Few foods are as versatile as they are nutritious, but the humble sweet potato is one exception. Whether it's served as a side, tossed on a salad or blended into a soup, the orange-fleshed root vegetable delivers substantial amounts of vitamins A, C and B-6, potassium, iron and dietary fiber.
But how you prepare and enjoy sweet potatoes can actually affect the nutrients they bring to your plate. We've sorted through the science to share with you all of the ways you can get the most bang for your buck from this delicious tuber.
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1. Cook It Any Way You Like
This advice may go against what you've heard in the past (i.e. don't boil sweet potatoes), but in fact, when it comes to retaining the nutrients, it doesn't matter if you roast, bake, steam or boil this veggie.
Sweet potatoes are loaded with different phytonutrients, or compounds produced by plants that have healthy benefits for humans — from phenols to carotenoids and antioxidants. Different methods of cooking have varying effects on these nutrients, according to September 2015 research in Food Science and Human Wellness. For instance, steaming helped preserve the phenolic compounds, while boiling was better for retaining the carotenoids, and roasting, the anthocyanins.
If you want to take it a step further, cooking the root vegetable with the skin on helps to retain the carotenoids and vitamin C contents, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
2. Eat the Whole Thing, Skin and All
Much likes apples, regular white potatoes, pistachios and even kiwis, the skin of a sweet potato is loaded with nutrients, and by removing it, you're not only creating extra work, you're also removing some of the most nutritious parts of the food.
The sweet potato peel contains a good portion of the vegetable's fiber, vitamin B6, beta-carotene and vitamin A, which are much of what make this food so good for you. Fiber helps to keep us regular, manage cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and it can even help when it comes to trying to lose weight, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And what isn't vitamin B6 good for? Per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), vitamin B6 helps with carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism, and it even supports our immune system.
Beta-carotene gives foods their orange color and is actually an antioxidant that is converted into vitamin A. Vitamin A also supports our immune system, as well as our vision, according to the NIH.
3. Add a Small Amount of Fat
Have you ever heard of fat-soluble vitamins? Well there are four of them — vitamins A, D, E and K — and sweet potatoes are rich in one of them, vitamin A. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eating a little fat, such as olive oil, coconut oil or grass-fed butter with foods rich in fat-soluble vitamins but naturally low in fat, like the humble sweet potato, helps you to better absorb those nutrients.
By adding a small amount of fat to the potato, or even enjoying it as part of a dish with other fats included, you'll increase the amount of vitamin A and carotenoids absorbed by your body.
4. Go Easy on the Added Sugar
The holiday season often includes sweet potato pies and casseroles, sometimes loaded with brown sugar or marshmallows. We get it — the holidays are a time to celebrate, and so you should.
But the sugar content can add up fast, so remember to be mindful of portions when it comes to these dessert-like dishes. Or try one of these healthier versions instead:
5. Enjoy Leftovers
Leftovers really might be better the next day — better for you, that is. It turns out, allowing sweet potatoes (or any other starchy food, like rice, pasta or white potatoes) to cool down after cooking increases the amount of resistant starch. In fact, November 2013 research published in Advances in Nutrition found that cooking potatoes and then allowing them to cool increased the amount of resistant starch by about 50 percent.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, resistant starch feeds the good bacteria in your gut, can help quell your appetite, helps manage blood sugars and promotes regularity, among other benefits.
- Food Science and Human Wellness: "Profiles of Phenolics, Carotenoids and Antioxidative Capacities of Thermal Processed White, Yellow, Orange and Purple Sweet Potatoes Grown in Guilin, China"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Sweet Potatoes"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Resistant Starch: Promise for Improving Human Health"
- Johns Hopkins: "Resistant Starch"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin B6"
- Center for Disease Control: "Fat-Soluble Vitamins and Nutrients"
- National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin A"