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The Health Benefits of Potatoes, Yams, and Sweet Potatoes

February 10, 2022
Written by
Team NutriSense
Brooke McKelvey

What do potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes have in common? Apart from lending themselves well to various cooking methods, they’re all thought to be in the same family of vegetables—although this may not be entirely true. 

While it’s true that potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams are similar in usage, they’re only distantly related. Sweet potatoes are not potatoes, and though some people use yams and sweet potatoes interchangeably, they’re all different plants! 

Potatoes and yams are tubers, but potatoes are a starchy food from the nightshade plant family, and yams are from the Dioscoreaceae plant family. On the other hand, sweet potatoes are from the morning glory plant family. If you don’t know what any of this means, don’t worry. We’ve got more on that below! 

An interesting thing to note before we continue is that regular white potatoes are one of the most consumed vegetables in the United States. All three of these root vegetables are nutritionally and aesthetically different—and they taste different too! Still, whether we’re talking weight loss or blood glucose, the various types of potatoes haven’t always had the best reputation compared to yams and sweet potatoes.

But are sweet potatoes and yams really all that different from potatoes? Should you pick a yam over a russet potato next time you make a bowl of mash? We’re going to look at each one to see whether one is better than another for your health and how to choose and prepare them.

Potatoes

a basket of potatoes and mushrooms

Potatoes are an incredibly versatile vegetable. They’re rich in carbohydrates, which make them both filling and a good energy source. The starchy vegetable from the nightshade family usually has brown skin and white or yellow flesh. 

A single raw potato contains approximately 80 percent water and is usually full of healthy carbohydrates and nutrients. Of course, potatoes aren’t typically consumed plain, and cooking methods differ depending on the type of potato you pick and your meal planning process. They’re usually baked, boiled, or fried. The vitamin, fiber, and protein content can differ depending on how you cook them. 

Prepared the right way, potatoes can be a healthy, filling addition to your diet. They’re low in fat naturally but are often prepared with high salt ingredients or fried, turning them into foods high in refined oils. Baking potatoes in the oven is usually the healthiest way to prepare them. Other methods of preparation, such as air frying, boiling, or sautéing, can also be healthy methods to consider.

The Nutrient Content and Health Benefits

two bowls of baked potatoes

While the nutrient profile will vary depending on the type of potato you pick, potatoes usually have a variety of vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, and potassium. For example, Yukon Gold and russet potatoes usually have more starch content than red potatoes. While potatoes are not a low-carb food, their carbohydrates are primarily in the form of starch. The amount differs according to type and weight—a medium white potato contains 30 grams of carbs.

Potatoes also rank relatively high on the glycemic index (GI) scale. The GI can vary greatly, often ranging between 50-100, with the GI of one medium white potato around 80. 

Here are some of the vitamins and nutrients found in most types of potatoes:

  • Vitamin C 
  • Protein 
  • Fiber 
  • Carbohydrates 
  • Calcium 
  • Potassium 
  • Phosphorus 
  • Iron 
  • Niacin 
  • Thiamin 
  • Riboflavin

Potatoes are not a high-fiber food, but they do contain a good amount of fiber. The fiber content can help your body regulate blood sugar levels and cholesterol. They are low in protein but can have more protein than other plants like legumes and soybeans. They also contain resistant starch, which includes the health benefits of soluble and insoluble fiber. 

Because of their varied nutritional content, they may not be as bad for your health as you think! Of course, remember that the type of potato you choose to eat matters—a plate full of instant mashed potatoes or greasy French Fries may do more harm than good! As with any other food, it’s best to eat potatoes in their whole food state, as close to the source as possible.

Some of the health benefits of eating potatoes in moderation include helping to fight disease thanks to the antioxidant content. The starch and fiber help with digestive health, and the potassium content can help lower blood pressure and help with heart health. Although some studies find that potatoes may contribute to weight gain in some, they’re a satiety-inducing food. So, eating potatoes in moderation may also help some people with weight management. 

Sweet Potatoes

baked sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are a root vegetable in the morning glory family. Technically, sweet potatoes are not potatoes, although they’re both starchy vegetables with similar nutrient content. 

Sweet potatoes typically have brown skin and orange flesh, but some less common varieties can be white and purple. Just like their name, sweet potatoes are sweeter than potatoes. 

The Nutrient Content and Health Benefits

a bowl of sweet potatoes, an avocado and veggies

Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They also contain many antioxidants that are beneficial to preventing free radical damage and chronic diseases. As a result, sweet potatoes are often called a “superfood.” They may reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, macular degeneration, heart disease, and obesity. 

Here are some of the vitamins and nutrients found in sweet potatoes:

  • Vitamin C
  • Thiamin
  • Vitamin D
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Vitamin B
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium

    Antioxidants found in sweet potatoes:

  • Carotenoids—these are also responsible for their orange coloration
  • Beta-carotene
  • Anthocyanin

Like potatoes, most of the carb content of sweet potatoes comes from their starch content. They also contain simple sugars like glucose, fructose, and sucrose. They are also not a low glycemic index good, although they may not rank as high on the glycemic index scale as potatoes. Although this can vary, their GI ranks more in the medium range, around 64.

They have small amounts of resistant starch but mostly contain rapidly digestible starch—although cooking and cooling them can raise the amount of resistant starch. Unlike potatoes, sweet potatoes are relatively high in fiber. A single, medium sweet potato contains around 4 grams of fiber.

The health benefits of eating sweet potatoes in moderation include preventing a vitamin A deficiency because of the high beta-carotene content. Consumed in the right way, sweet potatoes can provide energy, nutrients, and satiety. To keep glucose steady, it's best to consume sweet potatoes with a good quality protein source. Some studies suggest sweet potatoes may also reduce your risk of cancer

Because they have more fiber, vitamins, and a lower GI, sweet potatoes are often thought to be healthier than potatoes. However, before picking one over the other, remember that everyone’s body reacts differently to different foods. It’s a good idea to work with a registered dietitian if you’re considering making any changes to your diet and avoid adding or eliminating foods. 

Yams

slices of yam

Yams are often labeled as sweet potatoes and vice versa, but they’re different vegetables! Apart from coming from separate plant families (Yams are part of the lily family), they also look and taste different. While sweet potatoes have soft, thin skin, yams have rough, thick skin. They are also less sweet and flavorful than sweet potatoes. Unfortunately, they’re also often mislabeled, and you may find sweet potatoes labeled as yams in some stores. 

Similar to sweet potatoes and potatoes, yams have brown skin. They contain a white interior that is very starchy and have an earthy taste that isn’t as sweet as sweet potatoes but not quite as neutral as potatoes. You can think of them as hovering somewhere in between. 

The Nutrient Content and Health Benefits

a baked yam with parsley

A popular part of alternative medicine, yams have a range of health benefits and nutrient content that get lost in all the confusion about whether they’re sweet potatoes or not. Yam extract is even in skincare products!

Here are some of the vitamins and nutrients found in yams:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin E 
  • Folates
  • Niacin
  • Vitamin K
  • Riboflavin
  • Pyridoxine
  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus
  • Protein
  • Fiber

Because they contain dietary fiber that helps you feel full for longer, yams may also help with weight management goals. Like potatoes, yams are rich in potassium which has many health benefits, including reducing your risk of strokes

Yams may also have other interesting health benefits that help them stand apart from potatoes and sweet potatoes. These benefits include their potential to help with menopausal symptoms and their effect on fertility. Some animal studies suggest a link to better glucose metabolism, although research on this is still ongoing. 

Potatoes, Yams, Sweet Potatoes, and Blood Sugar

a person pouring oil in a bowl with potatoes

Potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes can be a healthy part of most diets. If you struggle to maintain your blood sugar levels, you may want to be cautious when loading up on the potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes. All three root vegetables are high in carbohydrates. If not correctly balanced with the rest of your meal or dietary needs, they can cause blood sugar spikes, which increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. 

It can be helpful to monitor your blood sugar levels with a tool like a CGM, so you can see what foods affect your blood sugar levels. Depending on your unique needs, you can work with a doctor or dietitian to determine the amount and type of foods to include in your diet.

Now that you know more about each type, here’s a quick rundown on the nutritional content of potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams: 

a nutritional chart of raw potato, sweet potato and yam

Try These Healthy Recipes

Wondering how to include these three starchy vegetables in some delicious meals? Here are three recipes we love, with some ingredient swap and alternative suggestions from our dietitian, Carlee Hayes, to help you start experimenting to see how your body responds to yams, sweet potatoes, and potatoes. Consider using a tool like a CGM and working with a registered dietitian to track how your body responds to each meal to see what works best for your specific body.

Healthy Oven Baked Potatoes From allrecipes

Oven Baked Potatoes

You’ll need:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed (Pro Tip: keep the skin on for a fiber boost!)

We love this recipe because good quality oils and fresh herbs to flavor the dish. It’s also effortless to make! Pair with a side salad and your favorite protein for a complete meal!

Healthy Sweet Potato Casserole from The Modern Proper

Sweet Potato Casserole

You’ll need:

  • 5 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8inch thick (use a mandolin if you have one!)
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/4 cup candied ginger
  • 1/4 cup craisins (Pro Tip: substitute this for unsweetened dried fruit such as cranberries)
  • 1/2 cup pecans, chopped
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt

This recipe is a wonderful twist on the traditional sweet potatoes and marshmallows that we traditionally serve during the holidays. It’s still sweet but contains healthy and flavorful alternatives to the marshmallow topping. If you want to cut back even more on the sugar content, consider cutting out the maple syrup or cutting the measurement in half. Remember, sweet potatoes are naturally sweet. 

African Yam Stew from Forks Over Knives

a bowl of African Yam Stew

You’ll need:

  • ½ cup water
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoon(s) Anaheim or jalapeño pepper, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, ground
  • 1 tablespoon garlic granules
  • 2 teaspoons cumin, ground
  • 2 teaspoons coriander, ground
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 6 yams, peeled and chopped
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 24 ounces tomatoes, chopped
  • 14 ounces garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
  • 14 ounces black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
  • ½ cup almond or peanut butter, unsweetened
  • 1½ cup corn
  • 6 cups collards, chopped

We love this nutrient-packed, filling meal. This recipe contains many nutrient-packed foods and is great comfort food. 

Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense

Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.

With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.

When you join the program, our team of credentialed dietitians and nutritionists are available for additional support and guidance to help you reach your goals.

Ready to take the first step? Start with our quiz to see how Nutrisense can support your health.

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The Health Benefits of Potatoes, Yams, and Sweet Potatoes
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Understanding the Relationship Between Menopause and Metabolic Health
Understanding the Relationship Between Menopause and Metabolic Health

Did you know that menopause can affect your metabolic health, and vice versa? Read on to understand the relationship between metabolic health and menopause, and how to manage metabolic health during your menopausal journey. 

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Understanding The Effects of Sugar on the Brain According to Research
Understanding The Effects of Sugar on the Brain According to Research

What really happens to your brain when you consume sugar? Review how interesting the relationship between the brain and sugar is, and why it’s important to control your blood sugar.

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9
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Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Endometriosis
Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a common yet often ignored condition. Learn more about the symptoms to watch out for, how you can seek treatment, and read first-hand accounts from two women who have dealt with endometriosis.

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Understanding Hyperglycemia vs. Hypoglycemia and How to Recognize the Differences
Understanding Hyperglycemia vs. Hypoglycemia and How to Recognize the Differences

Quickly understand the differences between hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia, how to recognize the signs, and key prevention tips.

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6
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Triglycerides and Blood Glucose [+Tips to Lower Triglyceride Levels]
Triglycerides and Blood Glucose [+Tips to Lower Triglyceride Levels]

Learn everything you need to know about the relationship between triglycerides levels and blood glucose.


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7
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Tips and Tricks for Staying Healthy in the Summer
Tips and Tricks for Staying Healthy in the Summer

If you're gearing up to travel or spend more time outdoors this summer, here are a few tips to help you stay safe and hydrated in the sun.

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Tips for a Healthy, Happy Purim
Tips for a Healthy, Happy Purim

Purim, a joyous occasion celebrated around March or April every year, is just around the corner! Read on to learn more about the holiday and the delicious foods that accompany it.

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Thoughtful Valentine's Day Gift Ideas from NutriSense Dietitians
Thoughtful Valentine's Day Gift Ideas from NutriSense Dietitians

Still haven't settled on the perfect gift for your Valentine this year? Take a look at our Nutrition Team's favorites for some thoughtful ideas.

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10
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The Warning Signs of Nerve Damage You Should Watch Out For
The Warning Signs of Nerve Damage You Should Watch Out For

Because nerve damage can have many silent symptoms, it often goes undiagnosed in the early stages. Read on to learn more about what causes nerve damage and some warning signs to watch out for.

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7
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The Ultimate Guide to Fiber and its Effect on Metabolic Health
The Ultimate Guide to Fiber and its Effect on Metabolic Health

Ready to learn all about fiber beyond just the basics? In this post, we dive deep into the different kinds of fiber and health benefits of each. From functional fiber to fermentation, we break down all the jargon into a layman's language.

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8
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The Relationship Between Cardio and Blood Sugar
The Relationship Between Cardio and Blood Sugar

Did you know that cardio can help you lose weight as well as optimize your health and blood glucose? Here's everything you need to know about cardio and its relationship with blood sugar.

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7
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The Side Effects of Unhealthy Weight Loss
The Side Effects of Unhealthy Weight Loss

Find out what unhealthy weight loss is and learn more about its side effects and what you can do to prevent them.

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6
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The Relationship Between Low Blood Sugar and High Blood Pressure
The Relationship Between Low Blood Sugar and High Blood Pressure

Learn about the warning signs of low blood sugar and the relationship it has on blood pressure.

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10
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The Positive Impact Weight Lifting Has on Blood Sugar
The Positive Impact Weight Lifting Has on Blood Sugar

Here is everything you need to know about the relationship between weight lifting and blood sugar.

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7
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The Relationship Between Cholesterol and Blood Sugar
The Relationship Between Cholesterol and Blood Sugar

Cholesterol plays a very important role in the human body, contributing to the structure of the cells, helping with vitamin D synthesis, and also promoting the production of steroid and sex hormones, like cortisol, aldosterone, testosterone, and estrogen. But how exactly is cholesterol connected to blood glucose levels?

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The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Diabetes
The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Diabetes

NutriSense dietitian Katrina Larsen, MS, RD,N, LD, CDCES discusses the risk factors for sleep apnea and how this disorder is linked to other health conditions.

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The Paleo Diet and Blood Glucose Levels
The Paleo Diet and Blood Glucose Levels

The premise of the paleo diet is that the body can handle a mix of meats, fruits and vegetables, eggs, fish, and complex carbohydrates better than processed meats, refined fats, grains and simple carbohydrates because it evolved to eat the first category as hunter-gatherers.

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8
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The Health Benefits of Winter Squash
The Health Benefits of Winter Squash

A common ingredient in cozy winter recipes, winter squash is one of our favorite foods this time of year. Read on to learn more about how it can benefit your health.

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The NutriSense Holiday Gift Guide: Stocking Stuffers We Love
The NutriSense Holiday Gift Guide: Stocking Stuffers We Love

Haven't finished your holiday shopping yet? Pick from this list of NutriSense-approved holiday gifts to find some great last-minute stocking stuffers for everyone on your list!

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The NutriSense Holiday Gift Guide: Health-Focused Gifts They’ll Love
The NutriSense Holiday Gift Guide: Health-Focused Gifts They’ll Love

Still haven't bought all your holiday gifts this year? Don't worry—there's still time to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Read our guide for some great ideas!

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9
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The Link Between Inflammation and Blood Glucose
The Link Between Inflammation and Blood Glucose

Learn more about inflammation, how it affects blood glucose levels and what you can do to prevent and manage it.

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9
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The Health Benefits of Adding Fermented Foods to Your Diet
The Health Benefits of Adding Fermented Foods to Your Diet

Fermented foods have a range of health benefits. Read on to learn more about what they are and why you should be adding them to your diet.

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9
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The Health Benefits of Potatoes, Yams, and Sweet Potatoes
The Health Benefits of Potatoes, Yams, and Sweet Potatoes

Potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes are similar in usage, but pretty distinct in taste, texture, appearance, and even nutritional content! Read on to find out more about each one.

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The Health Benefits of Living With Pets
The Health Benefits of Living With Pets

Did you know that living with a pet can do more than just put a smile on your face? Read on to learn all the ways living with pets improves your wellbeing.

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The Health Benefits of Cooking With Herbs and Spices
The Health Benefits of Cooking With Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices are a great way to add flavor to dishes, and also have a range of health benefits. Learn more about a few of our favorites.

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12
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The Health Benefits of Beans
The Health Benefits of Beans

Learn about the health benefits of beans and how they can help you live a healthier, longer life.

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6
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The Guide to Metabolic Diets: What Are They, Do They Work, And Who Should Try Them?
The Guide to Metabolic Diets: What Are They, Do They Work, And Who Should Try Them?

Review our guide to metabolic diets to help get a better understanding of what they are and whether they might be right for you.

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The Foods and Traditions of Kwanzaa
The Foods and Traditions of Kwanzaa

Learn about the traditions and nutrient-dense food commonly enjoyed during Kwanzaa. 

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9
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The Blood Sugar and Joint Pain Connection
The Blood Sugar and Joint Pain Connection

Have you ever wondered how your glucose levels might be connected to joint pain? We'll take a deep dive into this connection and share tips for reducing pain.

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10
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The Best Diet for Non-Diabetic Hypoglycemia
The Best Diet for Non-Diabetic Hypoglycemia

This article explores hypoglycemia in non-diabetics, how to manage symptoms through diet, and the advantages of glucose monitoring.

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6
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The Effect of Aging on Your Blood Glucose Levels
The Effect of Aging on Your Blood Glucose Levels

Take a look at how aging can affect your blood glucose levels.

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9
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The Best Diet to Increase Your Vitamin D Levels
The Best Diet to Increase Your Vitamin D Levels

Read on to learn more about vitamin D-rich foods and what you should include in your diet to make the most of this vitamin’s health benefits.

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10
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The Best Diet for Menstruation
The Best Diet for Menstruation

When it comes to your menstrual cycle, what you eat can significantly impact how you feel. Read on to learn more about the best foods to add to your diet to help during that time of the month.

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The Benefits and Risks of Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices
The Benefits and Risks of Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian holistic healing system that dates back over 5,000 years. In the second installment of our series on the practice, review the benefits and risks associated with popular Ayurvedic herbs and spices.

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The Beginner’s Guide to the Low FODMAP Diet
The Beginner’s Guide to the Low FODMAP Diet

In this article, we break down what a low FODMAP diet looks like for beginners, and its potential benefits and drawbacks for gastrointestinal health.

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The 6 Worst Foods for Osteoporosis
The 6 Worst Foods for Osteoporosis

When it comes to bone health, good nutrition is absolutely critical. Read on to learn what osteoporosis is and why some foods may increase your risk of or worsen the condition.