Whether you prefer them roasted, mashed or baked into a marshmallow-topped pie, sweet potatoes are a staple in many of our diets — especially during the holiday season. The orange spuds have a mildly sweet and nutty flavor that pairs well with savory dishes and desserts alike. The best part: A sweet potato brims with nutrients that deliver powerful gut health benefits for women with every delicious bite.
What makes sweet potatoes so healthy
Native to Central and South America, sweet potatoes are a starchy root vegetable on the rise. The USDA reports that sweet potato consumption increased by nearly 42% between 2000 and 2016 alone. Part of the reason for this uptick in popularity is that more women are discovering the health benefits of humble sweet potato, including its ability to nourish your gut.
While most of us are familiar with spuds that have bright orange flesh, sweet potatoes can also be purple. This variety of sweet potato tends to be starchier and slightly less sweet (though equally as tasty!). No matter which you prefer, sweet potatoes are a smart pick over the more common white and red potatoes.
“Sweet potatoes are incredibly rich in vitamins A, C and B, and they’re loaded with polyphenols,” explains Steven Gundry, MD, author of the upcoming Gut Check and founder of Gundry MD. These vitamins are crucial for everything from keeping your sight sharp to bolstering your immunity.
“While the polyphenols vary depending on the color of the potato, the typical orange ones have lots of healthy carotenoids, essential for immune and eye health and more,” adds Felice Gersh, MD, Medical Director at the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine. Additionally, sweet potatoes have more fiber and potassium — plus fewer calories — than white potatoes, Dr. Gersh notes.
Sweet potato gut health benefits for women
For women bothered by bouts of gas, bloating or GI upset, sweet potatoes can help. “They are a tremendous source of nutrition not only for you, but also your microbiome,” Dr. Gundry says. Your gut is made up of various microbes and bacteria that, when in balance, aid in the breakdown of nutrients and improve digestion — they even shore up your immunity. But when this balance is disrupted (blame stress, lack of sleep or a course of antibiotics), it can trigger digestive upset.
“What makes sweet potatoes especially great is that they aren’t a regular carbohydrate but are a type of resistant starch,” Dr. Gundry explains. “This means they act as a soluble fiber in your system, ‘resisting’ quick digestion and not immediately converting into glucose.” So you don’t have to worry about a spike your blood sugar or insulin levels. “Instead, they make it past your small intestine and into your large intestine mostly intact. There, they are fermented as prebiotics and feed the good bacteria in your gut,” Dr. Gundry notes.
When you eat resistant starch, your beneficial gut microbes (or “gut buddies”) multiply. They also produce large amounts of beneficial short-chain fatty acids such as acetic acid, propionate, and butyrate. “Resistant starches like sweet potatoes increase your gut buddy population and diversity, enhance digestion and nutrient absorption, and foster the growth of the gut buddies that nurture the lining of our gut,” says Dr. Gundry.
Proof of sweet potatoes’ gut healing power: A study in Nutrients found that folks who increased their soluble fiber intake bolstered the strength of their intestinal lining by 90% within 6 months. Gut bacteria feed on fiber to produce butyrate, a fatty acid that nourishes intestinal cells. That’s key, since a strong gut lining does more than just foster a healthy microbiome. It also wards off leaky gut, a condition in which the lining of the intestines weakens and leaks toxins into the bloodstream. This causes inflammation that leads to fatigue and brain fog. (Click through to discover leaky gut swaps that improve your health.)
3 more sweet potato health benefits for women
Aside from aiding digestion, regularly enjoying a sweet potato can deliver head-to-toe health benefits for women. Here are a few ways the tasty tuber can help.
1. Sweet potatoes aid weight loss
When you think of diet-friendly foods, potatoes likely aren’t top of mind. “Many would think that the carbs of sweet potatoes would promote weight gain,” Dr. Gersh explains. “But they have complex carbohydrates, which are entirely different from the simple ones of sweets and processed foods.”
Simple carbohydrates found in foods like sugar and white pasta are rapidly broken down to send a quick burst of energy into the bloodstream, increasing your blood sugar levels. Complex carbs, which are found in foods like sweet potatoes and whole oats, supply slow and steady energy without spiking your sugar levels. “They help maintain healthy insulin and glucose levels and proper appetite regulation and to attain and maintain a healthy weight,” Dr. Gersh notes.
Plus, sweet potatoes’ fiber keeps you feeling fulling longer, thwarting diet-railing hunger pangs. In fact, a study in Nutrients found that when people added more sweet potatoes to their diet, they lost 5% of their body weight in 8 weeks. That translates to nearly 9 lbs. for a 170 lb. woman.
2. Sweet potatoes sharpen sight
Carrots may get all the credit when it comes to sharpening your sight. But sweet potatoes play an important role in protecting your vision, too. “One sweet potato will give you a full daily dose of vitamin A, which helps with eyesight,” says Dr. Gundry.
The nutrient acts an antioxidant, shielding the eye against oxidative stress that can hamper vision. What’s more, vitamin A helps your eye produce pigments that help you see the full spectrum of light. This wards off common vision issues such as night blindness, or difficulty seeing in low light.
But perhaps vitamin A is most beneficial when it comes to warding off dry eye. This common condition can lead to redness, irritation and blurry vision. A study in the journal Ophthalmology found that vitamin A, which is best absorbed through diet rather than supplements, worked 10 times better at relieving dry eye symptoms than a placebo. (Click through to see more ways to soothe dry eye and improve your vision in 7 days).
3. Sweet potatoes lower blood pressure
If you’ve been told your blood pressure numbers have been creeping up lately, sweet potatoes can help. They contain two key nutrients — potassium and vitamin B6 — that keep your BP in a healthy range.
Potassium relaxes and widens blood vessels to take strain off your ticker, plus it helps counteract excess sodium in your body that can elevate your blood pressure. In a review of studies published in BMJ, researchers found that when folks increased their potassium intake, their systolic (top number) blood pressure dropped up to 7 points and their diastolic (bottom number) dropped up to 4 points.
And the benefit is only enhanced by the addition of vitamin B6 in sweet potatoes. A study in Alternative and Complimentary Therapies suggests that an increased intake of B6 can lower systolic BP by as much 14 points and diastolic BP by up to 10 points within 4 weeks. The researchers say B6 works in a similar way as central alpha agonists, diuretics and calcium channel blockers. (Click through for more blood pressure hacks that keep your numbers in check and to find out how sweet potatoes can heal your adrenals to boost energy.)
How to maximize sweet potato health benefits for women
Ready to tap into the healing powers of sweet potatoes? Women can boost the health benefits by first selecting a top-notch sweet potato at the supermarket. Dr. Gersh advises looking for a dark variety of sweet potato, since it has a higher amount of beneficial carotenoids. She also suggests avoiding sweet potatoes that are wrinkly, soft or have green discoloring. These can be signs the tuber is past its prime.
To maximize their shelf life, Dr. Gersh suggests storing sweet potatoes in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place (not a plastic bag or your fridge) and eating them within 10 days. “Most of the time I simply bake them until they’re soft and sweet,” Dr. Gersh says. “To me, they’re delicious and perfect with any meal.”
Dr. Gundry loves to make sweet potato fries and chips on a baking sheet or in an air fryer. However you enjoy the spuds, Dr. Gundry says there’s one cooking tip that can make a big difference. “It’s important when using sweet potatoes that you cook them, cool them, and then reheat them,” he notes. “This is the best way to unlock the most resistant starch possible.” Tip: That means sweet potatoes an ideal make-ahead dish for busy days! (Click through for a quick and easy sweet potato hash browns recipe.)
Finally, moderation is key. Enjoying sweet potatoes one to three times a week is the nutritional “sweet spot”. “Like any starch, you can overdo the amount you eat,” Dr. Gundry says. “I personally enjoy them as a weekend treat.”
For more ways to heal your gut and improve your health:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.