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Sweet Potato the Healthiest Potato

The potato, being low in cholesterol and saturated fat, is considered by many nutritionists to be good for our heart health. But as we all know, things are never that simple. What if you were told that this common place dinner vegetable is increasing cardiovascular disease for most of us?

In the US, potatoes are usually consumed in the fried, roasted, baked, mashed and microwaved form. And all these forms, despite being defined as complex carbohydrates, are characterised by a high glycemic index (a measure of how high our blood sugar levels increase after consumption). High glycemic index carbs raise our levels of the highly atherogenic small particle LDL cholesterol as well as increasing triglycerides, a recognized risk factor for heart disease. They do not look like the ingredients we want for heart health. Hence, it is hardly surprising that high glycemic index carbohydrates are associated with increased incidence of coronary events such as heart attacks. Compare this with the real heart healthy whole-grains, which do not negatively affect our lipid profiles, thus being seemingly cardio protective.

And the story does not stop there. These high glycemic index carbohydrates are also associated with diabetes. In women, just one serving of potato a day can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 18%. Replace whole-grains in your diet with potatoes and the risk of type 2 diabetes increases to a hefty 30%.

So should that mean we strike the potato resolutely off the menu? Well, probably not. Potatoes are a valuable source of magnesium, potassium, vitamins B and C, which are often low in the diet. Compared to the likes of white rice and pasta, this nutritional offering does not appear too bad. But the lesser of two evils is hardly an endorsement. But, if we change our cooking routines from the fried, baked, mashed etc. to boiling and use less mature potato varieties, which is more common practice in Europe than North America, then we remove the potato from the unhealthy high glycemic index range. Include other meal components, such as meat and vegetables, and these sources of protein and fibre will decrease the overall glycemic load of the meal, reducing the potato’s blood sugar raising effects. Another option is allowing potatoes to cool, as in potato salad, which crystallises the starch and lowers the glycemic index.

What is perhaps yet better, though, is to focus our attention on the healthier alternative, the sweet potato. Even with different cooking techniques sweet potatoes present a medium to low glycemic index food source, so the increased risk of heart disease and diabetes doesn’t occur. The fact is that the Japanese have been consuming sweet potatoes for years to reduce their risk of diabetes. They are also rich in nutrients like fibre, beta-carotene, poly-phenols and vitamins B and C. Moreover, they happen to be one of the few low fat foods to naturally provide vitamin E. Their inclusion in the diet appears to be so beneficial that they have been endorsed by bodies as prestigious as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, among others.

Where to Find Related Information: The World’s Healthiest Foods