You probably think you know what a yam is—it’s quite likely that you even believe you’ve eaten yams. You may consider yourself a major yam fan! But if you live in the United States or Canada, odds are, you’ve never actually tried a true yam. And that’s a shame, because yams not only have a lovely, mild flavor that’s well worth getting to know, but they can also be a valuable addition to a weight-loss diet.
What Is a Yam? Let’s Get to the Root of the Confusion
Many grocery stores, cookbook authors, and recipe bloggers in the U.S. and Canada use the terms “yam” and “sweet potato” interchangeably, but that’s actually pretty misleading. Sweet potatoes are not a type of yam, and yams are not a type of sweet potato. Both are tuberous root vegetables, but that’s about the end of their similarities.
What many people living in the U.S. believe to be yams are actually a type of sweet potato! There are two major types of sweet potatoes: firm sweet potatoes, which have a golden skin and lighter flesh, and soft sweet potatoes, which have copper skin and a deep orange flesh. Firm sweet potatoes were the first variety to be produced in the U.S., and when soft sweet potatoes were introduced, some retailers looking for a way to differentiate them began to label them as yams, which they do somewhat resemble.
True yams are native to Africa and Asia. They can be the size of an average potato, but also grow to be much larger, even reaching lengths of 5 feet and a weight of up to 130 pounds! They have rough skin that resembles tree bark and white, purple, or reddish flesh.
When it comes to flavor and texture, yams are less sweet, starchier, and drier than sweet potatoes. You can find true yams in some grocery stores, but your best bet is to try an international or specialty market.
Not to make things even more complicated, but there are two more types of yams worth identifying: wild yam and Mexican yam.
Wild yams, the dry, tuberous roots of a type of vine native to North America and China, are not edible but have historically been used in different herbal medicine traditions. Today, some people take wild yam supplements.
Mexican yam is more often referred to as jicama, the crunchy, lightly sweet root vegetable that packs a serious prebiotic punch. Unlike yams and other root vegetables, jicama is typically eaten raw.
Why Yams Support Healthy Weight Loss
While there are many different methods you can use to try to lose weight, at the core of them all will be creating a caloric deficit. When you’re cutting calories, it’s extra important to make sure the foods you do eat contain rich stores of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients.
Yams are quite nutrient dense, containing plenty of vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. And a full cup of yams contains under 200 calories, according to SELF Nutrition Data.
Both magnesium and vitamin B6 are known to support weight loss. As you probably know, there’s no magic pill out there that can help you effortlessly shed pounds. Certain vitamins and minerals do help your body function as efficiently as possible, making it more likely that you’ll reach your weight-loss goals.
Magnesium helps your body regulate blood sugar levels. According to a study published in Diabetes Care, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Diabetes Association, a higher intake of magnesium can lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even if you already have prediabetes.
Scientists have found that B vitamins facilitate the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, helping your body to use the energy stored in food most effectively. Vitamin B6 is especially important for protein metabolism. A blog post shared by The International Association for Physicians in Aesthetic Medicine noted that vitamin B-6 can encourage weight loss by stimulating the thyroid, which can be especially useful for women who are prone to water retention. They also noted that patients report vitamin B-6 alleviates cravings.
Plus, yams provide tons of fiber—6.1 grams in a cup, which is 25% of your daily recommended allowance (RDA). Eating fiber-rich foods like yams helps slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream, which keeps you full for longer and prevents the blood sugar dips that can present as serious hanger attacks.
Yams also have a low glycemic index (GI), typically, around 59. Research shows that eating low GI foods can encourage weight loss as well as prevent weight regain. According to one study, you can boil and bake yams without increasing their GI.
4 Ways to Add Yams to Your Diet
If you’re not used to cooking with yams, you may not be sure quite how to work this nutritious root vegetable into your diet. There are so many ways to enjoy yams and exploring will be the best way to discover your favorites. To help you get started, we came up with four easy, healthy ways to eat yams.
1. Round Out Your Meals by Incorporating Yams
Adding yams can make main dishes heartier—try adding them to a stir-fry or breakfast hash! Or you can serve roasted or mashed yams as a side dish alongside a main course. Either way, you’ll up the fiber content of your meal, which will help you feel full for longer.
2. Turn Yams into a Portable, Healthy Snack
Baked yam chips make a tasty snack that’s easy to toss into your purse so you know you’ll always have a healthy option when you’re on the go. Make things even easier by preparing several batches at once, then dividing the batches into individual portions and storing them that way. Pro tip: purple yams make especially pretty chips.
4. Substitute Yams for French Fries
Are french fries a favorite indulgence? Try substituting oven-baked yam fries! They’re more nutritious and contain fewer calories. Use this as an opportunity to get creative with seasonings too. There are so many options out there beyond just plain salt.
3. Make a Filling, Fiber-Rich Yam Smoothie
Yams blend beautifully into veggie smoothies, making them far more filling. As with yam chips, you can make a big batch, then portion it out and freeze it so you have a convenient snack or light meal ready with minimal effort whenever you need it.