Carbs have been criticized over the last couple of years. And while eating too many refined, highly processed carbs (which can cause quick blood sugar and insulin surges and crashes) isn't good for you, other types of carbs can likely lengthen your lifespan.
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Indeed, healthy complex carbs (which are digested more slowly) can not only help with weight management in the short term (if that's your goal) but also promote overall health in the long term.
One food high in complex carbs in particular — sweet potatoes — stands above the rest when it comes to healthy aging. Here, experts share why starchy sweet potatoes are linked to longevity and offer tips on the best ways to cook them for the most benefits.
Why You Should Eat Sweet Potatoes for Longevity
1. They Promote Eye Health
Sweet potatoes have some sweet perks for your peepers. Like carrots, these tubers tout beta-carotene, a plant pigment that gives them their bright-orange hue.
Beta-carotene is used by the body to make vitamin A, an antioxidant that fights free radicals and repairs eye damage, says Jennifer Bruning, RDN, a dietitian with expertise in nutrition for older adults and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
While preserving eye health is essential at every stage of life, it's particularly pivotal for older adults because as you age, you have a higher risk for certain eye diseases, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
2. They're Good for Your Gut
Piling your plate with sweet potatoes may be a godsend for gut health.
That's because sweet potatoes provide fiber — especially if you eat the skin. Fiber helps move waste through our bodies in a way that protects the colon (read: a boon for healthy bowel movements), Bruning says.
Problem is, most of us are falling short in the fiber department. "More than 90 percent of Americans are lacking in fiber," Bruning says. That's why getting your fill of fiber is crucial to help prevent constipation, which becomes more common with age.
But fiber's not the only gut-friendly nutrient found in sweet potatoes. Vitamin A is also beneficial to maintaining the gut lining and supporting overall gut health as well, Bruning adds.
3. They Support Your Immune System
Sweet potatoes help foster healthy immune function. This is due mostly to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities, Bruning says.
Among them, as we know, is a bounty of beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A), which plays an important role in protecting the epithelium, a type of body tissue that lines your respiratory tract and intestine and serves as the first line of defense against invading pathogens, according to a September 2018 paper in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.
And, the fiber in sweet potatoes promotes a healthy gut, where most of our immune system is housed, Bruning says.
And as it goes, a strong immune system can help you stave off illness and life a longer life.
4. They Help You Maintain a Healthy Heart
These tasty tubers are terrific for your ticker, too. That's in part because sweet potatoes have more potassium than a banana, says Katie Dodd, RDN, a dietitian who works with older adults.
"Potassium helps with many functions in the body including fluid regulation and blood pressure," she says. And that's important because high blood pressure is linked to a less lengthy lifespan.
What's more, sweet potatoes' high fiber content can also help control cholesterol levels, Bruning says. Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol can hinder healthy aging.
In fact, high cholesterol levels are associated with a greater risk for heart disease and stroke, counted as the top two causes of death among American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you live with diabetes, your doctor might have directed you to limit white potatoes because they have a high glycemic load (i.e., they cause sudden spikes and dips in blood sugar and insulin) and can contribute to (or worsen) health problems like diabetes (as well as obesity and heart disease), per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
But, unlike regular white tubers, you don't need to slash sweet potatoes from your daily menu if you have diabetes. On the contrary, they might even help you manage your condition.
"Despite its name, the 'sweetness' of sweet potatoes doesn't need to frighten people living with diabetes," Bruning says. "The fiber and antioxidants in this powerhouse veg contribute to better glucose control when consumed in reasonable portions as part of a meal," she explains.
That's because the high fiber content helps prevent blood sugar surges and keeps you satiated.
What’s the Best Way to Cook Sweet Potatoes to Retain Their Nutrients?
Now that you know all the wonderful ways that sweet potatoes can support your lifespan, the last thing you want to do is unintentionally squander the benefits by overcooking these root veggies.
Overcooking sweet potatoes can lessen their beta-carotene levels. To retain the bulk of beta-carotene, follow these cooking tips:
- Keep the peel: Cooking sweet potatoes with the skin helps you hold onto more beta-carotene, Dodd says.
- Boil instead of bake: Boiling sweet potatoes appears to preserve the most beta-carotene compared to other cooking methods, Bruning says.
- Cut cooking time short: Limiting cooking time will lessen the loss of nutrients, Dodd says.
- Pair with a healthy fat: Eating sweet potatoes with a source of healthy fat can further enhance the absorption of nutrients like beta-carotene, Bruning says.
But if you prefer your sweet potatoes baked, don't fret too much. "Keep in mind that since sweet potato is so high in beta-carotene, some can be lost during cooking, and there will still be plenty left for your body to utilize," Bruning says.
"You also absorb more of it from cooked plants than raw, so eating cooked sweet potato is likely to be healthier anyway," she adds.
- Food and Nutrition Research: “The influences of purple sweet potato anthocyanin on the growth characteristics of human retinal pigment epithelial cells”
- American Academy of Ophthalmology: “20 Ways Aging Changes Your Eyes”
- Journal of Clinical Medicine: “Role of Vitamin A in the Immune System”
- Nutrition and Cancer: “Sweet Potato Peels and Cancer Prevention”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “The problem with potatoes”