For thousands of years, humans have been eating sweet potatoes, and for good reason. The vegetable is packed with vitamins—specifically vitamin A, which supports organ health; minerals; and powerful plant compounds called phytonutrients. Today? They’re still a favorite among athletes who cook up the veggie as natural fuel, for a little bit of natural sweetness and flavor (without reaching for the Skittles), and as a solid source of carbs.
But since not every single vegetable is created equal—and sweet potatoes are carb-packed beasts, whereas other veggies such as cucumbers are north of 90-percent water—if you’re trying to drop pounds, it’s easy to wonder if sweet potatoes are good or bad for your weight loss goals.
Love ‘em? Here, where sweet potatoes stand on the scale—and how to make sure the vegetable isn’t sabotaging your efforts.
First, change the way you think about sweet potatoes.
Sure, they’re a vegetable. But that’s not always the best way to think about them, says Brian St. Pierre, R.D., C.S.C.S., director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutritionand a member of the Men’s Health advisory board. “I would suggest folks think of sweet potatoes like a starchy carbohydrate—the same way they might think of whole grains.” After all: Sweet potatoes are a solid carb source with almost 24 grams in a medium potato, he notes.
Here’s why the mindset shift matters: If you think about sweet potatoes as a carb, you’re less likely to overdo it with carbs later but also better able to portion. For general health and a bit of body fat loss, you want to aim for one to two handfuls of quality carbs per meal as a starting point, St. Pierre suggests: “Sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, beans and lentils, whole grains and fruit would all be great options to flesh out those carb sources.”
Sweet potatoes are loaded in fiber.
This is especially true when you keep the skin on, says Ryan Maciel, R.D., C.S.C.S., a dietitian based in Cambridge, MA. A medium tuber packs about 3.8 grams and men under 50 want to aim for about 38 grams a day.
So what’s the hype about fiber? Dietary fiber is a carb that can reduce levels of hunger hormones, increase the production of hormones such as cholecystokinin that make you feel full, help slow down digestion, improve blood sugar control, and call for more chewing and slower eating which can in and of itself play a role in satiety, Maciel explains. Even more: In particular, sweet potatoes have a sort of fiber called resistant starch, that, according to some research can help reduce the risk of obesity.
There are other ways sweet potatoes could help with weight loss, too.
Beyond being loaded with health benefits thanks to the vitamins and minerals they pack, sweet potatoes also aren’t that high in calories—a medium one only has about 103 calories.
Plus, they have a high water content (which can help suppress appetite) and—since they’re a whole food—they tend to be more filling than your average processed food, says Maciel.
The bottom line on sweet potatoes and weight loss:
Eating any kind of food in excess can contribute to weight gain, but in terms of everything out there that you could be eating, sweet potatoes are an incredibly healthy option.
The catch: Eat ‘em boiled or baked, says Maciel. While it should come as no surprise, sweet potatoes are, well, far less healthy when you fry them into (albeit delicious) sweet potato fries or work them into sugary desserts such as sweet potato pie (fine on Thanksgiving, not every day). And c’mon—skip the heaps of butter, bacon, and dollops of sour cream, says Maciel. They’re far more likely to lead to weight gain than overdoing it on the sweet potato itself.
So, yes, sweet potatoes are a fiber-loaded, low-calorie side that’s great for weight loss—as long as you’re not eating them in the form of a mound of fries.