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It’s the age-old debate about the fall dinner party – who’s bringing the cake this year? Some families are into pumpkin, others prefer the naturally sugary sweet potato. Whatever you end up eating, they’re both orange, sweet, and tasty. So what’s the big deal?
Well, if you’re a health junkie or just want some science back in the kitchen, there’s a nutritional winner between these two hardy fall favorites. While neither pumpkins nor sweet potatoes make up the “superfood” cut, research shows that their nutritional composition offers certain extraordinary health benefits. Find out what they do for you and which one is the ultimate nutrition champion.
First, what are sweet potatoes and pumpkins actually?
As you stroll through a farmers market, you may find that some dirt is crusted on the piles of sweet potatoes. It’s no secret that these dark orange tubes are root vegetables. But strangely enough, pumpkins are a bit ambiguous as far as classification is concerned. “A pumpkin is technically a fruit because it is a product of the seed-bearing structure of flowering plants,” says Jerlyn Jones, an Atlanta RDN. Like pumpkin, tomatoes, and other fruits we typically cook, pumpkins are savory rather than sweet and are often categorized under the vegetable category. From a culinary point of view, a pumpkin is much closer to a sweet potato than an apple or a pear.
How the health benefits of pumpkin compare to sweet potatoes
If you look closely at both of these foods, you’ll find that while you can’t go wrong, one thing has a slight advantage.
Reducing the risk of chronic diseases
Both pumpkins and sweet potatoes contain high levels of beta-carotene – the yellow-orange pigment that gives fruits and vegetables their bright color. In addition to its pretty color, this carotenoid is a rich antioxidant with many benefits. “Diets high in foods rich in beta-carotene can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and protect against heart disease,” says Jones. “Beta-carotene offers protection against other diseases as well as some degenerative aspects of aging.”
The story goes on
Research by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has shown that pumpkins contain more beta-carotene than many other foods in the average pantry, with a cooked cup (245g) containing 5,140 micrograms. The bright orange sweet potato is also incredibly high in beta carotene. One cup of cooked sweet potato (328 g) is 31,000 micrograms – that’s 25,860 more than its counterpart!
Winner: sweet potato
Speaking of vitamin A, both sweet potatoes and pumpkin are rich in vitamins that will help boost your immunity. “One cup of cooked pumpkin has 245% RDI (Recommended Daily Allowance) of vitamin A and 19% RDI of vitamin C,” says Jones. But sweet potato beats pumpkin out of the park, because one cup provides 774% vitamin A and 53% vitamin C.
Winner: Sweet Potato (Again!)
“Good sources of fiber promote a healthy gut microbiota and promote gut health,” explains Jones. When only 5% of Americans are getting their recommended fiber intake, choosing sweet potatoes can help steer you in the right direction.
With 8.2 grams of fiber in one cup of sweet potato, this vegetable is slightly heavier than a cup of pumpkin, which has only 3 grams of fiber. In addition to the gut, a high-fiber diet is also linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. That should be enough to encourage you to top up your plate on Thanksgiving!
Winner: Sweet Potato (you see a theme?)
What are the remaining nutrients?
These classic cake fillings may look similar, but they differ in most aspects from a nutritional point of view. They have the same potassium content, an essential mineral that helps muscle contraction and supports normal blood pressure. However, when pumpkin isn’t in its natural pie habitat, it definitely contains less sugar than sweet potatoes (a win for pumpkin!). But while sweet potatoes have more calories, that’s because they’re filled with larger amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (all necessary parts of your diet).
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The bottom line: sweet potato wins!
But here’s the thing: these two creamy fall favorites are great choices. When choosing between two types of vegetables, it is fundamentally impossible to make the wrong decision. Each vegetable has a unique nutritional profile, but at the end of the day your body will always be happy if you feed it something that is grown in the soil.
However, if you compare the two side by side, sweet potato generally outperforms pumpkin in everything from vitamin A to fiber to protein. While pumpkin is a light, low-sugar option, sweet potatoes lift heavier and ultimately provide your body with more essential nutrients.
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