Here we are again … Thanksgiving looming and tummies set for the big feast! And, I’m going to bet that someone in your family or friends celebration brings yams or sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes, right? I grew up with these delicious and healthy ‘taters smothered with marshmallows (possibly in flames if I was assigned to watch them…..)

I never know whether I’m steaming or baking Yams or Sweet Potatoes. So, I thought it would be timely to chat about the differences…..just in time to be able to throw this info around on Thanksgiving.

So, how are these potatoes different and how do they compare to our old friends, the white potato? Sweet potatoes are the orange or reddish colored root vegetable you see at the grocery store. They are a member of the morning glory family, and not related to either yams or white potatoes. Sweet potatoes generally come from either Central or South America.

Sweet potatoes are usually longer and tapered at the ends with smooth colored skin, and can range in color from tan, to yellow, to orange, red, or purple. Sweet potato’s flesh inside also varies from white to orange or reddish orange, to purple-colored. Sweet potatoes are also usually softer and sweeter when cooked than either yams or regular white potatoes.

Yams are also a tuber vegetable. However, they come from a completely different family and are actually part of the lily family (who knew these yummy things were related to flowers?). Yams originated in Africa and Asia and there are about 600 different varieties of yams.

Yams have some distinct characteristics, and if you’ve ever seen them, you would probably not confuse them with sweet potatoes. Compared to sweet potatoes, yams can grow very large. Size can vary from that of a small potato to up to 5 feet. WOW! Makes you think of the scary movies with killer veggies or man-eating plants!

Yams are more cylindrical, and have rough brown, almost tree-bark like skin that is very difficult to peel. The inside flesh is white, yellow, purple or pinkish. Yams are not sweet and smooth like sweet potatoes, they are more dry and starchy tasting.

Yams are not a common item to find in your grocery store, in fact, they are often difficult to find, except perhaps in an international market or ethnic food store.

White potatoes are something we are all pretty familiar with. White potatoes come from the Solanaceae family, which is related to tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant and considered part of the “nightshade” group of vegetables.

While there are literally thousands of different types of potatoes in the world, in general the types of potatoes we see here in the U.S. and in Europe are classified as russet potatoes, red potatoes, white potatoes, yellow potatoes (or Yukon Gold) and purple potatoes.

Sweet potatoes, yams, and regular white potatoes are actually all from different plant families and not related.


Sweet potatoes are packed with nutrients (which is why they are so popular) including a massive amount of beta-carotene, the nutrient that our bodies turn into vitamin A. Eat sweet potatoes with butter to help this transformation work best. Sweet potatoes also contain about 35-40% of your necessary vitamin C for the day, manganese, vitamin B6, potassium, copper, niacin, thiamine and magnesium.

Sweet potatoes also help to stabilize blood sugar, and help the body become more sensitive to insulin. In fact, one study from Austria showed that a diabetic group who ate sweet potatoes actually had lower blood sugar levels at the end of the study than the control group. This is due partly because of the high fiber content, which slows the absorption of sugar into the body, and probably due to the high amounts of antioxidants, as well.


Yams are higher in calories, carbohydrates and fiber and while they contain a good amount of vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium and manganese but are not as nutrient-dense or full of antioxidants as sweet potatoes are. (Hint—antioxidants have a lot to do with color).

Yams contain more potassium and manganese—both vital minerals that are good for bone and nerve health, heart function and metabolism. Yams do contain some similar nutrients like B vitamins but the health benefits of yams have not been studied near as much as sweet potatoes.

One more thing about yams—a derivative of an ingredient in yams is thought to help women’s hormone levels, especially progesterone. There is some evidence that yam extract may be a helpful remedy for some of the unpleasant symptoms of PMS and menopause.

White potatoes do have lots of healthy minerals, fiber and carbohydrates in them, but definitely are not the superstars that sweet potatoes are. White potatoes belong to a totally different plant family, are definitely different looking than either yams or sweet potatoes and have a whole different set of nutrients.

White potatoes contain plenty of vitamin C, folate (a necessary B vitamin), vitamin B6, potassium, manganese, but not the high levels of vitamin A or antioxidants that sweet potatoes have.

So, you may wonder…which potato is better or healthier? The Sweet Potato wins by a smidge!

Take the marshmallow topping off and get a healthy side dish for Turkey Day! Can I have your topping? pleeeasssseeee…..

Eat Well and Age Backwards,

xoxo, Rosanna
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