have an orange flesh, the colors can also include yellow, purple and even white. Because copper-skinned sweet potatoes look very similar to yams, the two root vegetables are many times mistakenly referred to interchangeably.
When deciding which potato suits your nutritional needs the best, it is important to consider the glycemic index of each vegetable, along with the effects of different cooking methods that affect how the digestive system processes each of these foods. The glycemic index is basically a measure of how the body’s blood sugar is affected by different foods. A glycemic index of 70 or higher denotes a spike in blood sugar. A medium level on the glycemic index is 56-69 and a lower level range is 55 and below. Sweet potatoes have a glycemic index of 44-94; whereas white potatoes have a higher glycemic index of 89-111.

Baking sweet potatoes increases the glycemic index due to the starches gelatinizing during the process. Boiling is a better method of preparing sweet potatoes to reduce the level of glycemic index. The same goes for white potatoes. While sweet potatoes generally have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes, both are rich in many nutrients that are beneficial. Despite the higher glycemic index of white potatoes, there are still many health benefits of including them in your daily meal plan. White potatoes even contain compounds called glycoalkaloids. which have been linked to anti-cancer properties.

The way that each type of potato is prepared makes a significant difference in how the body responds to eating these vegetables. Boiling is always better than baking when trying to limit high glycemic index foods. This is particularly helpful for diabetic individuals who must be continuously aware of their blood-sugar levels. Also, avoiding high fat/high sugar toppings such as marshmallows, excessive butter and sour cream, when adding flavor to your favorite potato dishes, will retain the nutritional value of both sweet and white potatoes.

As the festivities commence this holiday season, enjoy all the dietary benefits of both sweet and white potatoes with a clear conscience knowing that each type of vegetable holds its own as a nutritional powerhouse, when prepared in a healthy way. They are not rivals, but rather, complements to each other, existing for the sole purpose of benefitting your body. Reap the rewards of both sweet and white potatoes for a nutritious start to a great holiday season this year!

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