Aging is a natural process that all living organisms experience. Developed countries such as the United States are now experiencing an unprecedented growth in the number of elderly individuals. This particular population is faced with both physical and financial challenges that can contribute to debility and decreased quality of life.1
Nutrition plays a vital role in successful aging. It is important for this population to consume adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants on a regular basis for increased longevity and decreased mortality.2 Common issues that can compromise nutritional intake in this age group include oral health problems, swallowing difficulties, and taste changes. These can lead to unintentional weight loss, nutrient deficiencies, and malnutrition.2
As the number of elderly individuals continues to grow, food that are affordable, palatable and nutritional dense are crucial to help sustain a good quality of life. One particular food that meets these criteria is the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are sweet, nutritious, versatile, and affordable and can be easy incorporated into a healthy diet.
Origin of Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are root vegetable that originates in Central America. They are widely grown around the world in over 100 countries with tropical and subtropical climates.3 Sweet potatoes are considered an “insurance crop”, since they can be grown year around and complete crop loss due to unfavorable climate conditions are usually rare.4 Sweet potatoes are most known for their orange color in the United States, they also come in purple, yellow, white, and pink varieties.3
Versatility of Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables that you can eat and people of all ages can enjoy them. Sweet potatoes can be incorporated in soups, pies, casseroles, and soufflés or be served boiled, baked, roasted, stuffed or candied. Some popular dishes include mashed sweet potatoes, sweet potato fries, sweet potato soup, baked sweet potatoes, or sweet potato chips.
Sweet potatoes are considered a nutritional powerhouse since they are packed with vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.3 Sweet potatoes also contain health promoting compounds such as β-carotene and phytochemicals.3 β-carotene is the precursor to vitamin A and has been linked to antiaging, decreased cancer risk, and decreased night blindness.3 β-carotene also plays an important role in preventing age-related macular degeneration and cataracts that are two common causes for visual impairment in elderly adults.2
Phytochemicals are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes and protect cells from damage that can lead to cancer. Phytochemicals found in sweet potatoes have high antioxidant activities that remove free radicals from the body. Free radicals are foreign bodies that damage normal cells and play a key role in the development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and aging.5
Purple Sweet Potatoes
Purple flesh sweet potatoes have recently been attracting attention due to their possible role in lowering blood pressure, liver protection, and blood sugar control.6 According to Nayak et al., purple potatoes contained significantly more antioxidant capacity compared to red, yellow, and white.7 Purple fleshed sweet potatoes also contain high levels of an antioxidant called cyanidin that displays anticancer activities that can inhibit the growth of human stomach cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer.5
Okinawa, Japan has been recognized as having one of the longest life expectancies and lowest disability rates in the world. Okinawa has a very high centenarian (people living 100 years or older) ratio of about 5 per 10,000 people. Compared to the United States, they have a fifth of the rate of cardiovascular disease, a fourth of the rate of prostate and breast cancer, and a third of the rate of dementia.8 Diet is one of the factors that have contributed to their longevity with purple Satsamu sweet potatoes constituting the largest part of the total energy intake.9 In a survey conducted in 1949, it showed that a traditional Okinawa diet constituted 67% of its total calories from sweet potatoes.9 Even though other lifestyle factors such as calorie restriction, frequent physical activity, strong religious beliefs, and having family support increases their life expectancy, there’s no doubt that sweet potatoes played have a special role.
Sweet potatoes are available all around the world, especially in most grocery stores in the United States. There are many varieties of sweet potatoes ranging in colors of orange, purple, white, and yellow. Due to the affordable cost and high nutritional value, they can be an important staple food for the low income elderly population. With its sweet taste and soft texture, they can be consumed by elderly individuals that experience a poor sense of taste, poor dental health or swallowing difficulties. The reasons outlined in this article are why sweet potatoes can make a great addition to the diet of people of all ages, especially the elderly.
Sweet Potato Recipe
“Roasted Cinnamon and Honey Sweet Potatoes”
- 4 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling potatoes after cooked
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Lay the sweet potatoes out in a single layer on a roasting tray. Drizzle the oil, honey, cinnamon, salt and pepper over the potatoes. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes in oven or until tender.
- Take sweet potatoes out of the oven and transfer them to a serving platter. Drizzle with more extra-virgin olive oil.
- Kido Y. The Issue of Nutrition in an Aging Society. Journal Of Nutritional Science And Vitaminology [serial online]. n.d.;61(Suppl. S):S176-S177.
- Edelstein, S. Life Cycle Nutrition: An Evidence-Based Approach (2nd ed.). Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett. 2015.
- Zhang K, Wu Z, Tang D, et al. Development and Identification of SSR Markers Associated with Starch Properties and β-Carotene Content in the Storage Root of Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas L.). Frontiers in Plant Science. 2016;7:223.
- Chandrasekara A, Josheph Kumar T. Roots and Tuber Crops as Functional Foods: A Review on Phytochemical Constituents and Their Potential Health Benefits. International Journal of Food Science. 2016;2016:3631647.
- Sugata M, Lin C, Shih Y. Anti-Inflammatory and Anticancer Activities of Taiwanese Purple-Fleshed Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas L. Lam) Extracts. Biomed Research International [serial online]. October 5, 2015;2015:1-10 10p.
- Suda I, Oki T, Masuda M, Kobayashi M, Nishiba Y, Furuta S. Physiological functionality of purple-fleshed sweet potatoes containing anthocyanins and their utilization in foods. Jarq [serial online]. n.d.;37(3):167-173.
- Nayak B, Berrios J, Powers J, Tang J, Ji Y. Colored potatoes (Solanum Tuberosum L.) Dried for Antioxidant-Rich Value-Added Foods. Journal Of Food Processing & Preservation [serial online]. October 2011;35(5):571-580.
- Buettner D. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’Ve Lived the Longest. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2012.
- Sho H. History and characteristics of Okinawan longevity food. Asia Pacific Journal Of Clinical Nutrition [serial online]. 2001;10(2):159-164.
By: Germaine Guy, RD, LDN