Warm, earthy foods might just be the best part of the autumn season. From PSLs to roasted pumpkin seeds to butternut squash soup, our eats are often just as festive as the changing leaves.
One of our favorite fall foods, though, isn’t exactly what it seems. What many of us think of as yams are actually just sweet potatoes. “The products sold in U.S. supermarkets are sweet potatoes, not yams,” explains Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., co-founder of Appetite for Health. “Yams have a bark-like skin and are more similar to yucca root than a russet potato. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand have an orange, purple, or white skin that is similar in texture to the skin of a russet potato.”
The mix-up began in the 1930s when sweet potato growers in Louisiana named their pickings yams in order to differentiate themselves from North Carolina and California-grown sweet potatoes, she explains. (So, now you can explain to everyone at Thanksgiving that you’re eating sweet potatoes, not yams).
Yam or not, the orange spuds offer a number of health benefits, so dig in! Here are the noteworthy nutrients you’ll get a helping of when you slap a big spoonful of sweet potato mash onto your plate.
1. Vitamin A
Though we often hate on white potatoes, they’re actually pretty similar to sweet potatoes. (They’re both about 100 calories per medium tater.) The main difference? Sweet potatoes provide a ton of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, says Upton. And not only does beta-carotene act as an antioxidant, but vitamin A also helps keep your immune system strong, according to Chelsey Amer, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N.
Men need about 3,000 IUs of vitamin A per day, while women need about 2,300 IUs, and one medium baked sweet potato provides over 500 percent of that. “Because the hefty dose of vitamin A that sweet potatoes provide can help boost your immune system, it’s great to eat sweet potatoes in the colder months, when it is flu and cold season,” she says.
2. Vitamin C
Sweet potatoes also come with the all-important antioxidant vitamin C, which aids in boosting immunity and wound healing. According to Becky Kerkenbush, M.S., RD-AP, C.S.G., C.D., member of the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vitamin C stimulates our white blood cells, which fight bacteria, viruses, and germs, she says. It’s also necessary for collagen formation and helps to maintain the integrity of skin and connective tissue.
You’ll score about a third of the amount of the recommended 90 milligrams of vitamin C per day in a medium sweet potato.
Sweet potatoes also contain potassium, which helps to make sure that nerves and muscles function properly, supports heart health, and maintains our body’s fluid balance.
A medium sweet potato offers about 375 milligrams of potassium, so chowing down will get you well on your way to the recommended daily intake of about 4,700 milligrams.
Getting a healthy dose of fiber keeps you feeling satisfied longer, reduces constipation, and helps lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol, says Kerkenbush. And, bonus: “Fiber-rich foods tend to require more chewing than low-fiber foods, which may lengthen meal time and decrease the amount of food consumed,” she says. That means less post-Thanksgiving discomfort for you!
A medium tater provides about four grams of fiber, which is approximately 15 percent of the recommended daily intake of 25 to 30 grams.
Eat More Orange
As much as we love our marshmallow-topped sweet potato mash, there are plenty of healthier—and just as tasty—ways to enjoy them. Need a lower-sugar option for Thanksgiving? Try Upton’s sweet potato casserole. Looking for healthier game day snacks? Try Amer’s black bean sweet potato burgers or barbecue chicken stuffed sweet potato skins. And yep, you can even eat sweet potatoes for breakfast! Swap out bread for a toasted slice of sweet potato and top it with avocado or sunflower seed butter for a photo-worthy fall breakfast, suggests Amer.