People are talking about potatoes these days. Not just potatoes, but sweet potatoes, too. This may be because of the ongoing popularity of low-carbohydrate (carb) diets, including the ketogenic diet; potatoes are high in carbs and often avoided. Others on the Paleo diet may embrace them as a substitute for grains. In any case, there are lots of strong opinions about them. Some believe that both should be shunned because of their high carb content, or because they raise blood sugars too quickly. Others relegate sweet potatoes to superfood status, while shunning the homely spud. Whatever your opinion, I hope you will learn something new, and come to your own conclusion about what is best for you.

Nutrient Profile

According to the USDA nutrient database, 100 grams raw sweet potato contains about 86 calories, 1.5 grams protein, no fat, 20 grams carbohydrates, and 3 grams of fiber. One hundred grams white potato contains about 69 calories, 1.7 grams protein, no fat, 16 grams carbohydrates, and 2.4 grams fiber. (These numbers will vary slightly depending on the source.) The numbers are pretty comparable, with the white potato perhaps containing very slightly fewer calories, carbohydrates, and fiber.

Sugars and Starch

But there are differences. The sweet potato contains more than three times the amount of sugars as the white potato, which is why it tastes so sweet. The regular potato, on the other hand, contains about four times the amount of starch as the sweet potato. Starch is not in and of itself a bad thing; when it is in whole food form, such as starchy vegetables, it takes time for the starches to be released from inside the cell walls of the plant. The same goes for sugars when found in whole foods. The potato also contains something called resistant starch, which is a complex starch molecule that is not fully absorbed in the small intestine. Some of it winds up in the large intestine, where it feeds our gut microbes. This is a good thing. Cooked, then cooled, potatoes produce even more resistant starch. Sweet potatoes contain a lot less of this type of beneficial starch.

Glycemic Index

In terms of glycemic index, the white potato usually scores higher; it raises blood sugar faster. However, many factors affect the rate at which a food does this. First, other foods eaten at the same meal, such as proteins, fiber and fats, help modulate the increase in blood sugar. Activity level also plays a role. Our blood sugar response can also vary depending on the time of day, our sleep quantity and quality, our genetics, and our gut bacteria. The type of potato also has an effect: waxy potatoes have less of an effect on blood sugar than fluffy potatoes, for example.

Micronutrients

Both the spud and the sweet potato contain beneficial vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. The sweet potato contains more calcium, vitamin C, and sodium, while the potato contains more potassium, folate, and phosphorous. The sweet potato is a powerhouse of beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, which is seen in its brightly colored orange flesh and skin. The potato pales in comparison, though there are yellow varieties that do contain some. Note that both potatoes and sweet potatoes come in many different shades ranging from white to yellow to orange and purple. Each color provides different phytonutrients, or plant chemicals that have protective effects when we eat them.

In the Kitchen

Cooking, preparation, portions, and variety all matter when determining the health of a food. Wet heat, such as boiling or steaming, creates a lower glycemic effect as compared to dry heat, such as baking or roasting. Preparation also matters. Are you preparing sweet potatoes with marshmallows and maple syrup? Eating French fries or tater tots? How we prepare our food affects the nutrition of that food. Portion control is also important. The ideal amount will vary with each individual’s needs. Variety is also key; vary the colors of your spuds, and rotate them with other starchy vegetables such as squashes, pumpkin and rutabagas, for example.

So which is the best choice? It depends; we are all individuals with unique needs. As seen above, there are many similarities and some differences. Some people may react negatively, while some will thrive eating these foods. While there is no one answer to the question which is healthier, know that they are intrinsically healthy and delicious foods that many can enjoy.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.