Sweet Potatoes

We can measure the nutrient and toxin content of a food, and debate the health effects of each of its constituents until we're out of breath. But in the end, we still won't have a very accurate prediction of the health effects of that food. The question we need to answer is this one: has this food sustained healthy traditional cultures?

I'm currently reading a great book edited by Drs. Hugh Trowell and Denis Burkitt, titled Western Diseases: Their Emergence and Prevention. It's a compilation of chapters describing the diet and health of traditional populations around the world as they modernize.

The book contains a chapter on Papua New Guinea highlanders. Here's a description of their diet:
A diet survey was undertaken involving 90 subjects, in which all food consumed by each individual was weighed over a period of seven consecutive days. Sweet potato supplied over 90 percent of their total food intake, while non-tuberous vegetables accounted for less than 5 percent of the food consumed and the intake of meat was negligible... Extensive herds of pigs are maintained and, during exchange ceremonies, large amounts of pork are consumed.
They ate no salt. Their calories were almost entirely supplied by sweet potatoes, with occasional feasts on pork.

How was their health? Like many non-industrial societies, they had a high infant/child mortality rate, such that 43 percent of children died before growing old enough to marry. Surprisingly, protein deficiency was rare. No obvious malnutrition was observed in this population, although iodine-deficiency cretinism occurs in some highlands populations:
Young adults were well built and physically fit and had normal levels of haemoglobin and serum albumin. Further, adult females showed no evidence of malnutrition in spite of the demands by repeated cycles of pregnancy and lactation. On the basis of American standards (Society of Actuaries, 1959), both sexes were close to 100 percent standard weight in their twenties.
The Harvard Pack Test carried out on 152 consecutive subjects demonstrated a high level of physical fitness which was maintained well into middle-age. Use of a bicycle ergometer gave an estimated maximum oxygen uptake of 45.2 ml per kilogram per minute and thus confirmed the high level of cardiopulmonary fitness in this group.
Body weight decreased with age, which is typical of many non-industrial cultures and reflects declining muscle mass but continued leanness.

There was no evidence of coronary heart disease or diabetes. Average blood pressure was on the high side, but did not increase with age. Investigators administered 100 gram glucose tolerance tests and only 3.8 percent of the population had glucose readings above 160 mg/dL, compared to 21 percent of Americans. A study of 7,512 Papuans from several regions with minimal European contact indicated a diabetes prevalence of 0.1 percent, a strikingly low rate. For comparison, in 2007, 10.7 percent of American adults had diabetes (1).

I'm not claiming it's optimal to eat nothing but sweet potatoes. But this is the strongest evidence we're going to come by that sweet potatoes can be eaten in quantity as part of a healthy diet. However, I wish I knew more about the varieties this group ate. Sweet potatoes aren't necessarily sweet. Caribbean 'boniato' sweet potatoes are dry, starchy and off-white. In the US, I prefer the yellow sweet potatoes to the orange variety of sweet potato labeled 'yams', because the former are starchier and less sweet. If I could get my hands on locally grown boniatos here, I'd eat those, but boniatos are decidedly tropical.

Instead, I eat potatoes, but I'm reluctant to recommend them whole-heartedly because I don't know enough about the traditional cultures that consumed them. I believe there are some low-CHD, low-obesity African populations that eat potatoes as part of a starch-based diet, but I haven't looked into it closely enough to make any broad statements. Potatoes have some nutritional advantages over sweet potatoes (higher protein content, better amino acid profile), but also some disadvantages (lower fiber, lower in most micronutrients, toxic glycoalkaloids).