Sweet Potatoes and Yams ---Top 7
Health Benefits

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August 23, 2014

By Nels Seifert, Contributing Columnist

[Health and fitness articles are reviewed by our team of Doctors and
Registered Nurses, Certified fitness professionals and other members
of our Editorial Board]

Sweet potatoes and yams --- what’s the difference, where
do they come from and how healthy are they?

You can normally find “candied yams” on dinner tables
across North America at every holiday meal, especially at
Thanksgiving. But what you might call a “yam,” is really a
sweet potato in disguise.

Furthermore, it is quite possible that you have never
actually consumed a yam, unless you frequent markets
boasting international food staples.

The yam is not easily found in the United States or Europe.
It is even rare to find yams in  most other countries where
many people might think they are grown.

In many cases, the word "yam" is just a classification
overly used by the USDA to describe a specific type of
orange colored sweet potato you will commonly find at
your local super market.

Let’s begin with yams!

Yams are from the dioscoreaceae family of potato and are
native food staples in Africa, Asia, and most tropical regions
of the world.

The word “yam” is derived from a word in the African
language “nyami,” meaning “to eat,” and is one of the
most important foods for some African cultures, because
yams will keep for long periods, a sustainable subsistence

Yams come in many varieties, shapes, and colors (white,
purple, orange) and can also grow to be quiet large with
rough, stringy skin.

The yam’s lineage can be traced back to around 50,000 BC,
has a long growing period, 6 months to a year, and is
imported mainly from the Caribbean. A more detailed,
scientific comparison is noted in a study conducted by
Jonathan Schultheis and George Wilson at North Carolina
University, What is the Difference Between a Sweet Potato
and Yam (1998)?

Sweet Potato in a Yam disguise

The sweet potato is scientifically referred to as "Ipomoea
Batatas", produced at an annual rate of 1.2 billion pounds
in North America, 45 million pounds in Europe, mainly
Portugal, and 4 billion pounds in Latin America, its
prehistoric birthplace.

In the United States there are 2 main types of sweet
potatoes, the golden, yellowish potato and stereotypical
orange colored potato, also known as the “yam,” per USDA
labeling guidelines.

The sweet potato originated in the Andean regions of Peru
and Ecuador, later traded, sailed across the vast oceans,
then planted and cultivated in regions around the world,
becoming one of the world’s biggest food staples.

The sweet potato also has a shorter growing season than
the yam, about 3 to 6 months. A study conducted by Dr.
Benjamin Bovell at the Department of Food and Nutritional
Sciences, Tuskegee University (2007), noted that “early
records have indicated that the sweet potato is a staple
food source for many indigenous populations in Central
and South Americas, Ryukyu Island, Africa, the Caribbean,
the Maori people, Hawaiians, and Papua New Guineans.”

So what’s the nutritional difference?

When comparing sweet potatoes to yams, there are not too
many large differences.

The yam has fewer calories per ounce, with 150 calories
compared to the sweet potatoes 200 calories, per 8 ounce

However, the sweet potato outweighs the yam in protein,
(5 grams to 2 grams), in carbs (45 grams to 40 grams), in
fiber (7.5 grams to 5 grams), and Vitamin A content.

Vitamin A is a "super vitamin". In addition to helping you
see in the dark, Vitamin A is essential for healthy skin, teeth
and  bones. (Read more about the
importance of Vitamin

Sweet potatoes contain  270% of the daily recommended
value (DV) of your vitamin A . By contrast, you only get
1% of the DV offered from yams.

Other than those differences, yams and sweet potatoes are
relatively the same, despite coming from a different family.

They are like distant cousins that offer nutritional elements
like Vitamin C, Thiamine, and Vitamin B6 to help you
maintain the recommended DV of vitamins, minerals,
protein, and carbs for your busy schedule.

The Importance of the Sweet Potato

The sweet potato is more prevalent than the yam, as
African and Asian countries, the home field of the yam,
produce more and more sweet potatoes each year.

The sweet potato is not only a nutritious, important food
staple that offers year round subsistence, but it is also a
cultural tool used in negotiating life and upholding
traditions. The Dani Tribe in Western New Guinea utilize
sweet potatoes as a way to mark classes --- the more you
have, the more power you possess. This tribe even offers
sweet potatoes as dowries and ritual offerings.

Here are the top 7 health benefits of sweet potatoes:

Lower Your Cancer Risk

Sweet potatoes contain high levels of carotenoids like beta
carotene, vitamin A (retinoids), strong anti-oxidants that
have been studied extensively and found to give your
immune system more strength as well as protecting you
from cancer via the anti-oxidant processes.

The bright orange color associated with sweet potatoes
and carrots indicates the presence of  beta carotene, a key
nutrient in the fight against cancer.

A study conducted by Dr. Nishino at the Graduate School of
Medical Science, Kyoto, Japan, Cancer Prevention and
Antioxidants (2004), outlines the effectiveness of
carotenoids in cancer prevention. The study noted,
“Combinational use of various kinds of antioxidants
distributed in foods, e.g., mixture of carotenoids and
flavonoids, seems to be effective methods for cancer

Boost Your Immune System

You can find a good amount of iron in your sweet potatoes,
a mineral that is important for our daily energy,
metabolism, and immune function.

Research in 2010 on sweet potatoes conducted by Dr.
Johnson and Dr. Pace at the Department of Food and
Nutritional Sciences, Tuskegee University, concluded that
“bioactive compounds contained in this vegetable play a
role in health promotion by improving immune function,
reducing oxidative stress and free radical damage, reducing
cardiovascular disease risk, and suppressing cancer cell

Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease

Coronary heart disease is an increasing problem in the
world, especially in North America, with nutrition taking the
back seat to fast food and improper knowledge about what
people consume and think is healthy.

Sweet potatoes can give you a healthy dose of vitamin B6,
a great way to help prevent heart attacks and decrease
homocysteine in your body, a chemical that has been linked
to diseases and multiple health problems such as heart
attacks and heart disease.

Sweet potatoes contain .57 mg per 200 g serving, 34% of
your daily value (DV). A 2008 study at the Harvard School
of Public Health, entitled "Folate and Vitamin B6 from Diet
and Supplements in relation to Risk of Coronary Heart
Disease Among Women", conducted by Dr. E.B. Rimm and
colleagues, found that folate and vitamin B6 can be a key
factor in the prevention of coronary heart disease (CHD),
especially among women.

Better Kidney and Heart Function

Sweet potatoes are a good source of potassium and
provide about 950 mg, per 200 g, 27% of the daily
recommended value (DV). Potassium is an important
electrolyte associated with healthy kidney and heart
function as well as lower
blood pressure.

Keeping a balanced potassium level is important for good
cardiovascular function, lowering blood pressure, renal
function, diabetes, and heart function in patients with
ischaemic heart disease.

In a 2008 study from Dr. He and Dr. MacGregor at the
University of London, they discussed the multiple health
benefits associated with potassium. The study noted, “The
best way to increase potassium intake is to increase the
consumption of fruits and vegetables.”

Sweet potatoes are one of the best, tastiest sources of

Better Memory

Not all sweet potatoes are orange. The purple sweet potato
has been found to have special antioxidant compounds that
actually improve your memory, according to a 2003 study
from Korea. This study, from Chungnam National
University, found that anthocyanins in sweet potatoes
exhibited "memory enhancing effects".

Protect your Skin and Look Younger

Sweet potatoes are high in vitamin C, providing 39 mg per
200 g, providing 52% of your vitamin C daily value (DV),
an amazing benefit for those who consume sweet potatoes

Vitamin C can help prevent or improve recovery time from
common colds, the flu, and other acute health problems.

Vitamin C has been noted to be one of the most beneficial
and safest vitamin supplements to take and it not only
protects you, but can also help improve your skin, a
collagen producer that may help you keep your youthful
beauty for longer, according to a 2004 study from Dr.
Lorencini and colleagues at the Universidade Estadual de
Campinas (UNICAMP), Department of Genetics and
Molecular Biology in Brazil.

As the scientists concluded “vitamin C, for example,
improve solar radiation protection and epidermal
antioxidant activity.”

Lose Weight and Stay Slim

High fiber foods that have a low glycemic index (GI) can
help you lose weight and stay slim since healthy fiber
promotes healthy digestion and appetite suppression.

The low glycemic index (GI) value of sweet potatoes will
also help balance increases in blood sugar after eating, a
benefit relating to energy production and fat burning. A
healthy high fiber diet and balanced blood sugar can give
you more energy and prevent weight gain, which will lower
your risk for developing diabetes.

The key nutrient in sweet potatoes that improves your
diabetic profile is fiber. A 2009 study by Dr. James
Anderson and colleagues at the University of Kentucky,
Health Benefits of Dietary Fiber (2009) discusses the
positive effects fiber can have on your health. The study
concluded that, “individuals with high intakes of dietary
fiber appear to be at significantly lower risk for developing
coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes,
obesity, and certain gastrointestinal diseases.”

Fiber improves glycemic control and insulin sensitivity while
promoting weight loss in obese individuals, another great,
natural aspect of sweet potatoes that can benefit your


Sweet Potatoes Help Keep Your Thyroid Healthy

Sweet potatoes are rich in manganese, an element critical
to a healthy thyroid.

A single serving of sweet potatoes contains .99 mg of
manganese per serving size of 200 grams, which gives you
approximately 50% of your daily recommended value (DV).

Manganese is crucial for many things, including better
organ function, metabolism control, and plays a crucial role
in thyroid function, an essential part of your body’s ability
to feel good, according to a 2007 study by Dr. Soldin and
Dr. Aschner from the Departments of Oncology and
Medicine, The Center for Study of Sex Differences,
Georgetown University Medical Center.

Why should you care?  An unhappy thyroid can cause
fatigue, dry skin, cold chills, and weight gain.

To sum up, sweet potatoes and yams have very similar
nutritional values, but yams can often be found only in
international food stores or Caribbean influenced markets.
Regardless of whether you have yams or sweet potatoes
on your table on the holidays or in your weekly diet, the
benefits of them are undeniably positive in many ways.  


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Sweet potatoes have one of the highest
concentrations of Vitamin A and
anti-oxidants, which lower your risk for