Mauro Ibarra show a sweet potato in the Ocracoke Variety Store.
Mauro Ibarra shows a sweet potato in the Ocracoke Variety Store.

Health & Wellness

By TL Grace West

North Carolina designated the sweet potato as the official state vegetable in 1995, possibly because the state is the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the United States.

Botanically, white potatoes and sweet potatoes are completely unrelated.

White potatoes are in the Solanaceae family, related to tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant along with deadly nightshade. Plants in this family produce solanine, which is poisonous.

So don’t eat the leaves or stems of any plant in this group, or potatoes that have gone green.

Sweet potatoes are in the Convolvulaceae family along with flowering morning glory vines. Unlike white potatoes, you can eat the leaves of sweet potatoes, which are very nutritious.

Despite the terms sweet potato and yam often being used interchangeably, they are not botanically related.

Yams are almost exclusively grown in Africa and are drier and starchy compared to a sweet potato. Today, you are unlikely to find a true yam in the grocery store unless you are shopping in an international market.

Both potatoes are almost all carbohydrates which provide energy.

Many people avoid these nutrient-rich vegetables not understanding that all carbs are not created equal.

Have you noticed how you can be hungry after a serving of French fries, or a piece of sweet potato pie?

In a processed state, all potatoes quickly turn the carbs into sugar.

Boiling, baking or roasting potatoes create a slow-burning carb that fills us up and helps keep our appetite stable.

Both potatoes have similar fiber, which is important for our digestive tract, helping prevent constipation, and they both have similar levels of important vitamins and minerals.

Both add to our feeling good because of levels of vitamin D and trace amounts of naturally occurring temazepam and diazepam (aka Valium) along with L-tyrosine (a precursor to dopamine, one of our “feel-good” neurotransmitters).

Both potatoes contain roughly the same amounts of L-tryptophan, the raw materials for serotonin, another feel-good neurotransmitter.

Take advantage of the lift potatoes can provide in winter to help ward off the feeling blue state called SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

Sweet potatoes have fewer calories, and much more vitamin A (400 percent of our daily needs). Beta carotene gives sweet potatoes their orange color and is converted to vitamin A, which helps strengthen our eyesight and boost our immune system.  

Sweet potatoes also have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes, which means do not cause a quick spike in blood sugar.

Foods with lower glycemic indexes make you feel full longer. 

To incorporate more sweet potatoes into your diet:

Choose sweet potatoes that are firm and do not have any cracks, bruises or soft spots. Avoid those that are displayed in the refrigerated section of the produce department since cold temperature negatively alters their taste.

Store sweet potatoes in a cool, dark and well-ventilated place, where they will keep fresh for up to 10 days. Best to keep your sweet potatoes loose (not in a plastic bag), but a brown paper bag with air holes will work.

If you purchase organically-grown sweet potatoes, you can eat the entire tuber for even more fiber. If you buy conventionally grown ones, you should peel them before eating since sometimes the skin is treated with dye or wax. If preparing sweet potatoes whole, peel them after cooking.

The fastest way to prepare a sweet potato is in the microwave. Prick the potato with a fork and then microwave on high until soft. Make sure to let it cool for several minutes, and then drizzle with olive oil or top with fat-free, plain Greek yogurt.

To add a little spice without extra calories, try sprinkling on cinnamon, cumin or curry powder.

Try adding roasted sweet potatoes and pecans to a salad and top with balsamic vinegar. You also can try adding sweet potatoes to your favorite pancakes or hash browns.

Sweet potatoes are very versatile. You can use them in stir fries, or boil, mash, bake or steam them.

Their natural sweetness can satisfy a sweet tooth as well as provide good nutrition.

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Terrilynn Grace West lives, gardens and works on   Oc­racoke providing warm water massage therapy.



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