Are Sweet Potatoes Paleo? | The Paleo Diet®
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Are Sweet Potatoes Paleo?

By Betsy Schroeder, Contributor
May 13, 2022
Are Sweet Potatoes Paleo? image

Reviewed by Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., on May 12, 2022

Good news: Sweet potatoes are Paleo!

You might have heard that white potatoes are a no-go on The Paleo Diet®, but sweet potatoes are a different story. Thankfully, they don’t contain the same harmful compounds that white potatoes do, making them a much healthier alternative.

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 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 hailing from South America. They’re available in a variety of colors, including orange, white, and even deep purple. [1] All are considered Paleo!

Many cultures value the entire sweet potato plant for their 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. [1]

How sweet potatoes are different from white potatoes

White potatoes contain lectins and saponins, which are harmful anti-nutrients that may increase your intestinal permeability. If consumed regularly, eating potatoes, legumes, grains, and other foods high in lectins and saponins can increase the risk of autoimmune diseases or flares in those who are genetically predisposed. [2] Fortunately, sweet potatoes do not contain these compounds!

Plus, white potatoes are nightshades, which means they contain a class of compounds called alkaloids. While these are not an issue with most people, they may contribute to low-grade chronic inflammation. Unsurprisingly, deep frying the potatoes makes it worse! [3]

Luckily, it seems that sweet potatoes have the opposite effect. They actually tend to lower inflammation and improve gut health. [4]

Six benefits of sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are packed full of nutrients. They are rich in antioxidants, pro-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 benefits of sweet potatoes, according to scientific research.

1. They 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. [5]

2. They promote gut health

The soluble and insoluble fibers in sweet potatoes help contribute to a healthy gut. [6] 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. [7]

The polyphenols in purple sweet potatoes specifically help support the growth of beneficial bacteria, bifidobacterium and lactobacillus species. [8] 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. [9] 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. [10]

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. [11] 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! [12]

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. [13] They also improved learning and memory. [14]

6. They're a great recovery food

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. [15]

How to Eat Sweet Potatoes

There are many ways to enjoy sweet potatoes on The Paleo Diet, and we’ve got a recipe for every meal! Here are a few of our favorite recipes for culinary inspiration:

Breakfast:

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Lunch and Dinner:

Are Sweet Potatoes Paleo? image

Soups:

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Sides:

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Dessert:

Are Sweet Potatoes Paleo? image

The bottom line

Sweet potatoes are Paleo, and for most people, offer more benefits than drawbacks. 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.

References

  1. Mohanraj, R., & Sivasankar, S. (2014). Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas [L.] Lam)--a valuable medicinal food: a review. Journal of medicinal food, 17(7), 733–741.
  1. Vojdani A. (2015). Lectins, agglutinins, and their roles in autoimmune reactivities. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 21 Suppl 1, 46–51.
  1. Iablokov, V., Sydora, B. C., Foshaug, R., et al. (2010). Naturally occurring glycoalkaloids in potatoes aggravate intestinal inflammation in two mouse models of inflammatory bowel disease. Digestive diseases and sciences, 55(11), 3078–3085.
  1. Majid, M., Nasir, B., Zahra, S. S., Khan, M. R., Mirza, B., & Haq, I. U. (2018). Ipomoea batatas L. Lam. ameliorates acute and chronic inflammations by suppressing inflammatory mediators, a comprehensive exploration using in vitro and in vivo models. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 18(1), 216.
  1. Sun, M., Lu, X., Hao, L., et al. (2015). The influences of purple sweet potato anthocyanin on the growth characteristics of human retinal pigment epithelial cells. Food & nutrition research, 59, 27830.
  1. Mei, X., Mu, T. H., & Han, J. J. (2010). Composition and physicochemical properties of dietary fiber extracted from residues of 10 varieties of sweet potato by a sieving method. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 58(12), 7305–7310.
  1. Topping, D. L., & Clifton, P. M. (2001). Short-chain fatty acids and human colonic function: roles of resistant starch and nonstarch polysaccharides. Physiological reviews, 81(3), 1031–1064.
  1. Sun, H., Zhang, P., Zhu, Y., et al. (2018). Antioxidant and prebiotic activity of five peonidin-based anthocyanins extracted from purple sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam.). Scientific reports, 8(1), 5018.
  1. Islam, S. N., Nusrat, T., Begum, P., & Ahsan, M. (2016). Carotenoids and β-carotene in orange fleshed sweet potato: A possible solution to vitamin A deficiency. Food chemistry, 199, 628–631.
  1. Dong, P., Tao, Y., Yang, Y., & Wang, W. (2010). Expression of retinoic acid receptors in intestinal mucosa and the effect of vitamin A on mucosal immunity. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 26(7-8), 740–745.
  1. Li, P. G., Mu, T. H., & Deng, L. (2013). Anticancer effects of sweet potato protein on human colorectal cancer cells. World journal of gastroenterology, 19(21), 3300–3308.
  1. Oluyori, A. P., Shaw, A. K., Olatunji, G. A., et al. (2016). Sweet Potato Peels and Cancer Prevention. Nutrition and cancer, 68(8), 1330–1337.
  1. Shan, Q., Lu, J., Zheng, Y., et al. (2009). Purple sweet potato color ameliorates cognition deficits and attenuates oxidative damage and inflammation in aging mouse brain induced by d-galactose. Journal of biomedicine & biotechnology, 2009, 564737.
  1. Cho, J., Kang, J. S., Long, P. H., et al. (2003). Antioxidant and memory enhancing effects of purple sweet potato anthocyanin and cordyceps mushroom extract. Archives of pharmacal research, 26(10), 821–825.
  1. Baenkler H. W. (2008). Salicylate intolerance: pathophysiology, clinical spectrum, diagnosis and treatment. Deutsches Arzteblatt international, 105(8), 137–142.
Are Potatoes Paleo?
By Loren Cordain, Ph.D.

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