Year for the Planet Week 11: A Study of Sweet Potatoes (And the Importance of Playing with Your Food)

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.


My third and most surprising staple on my grocery list is the sweet potato.

Growing up, I hated this vegetable. A sweet potato is not the prettiest of the harvest. It is the lumpy and ugly Quasimodo devoid of the Esmeralda-esque charisma of a bright red juicy tomato. It…doesn’t really call you to eat it. Neither is it mathematically interesting, like the bonsai loveliness of broccoli. And what is up with those stems growing out of them? The skin looks as though it fused with the dirt it grew in.

A gardening prodigy I am not.

Sweet potatoes and inflammation

But I was determined to learn. Last year when I was coming up with Year for the Planet, I created a filter bubble for myself and subscribed to many social media accounts that promoted healthy eating. There were so many exasperating diet trends that kept flashing in my face ad nauseum. I believe that it was one of those things that succeeded in hypnotizing me into finally taking charge of my choices, but on more scientific and sustainable terms. And so for every tip I felt I could incorporate into my lifestyle, I would double-, triple-, quadruple-check whether it was legit.

These are definitely the times when one must not believe everything she sees on the internet. Question everything! But among the crazy recommendations I read such as “drinking undiluted shots of apple cider vinegar” were legitimately sensible ones. One of them was the recommendation of eating more sweet potatoes, which are low on the glycemic index (meaning they do not cause blood sugar spikes), and that they reduce inflammation.

The East Asian Spud

When I lived in Korea a few years ago, I was surprised at the appearance of sweet potatoes in the local diet. A man startled me on one cold November evening in a cafe, where he handed out baked sweet potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil to everyone. It was a holiday and it was his way of celebrating. The gift tasted great—simple and filling, without the need for anything else. I’ve read that it’s actually the daily ration of many K-pop stars on severely restrictive diets. In East Asia where appearance is everything, I found the humble sweet potato in many products and that some cafes even sell sweet potato lattes—an interesting choice that left my taste buds with a lot of questions.

To Peel or Not to Peel

Every night, I am faced with a tiny dilemma—should I peel the skin or not? I’m the type who likes to use everything and waste nothing. Sweet potato skins are edible and contain fiber and potassium, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell where they came from, and I didn’t want to risk cancer.

The Environmental Working Group annually releases its hit lists for the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, which refer respectively to the fruits and vegetables that are the most and least contaminated by pesticide use, and sweet potatoes made the Clean Fifteen. (Potatoes, meanwhile, are part of the Dirty Dozen.) Since learning this, I’ve stopped throwing out the skins and just remembered to wash the sweet potatoes very well.

Sweet Potato Rorschach

I learned to like sweet potatoes, but I learned to actually love them when I realized how much fun they could be. On the one hand, they’re ugly, but on the other, they could really take on different forms. Like this one that looks like a manatee:

Or these that look like birds:

Or this one that looks disturbingly fecal:

Sweet Potato Rorschach makes for a more interesting shopping trip, and as an artist I think it’s fantastic to have these seemingly mundane chores turn into an avenue for creativity.

Since I started eating like this, my skin has needed much less maintenance. I’m one of those chicks who never go under the sun and take very good care of her skin and shun as much makeup as possible. The reason I got hooked on sweet potatoes in the beginning is the fact that they reduce inflammation—a buzzword that many a yoga pants-clad wellness guru will repeatedly preach on their social media accounts. Since I started keeping this in mind, though, I’ve had more energy, less gut problems, and a clearer complexion. I just don’t break out much, despite juggling a lot of things in life.

It sounds strange, but I definitely feel more … in sync with the environment, like these are the things humans are biologically wired to eat. It is an obvious conclusion, but one that is hammered into me more because of this project. The deeper the lesson cuts through, the more I will keep them with me as I go on. The less my body and mind break down, the more I am able to do and the less material things I felt compelled to buy for their temporary dopamine hit.

Seriously, sweet potatoes rock. Go out there and get some.



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