Carbohydrates have been criticized over the past couple of years. And while eating too many refined and highly processed carbs (which can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin) isn’t good for you, other types of carbs can probably extend your lifespan.
That’s because healthy complex carbs (which are digested more slowly) can not only help with short-term weight management (if that’s your goal), but also support overall long-term health.
One complex-carb-rich food in particular — sweet potatoes — stands out from the crowd when it comes to healthy aging. Here, experts explain why starchy sweet potatoes are linked to longevity and offer tips on the best ways to cook them for the most benefit.
Why You Should Eat Sweet Potatoes for Longevity
1. They promote eye health
Sweet potatoes have sweet benefits for your peepers. Like carrots, these tubers boast beta-carotene, a plant pigment that gives them their bright orange hue.
Beta-carotene is used by the body to make vitamin A, an antioxidant that fights free radicals and repairs eye damage, says Jennifer Bruning, RDN, registered dietitian specializing in nutrition for the elderly and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
While maintaining eye health is essential at every stage of life, it’s especially crucial for older adults because as you age, you’re at higher risk for certain eye diseases, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
2. They’re good for your gut
Filling your plate with sweet potatoes can be a boon for gut health.
This is because sweet potatoes provide fiber, especially if you eat the skin. Fiber helps move waste through our bodies in a way that protects the colon (read: a boon to healthy bowel movements), says Bruning.
The problem is that most of us fall short in the fiber department. “Over 90 percent of Americans lack fiber,” says Bruning. That’s why getting plenty of fiber is essential to help prevent constipation, which becomes more common with age.
But fiber isn’t the only gut-friendly nutrient found in sweet potatoes. Vitamin A is also beneficial for maintaining the intestinal lining and for overall gut health, Bruning adds.
3. They support your immune system
Sweet potatoes help support healthy immune function. This is primarily due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities, says Bruning.
Among them, as we know, is an abundance of beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A), which plays an important role in protecting the epithelium, a type of body tissue that lines the airways and stomach. gut and serves as the first line of defense against invading pathogens, according to a September 2018 article in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.
And, the fiber in sweet potatoes promotes a healthy gut, where most of our immune system is located, says Bruning.
And over time, a strong immune system can help you stave off disease and live longer.
4. They help you maintain a healthy heart
These tasty tubers are also great for your ticker. That’s partly because sweet potatoes contain more potassium than a banana, says Katie Dodd, RDN, a registered dietitian who works with seniors.
“Potassium helps with many functions in the body, including fluid regulation and blood pressure,” she says. And that’s important because high blood pressure is linked to a shorter lifespan.
Plus, the high fiber content of sweet potatoes may also help control cholesterol levels, says Bruning. Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol can hinder healthy aging.
In fact, high cholesterol levels are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, considered the two leading causes of death in American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
5. They are linked to diabetes management
If you have diabetes, your doctor may have advised you to limit white potatoes because they have a high glycemic load (i.e. they cause sudden spikes and drops in blood sugar and insulin) and can contribute to (or aggravate) health problems such as diabetes. (as well as obesity and heart disease), according to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
But, unlike regular white tubers, you don’t need to cut sweet potatoes from your daily menu if you have diabetes. On the contrary, they might even help you manage your condition.
“Despite the name, the ‘sweetness’ of sweet potatoes needn’t scare people with diabetes,” says Bruning. “The fiber and antioxidants in this powerhouse vegetable contribute to better blood sugar control when eaten in sensible portions as part of a meal,” she explains.
This is because the high fiber content helps prevent blood sugar spikes and keeps you full.
What’s the best way to cook sweet potatoes to retain their nutrients?
Now that you know all the wonderful ways sweet potatoes can support your lifespan, the last thing you want to do is unintentionally waste the benefits by overcooking these root vegetables.
Overcooking sweet potatoes can lower their beta-carotene levels. To retain most of the beta-carotene, follow these cooking tips:
- keep the skin: Cooking sweet potatoes with the skin on helps you retain more beta-carotene, says Dodd.
- Boil instead of cook: Boiling sweet potatoes seems to retain the most beta-carotene compared to other cooking methods, says Bruning.
- Reduce cooking time: Limiting cooking time will reduce nutrient loss, says Dodd.
- Pair it with a healthy fat: Eating sweet potatoes with a source of healthy fat can further improve the absorption of nutrients like beta-carotene, says Bruning.
But if you prefer your sweet potatoes cooked, don’t worry too much. “Keep in mind that since the sweet potato is so high in beta-carotene, some may be lost during cooking, and there will still be plenty left for your body to use,” says Bruning.
“You also absorb more from cooked plants than raw, so eating cooked sweet potato is probably healthier anyway,” she adds.