In your pursuit of healthy eating, you may have heard the advice to “navigate past the white.” If you’re not familiar, the phrase slanders white-colored foods, which, on the surface, might seem like a good idea. After all, white foods, especially those made with refined grains (e.g., white flour), tend to provide less fiber and less nutrients. And of course, there’s the other notorious white “food,” refined sugar, which you’re better off reducing or altogether eliminating. So, it must be good advice.
But does that advice include all white foods? What about cauliflower? How about potatoes? The traditional pale spud is bad news, eh? After all, sweet potatoes, with their rich orange color, must be healthier, right?
Let’s, for a moment, forget their color and take a deeper look at a sweet potato vs potato to discover which is really better for you.
A Matter of Nutrition: Sweet Potato vs Potato
A medium-sized (114 g) baked sweet potato provides:
- Calories: 103
- Fat: 0 g
- Total carbs: 24 g
- Fiber: 4 g
- Sugar: 7 g
- Protein: 2 g
Sweet potatoes are also high in vitamin A (more than 400% of the daily requirement), vitamin C, B vitamins, potassium and manganese. They’re also a great source of beta-carotene and magnesium. And sweet potatoes provide nutrients that help support the body’s battle against inflammation, including vitamin A and anthocyanin.
In comparison, a medium-sized (173 g) baked white (Russet) potato provides:
- Calories: 164
- Fat: 0 g
- Total carbs: 37 g
- Fiber: 4 g
- Sugar: 2 g
- Protein: 4.5 g
They’re also high in vitamins C and B as well as potassium and provide antioxidants like flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acid.
It’s worth noting that there are over 200 varieties of potatoes found in the U.S.—from Russet to red to white to purple—and even more in South America (up to 4,000 types of edible potatoes). The nutritional composition can vary for each variety; for example, the color is often indicative of the types of antioxidants (e.g., polyphenols) the potato contains. And, yes, even white potatoes are packed with powerful polyphenols. Of course, potatoes also come in an assortment of shapes and sizes, so the nutrition facts of your preferred potato may vary.
A History of Potato
In order to establish a baseline in the sweet potato vs potato debate, it is important to understand the history. Potatoes came from South America and were originally cultivated by the Incas in Peru. They were later (much later) introduce to Europeans in 1536 when they were brought back by the Spanish conquistadors. They didn’t gain in popularity until the 1800s, though, because they closely resembled far more deadly nightshades, such as belladonna and mandrake. In fact, like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and a number of other food plants (as well as tobacco), potatoes are part of the nightshade family.
While sweet potatoes also originate from Central South America, they aren’t technically potatoes. Rather, they are part of the morning glory plant family. And there are even more varieties: over 6,500, which can range from orange to purple.
Despite the nutrition facts presented above, potatoes are widely believed to “make you fat” and increase your risk for type 2 diabetes due to their relatively high carb content (and the misperception that they’re high in calories). Yet, the potato itself isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s how potatoes are prepared.
The vast majority of folks consume most of their potatoes as French fries, chips (as in potato chips), or smothered in calorie-dense toppings like cheese, sour cream, and bacon. Yet when they are just baked, broiled, or boiled, potatoes are quite nutrient dense and actually fairly low in calorie density. More simply put, potatoes are far from the empty calories they’re often made out to be.
Interestingly, white potatoes have been shown to be one of the most satiating foods. That is, after eating it, research has shown that (plain, boiled) potatoes fill you up and keep you satisfied for longer than almost any other food. 1
Potatoes (particularly after they been cooked then cooled) can also be a great source of resistant starch, which is a unique type of carbohydrate that is (as the name implies) resistant to human digestion. What that ultimately means is that we don’t absorb many calories from these fiber-like carbs, which can also act as “prebiotic” food for the beneficial probiotics in the gut. It can also mean a reduced insulin response (to a meal) and better insulin sensitivity (over the long haul).
What about the glycemic load? Don’t white potatoes spike your blood sugar, leading to a massive rise and crash—just like sugar? Nope. Both sweet potatoes and white potatoes are found in the middle of the chart for glycemic load ranging from 8 for mashed white potatoes to 17 for a baked potato, and sweet potatoes are found right in the middle at 10 for baked and 11 for boiled.
In addition, remember that when looking at the glycemic load, it only applies to foods when they are eaten alone. And when was the last time you sat down to eat a potato all by itself? (Never?) Once you add any toppings and combine a potato—sweet or white—as part of a meal (with other foods), you change the equation.
Sweet Potato vs Potato Wrap Up
In this sweet potato vs potato battle, it’s not a matter of choosing one over the other. Both provide a great deal of nutrition and deserve a place on your plate (unless you are eating an extremely low-carb diet).
It’s more a matter of how they’re prepared. Forget the fried or processed chips and choose healthier toppings if you want to smother them (for example, try Greek yogurt, sautéed vegetables, or salsa for white potatoes and cinnamon for sweet potatoes). And leave them wrapped up in their own skin for the biggest benefits.
Portion size counts too. If your potato is about the size of your head, you’ll likely be consuming way too many calories. Use your hand as a reference instead. For women, a good guideline is to consume about 1 cupped handful of starchy carbs in a meal, and for men, about 2 cupped handfuls is a good starting point, depending on activity levels and goals.
Which type of potato lands on your plate—sweet potato vs potato—ultimately depends on your personal preference. Take your pick and enjoy. Just remember to navigate past those fries…