14 Sep 2023

The humble and earthy sweet potato is back in conversation as the magic pill for longevity ever since the Netflix Show, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zone, aired two weeks ago. It examines the reasons why people live longer than average in certain parts of the world called Blue Zone and confirmed what a decade-long study of the Okinawan people had found. All 90 plus Okinawans reportedly ate an average of half a kilo of purple sweet potatoes per day, which they matched with physical activity, mainly squatting, and a happy state of mind.
Sweet potato is also easily available in India as it is drought-resistant and climate-resilient. So how does this prolong lives? Various research papers have found that the purple variety contains anthocyanins, which keep the cells healthy at the micro level. They line the cell walls, acting as a protective barrier against microbes and pathogens. But even in other colours, sweet potatoes are rich in antioxidants that protect cells against oxidative damage. For example, the orange ones contain beta-carotene, which is used by the body to make vitamin A, an antioxidant that fights free radicals and repairs eye damage. This is of concern among older people, who happen to develop some eye disorder or the other as soon as they age. These tubers are rich in bio-active components like carotenoids, phenolic acid and flavonoids, scavenging toxins and free radicals and reducing inflammation in the body. They are cardio-protective and anti-cancerous. Consumed regularly, they reduce diabetes, and if taken from an early age, protect the pancreas.
In fact, sweet potato should be the first source of complex carbohydrate for growing children. Refined and processed carbohydrates, the kind available in breakfast cereals, increase blood sugar and both insulin surges and crashes. But complex carbohydrates, which are digested more slowly, prevent blood sugar spikes, kill hunger pangs, can promote weight loss in the short-term and boost overall health in the long-term.
Sweet potato is rich in minerals like potassium, magnesium, iron, copper as well as some of the B vitamins, C and E. As for the heart, sweet potatoes have more potassium than a banana and help with many functions in the body, including fluid regulation and blood pressure, keeping them to healthy levels.
They have some of the richest hauls of fibre, which is a good fuel for gut bacteria. It helps move waste through your body faster and hence relives you of another common gut-related problem called constipation. What’s more, the high fibre content of sweet potatoes can also help control cholesterol levels, preventing cardio vascular risk.
With so many preventive properties, this superfood is an overall immunity booster that keeps diseases and senior health conditions at bay.
Sweet potatoes are best had boiled and cooled, so that they create resistant starch or a jelly-like substance, which takes time to be broken down and prevents sugar rush in the bloodstream. In fact, they should be advised to pregnant women so that their cell health and that of their foetus becomes robust from the very beginning. They can even be baked. Overcooking sweet potatoes can lessen their beta-carotene levels. So keep the peel on while tossing it in the pan and cut down on cooking time to save nutrients. Eating sweet potatoes with a source of healthy fat can further enhance the absorption of nutrients like beta-carotene.
But remember that they are starchy, so have them in moderation, say about 100 gm. Those with diabetes should take 50 gm, preferably with the skin, to increase the fibre load. They can be safely taken twice a week. Breakfast is the best time to have them for slow release of nutrients through the day. They can even be had during lunch but not dinner. And as per advisories everywhere, amplify the effects of a good diet with proper rest and moderate physical activity, like squatting through the day. Dietary intervention alone cannot make you driven enough to live long.


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