What do the ancient Peruvians, Christopher Columbus, King Henry VII, you, and I all have in common? Sweet potatoes. That’s right – this ancient tuber was reportedly enjoyed by the notorious king, accompanied the early explorer to the New World, and graces the dining table of almost every household. In fact, sweet potatoes are so popular, agricultural production results in over 11 billion kilograms of sweet potatoes in circulation each year.
With so many sweet potatoes around the globe, it’s likely that this sweet, antioxidant-rich vegetable is easy to find on any supermarket shelf and likely to be a mainstay on your table. But aside from the traditional, possibly fat- and sugar-laden dishes that many of us dive into this time of year, the sweet potato can be prepared in a number of healthy ways. And with all of the health benefits this veggie offers, the sweet potato really should grace your plate more than a few times a year. Read on to learn a few of the ways to turn this nutritional powerhouse into something delicious – and a few reasons why this simple, ancient food can boost your health and performance.
Like another favourite, pumpkin, sweet potatoes are simply packed with Vitamin A, the fat-soluble vitamin that leads to better eyesight (deficiency is the leading cause of non-accidental blindness) and better immune function. Because Vitamin A deficiency is associated with decreased resistance to infection, a diet devoid of this vitamin (and other vital antioxidants) can easily sideline training. And if you’re in training for a marathon, it’s likely that your heavy mileage has put you at risk for supressed immune function, which can lead to upper respiratory tract infections. Lucky for you, a medium-sized baked sweet potato can supply you with over 100 percent (or more) of your daily need.
Just by looking at a bright orange sweet potato you know it must be chock-full of beta-carotene, a carotenoid precursor to Vitamin A. Beta-carotene helps to protect your skin from sun damage by deflecting and repairing cell damage caused by excessive UV exposure. Along with Vitamin A, beta-carotene is critical for eye health and has been linked to prevention of vision loss and macular degeneration. But don’t worry too much about where to find beta-carotene. When Vitamin A is listed on the nutrient panel, it includes beta-carotene. Like the fat-soluble vitamin A, you need just a little bit of fat (3-5 grams) in your meal to help you best absorb this nutrient. Luckily, it’s not hard to convince many runners to top their mashed sweet potatoes with a bit of heart-healthy margarine or chopped nuts.
You know you need them to fuel your workout and long runs, but did you know that plain, mashed sweet potatoes make an excellent mid-run fuel? Simply peel and boil a medium sweet potato. Mash it and place it in a zipper storage bag. When you start to need fuel (and your taste buds simply can’t take another gel or block or bean), tear off a corner of the bag and squeeze. A cup of mashed sweet potato contains 58 grams of carbohydrates, which will easily fuel you for an hour. Like gels, don’t forget to chase with water!
Running is known to increase oxidative stress and free radicals, which over time can lead to damaged cells, tissues and organs. Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, naturally fights against oxidative stress and the free radicals it creates. While Vitamin C might not prevent your next cold, it has been found to shorten the duration. And while you may have taken supplements in the past, most experts agree it’s best to get this antioxidant from real food.
While you don’t hear much about manganese, this trace mineral offers some powerful health benefits. It is involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates, thereby supporting healthy blood sugar levels. It also plays a role in bone metabolism (i.e. bone health). Manganese is commonly found in nuts and legumes; sweet potatoes are another great source of this nutrient.
It’s easy to prepare sweet potatoes, whether you’re entertaining a large crowd or sitting down for a simple weeknight supper. You can mash them and keep them plain, make a fancy sweet potato casserole with a topping of chopped nuts and spices, puree them and create a hummus-type dip, simply boil them, open up a can of candied sweet potato, or my personal favourite, turn them into homemade baked fries. And since you’re baking them at home and keeping the peel on for extra fibre, you can easily indulge in fries without, for once, feeling like you’re derailing your diet!