Are Sweet Potatoes Healthy? See Why Yams Have Health Benefits for Most People
Reviewed by Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., on May 12, 2022
Sweet potatoes are Paleo and have health benefits for most people. You may have heard that white and yellow potatoes are a no-go on The Paleo Diet®, but sweet potatoes are a completely different vegetable. Sweet potatoes, also known as yams, don’t contain the same harmful compounds that white potatoes do, making them a much healthier substitute for white potatoes. However, sweet potatoes can still be a source of irritation for some, and should be eaten in moderation by those trying to lose weight.
Read on to see how sweet potatoes differ from white potatoes, the science-backed health benefits of eating sweet potatoes, and our favorite ways to enjoy them.
What Are Sweet Potatoes?
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are a sweet, starchy root from South America. They’re available in a variety of colors, including orange, white, and even deep purple.  All varieties of sweet potato are Paleo.
Many cultures value the entire sweet potato plant for its medicinal effects. For example, the Akan tribes of Ghana use the leaves to treat type 2 diabetes, while people of Kagawa, Japan, use the raw flesh to treat diabetes, anemia, and high blood pressure. 
How Sweet Potatoes Are Different from White and Yellow Potatoes
White potatoes contain lectins and saponins, which are harmful anti-nutrients that may increase your intestinal permeability. If consumed regularly, eating white potatoes, beans and legumes, grains, and other foods high in lectins and saponins can increase the risk of autoimmune diseases or flare-ups in those who are genetically predisposed.  Fortunately, sweet potatoes do not contain these compounds!
Plus, white potatoes are nightshade vegetables, which means they contain a class of compounds called alkaloids. While alkaloids are not a problem for most people, they may contribute to low-grade chronic inflammation in those who have a nightshade sensitivity. Unsurprisingly, deep frying white potatoes makes them even less healthy. 
Luckily, it seems that sweet potatoes are an anti-inflammatory food that has the opposite effect. Sweet potatoes actually tend to lower inflammation and improve gut health. 
Six Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are packed full of nutrients. They are rich in antioxidants, vitamin A (beta carotene), vitamin C, minerals, and many other nutrients which can improve eye health, fight inflammation, feed your gut, and more.
Here are some of the best known health benefits of sweet potatoes, according to scientific research.
1. Sweet potatoes can improve your vision.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of beta carotene, the antioxidant precursor to vitamin A. One cup of orange sweet potatoes has over seven times the daily recommended intake! Purple sweet potatoes have added benefits for vision, as they contain an eye-protective antioxidant called anthocyanin. 
2. They promote gut health.
The soluble and insoluble fibers in sweet potatoes help contribute to a healthy gut.  They act as prebiotics, which helps to feed the “friendly” bacteria living in your intestines. When the prebiotics ferment in your gut, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are compounds that nourish the cells of the gut lining. 
The polyphenols in purple sweet potatoes specifically help support the growth of beneficial bacteria, bifidobacterium and lactobacillus species.  A good balance of these species in the gut is associated with a healthy digestive system.
3. Sweet potatoes can boost immunity.
The carotenoids (like beta carotene) in sweet potatoes help the body maintain good levels of vitamin A, which in turn helps support the immune system.  Low levels of this critical vitamin are linked to gut inflammation and a reduced immune response, so be sure to get enough in your diet. 
4. They may help fight cancer.
More research needs to be done, but animal studies are looking promising in determining sweet potatoes as an anti-cancer food.  This is likely because the antioxidants in sweet potatoes help protect DNA from oxidative damage, lowering overall cancer risk. Preliminary studies also suggest that the skins of sweet potatoes contain anti-cancer constituents, so don’t throw them away! 
5. Sweet potatoes are good for cognition.
This is true of purple sweet potatoes in particular! The anthocyanin found in purple sweet potatoes may enhance brain health, as these antioxidant compounds were shown in animal studies to reduce inflammation and free radical damage in the brain.  They also improved learning and memory. 
6. They’re a great recovery food after exercise.
If you’re an athlete or regularly work out, sweet potatoes are great to enjoy post-workout. That’s because they can help replenish muscle glycogen and supply nutrients to heal damaged tissue.
Who Shouldn’t Eat Sweet Potatoes?
There are only a couple of drawbacks to eating sweet potatoes, especially for sensitive people.
For those trying to lose weight, sweet potatoes might need to be limited because they’re a bit high on the glycemic index. However, keep in mind that they are about half that glycemic index in regular potatoes, so swapping white potatoes for sweet potatoes will still do you some good!
If you’re salicylate-intolerant, sweet potatoes should be avoided a bit more stringently. Sweet potatoes are high in salicylate, a natural chemical made by plants to protect them against disease and insects. Some people develop a salicylate intolerance due to gut dysbiosis and immune system dysregulation, meaning sweet potatoes can cause an immune reaction in these people. 
Ways to Eat Sweet Potatoes
Our website includes many delicious, healthy recipes that include sweet potatoes. Here are a few of our favorite recipes for culinary inspiration:
- One-Pan Sweet Potato Hash
- Sweet Potato & Kale Egg Muffins
- Paleo Breakfast Buddha Bowl
- Paleo Breakfast Casserole
Lunch and Dinner:
- Paleo Pad Thai with Chicken & Veggies
- Sheet Pan Pork and Asian Vegetables
- Sheet Pan Flank Steak with Kale and Roasted Sweet Potato
- Vegetable Coconut Curry
- Slow Cooker Beef Brisket
- Sweet Potato Fries
- Fall Roasted Vegetables with Apple Cider Glaze
- Paleo Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Streusel Topping
- Sweet Potato Biscuits
The Bottom Line
Sweet potatoes are Paleo, and for most people, offer many health benefits. They’re high in fiber, vitamins, and other healthy compounds that contribute to eye health, gut health, and more. Purple sweet potatoes come with their own set of benefits, so be sure to grab those when you see them, too. Enjoy all types of sweet potatoes in moderation as part of a healthy diet.
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Betsy does research and writing for a few different websites in the natural health field after taking Masters level courses in Nutrition & Functional Medicine through the University of Western States.More About The Author