How many times have you been at the grocery, stood in front of the potatoes, and froze—hand going back and forth between the sweet potatoes and russet potatoes? We've all been there at least once, and our pause is likely because we're torn between choosing something we've long been told is healthier for us (sweet potatoes) and the baked white potatoes we've grown up with topped with sour cream and bacon or roasted with garlic and herbs.
Their bright orange color isn't the only reason we've been led to believe that sweet potatoes are healthier than white potatoes. It's also because white potatoes are, well, white. We associate potatoes' white color with refined foods, such as white bread, and because many potato-based foods are unhealthy (think fries, potato chips…). But is this long-held belief actually true?
"Many people believe that white potatoes don't belong on a healthy dinner plate, but that is simply not true," says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and member of the Eat This, Not That! Medical Expert Board. "While it is true that potatoes can frequently be served fried or smothered in cheese and bacon (or fried and smothered in cheese and bacon, a baked or boiled potato offers some serious nutritional benefits in an economical and delicious package," she adds.
Let's dive into the nutritional advantages of both white and sweet potatoes to determine once and for all whether sweet potatoes really are healthier than white potatoes.
The benefits of sweet potatoes
Do you know how you've been taught to eat the rainbow? That's because the color of fruits and vegetables is a good indicator of the nutrients you'll find inside. Specifically, the orange color of sweet potatoes comes from a phytonutrient called beta-carotene. Beta-carotene isn't a compound responsible for orange pigment, it also has additional health benefits.
"Orange sweet potatoes are a beta-carotene powerhouse, which is certainly a positive factor when people are trying to support their overall health. Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body, and can therefore support a healthy immune system, bone health, and certain aspects of vision health," says Manaker.
Additionally, "sweet potatoes naturally contain antioxidants, fiber, and important micronutrients like potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. And these potatoes are a powerhouse when it comes to vitamin A, providing over 700% the DV per serving," says Manaker.
The benefits of white potatoes
"White potatoes aren't void of any nutrients, despite what the internet tells you. White potatoes contain fiber as well as vitamin C and potassium—nutrients that are essential for supporting our overall health," says Manaker. "Plus, like sweet potatoes, they are naturally low in fat and they are cholesterol-free."
Sweet vs. white potatoes: which is healthier?
As you can tell, there are benefits of eating both sweet and white potatoes; however, there is a winner when it comes to the additive benefits.
"When baking a sweet potato and a white potato, both offer health benefits, and neither is a 'bad choice'. But when truly evaluating the nutrients that both provide, a sweet potato will provide more nutrients per bite vs. the white counterpart," says Manaker.
Specifically, "when comparing a sweet potato vs a white potato, the sweet contains more fiber, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and calcium when compared with a white potato of the same quantity (assuming the skin of both potatoes are consumed)," says Manaker. But white potatoes get a point for having more potassium, adds Manaker.
"Macronutrient-wise, both potatoes clock in at very similar values. The calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates that both provide are basically the same," says Manaker.
If sweet potatoes are healthier than white potatoes, does that mean you should skip white potatoes?
"Even though sweet potatoes are more nutrient-dense, that does not mean that the white potato needs to be avoided. White potatoes do contain important nutrients and they are an extremely versatile and low-cost choice that many people enjoy. As long as people aren't leaning on white potatoes only in the form of fried chips and french fries, enjoying a white potato as a part of an overall healthy diet is absolutely ok," says Manaker.
Preparation matters for both white and sweet potatoes, even if sweet potatoes have more nutrients than white.
"If a person enjoys both and they are not fried or topped with caloric or high-fat condiments, a sweet potato will be the better choice. But, if it is a question of a sweet potato casserole that is covered with marshmallows, sugar, and butter vs. a plain baked white potato, the white potato may be the better choice," says Manaker.
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