Are Sweet Potatoes Keto-Friendly?

Doctor KIZ September 05, 2021
Yes, people are still intrigued by the restrictive keto diet. Often praised by celebrities (hi, Halle Berry), it consists of breaking down your carbs and protein intake. Typically, a keto diet calls for 70 to 80 percent your daily calories to come from fat, 10 to 20 percent to come from protein, and 5 to 10 percent from carbohydrates, says Los Angeles-based nutritionist Mona Sharma. The goal of eating so few carbs is to get your body into ketosis, the state in which it burns fat, instead of carbs, as fuel.

“It’s an extreme diet, and it’s one that women should not consider for the long-term,” explains Erica Zellner, MS, LDN, a health coach at Parsley Health in California. “You’re going to be at an increased risk of developing kidney stones or harming the kidneys overall, throwing off your electrolyte balance, increased urination, cardiac arrythmia, nutrient deficiencies, and more,” Zellner says. These are serious risks to consider before committing.

In addition to this, because eating “too many” carbs can shift a body out of ketosis, a lot of people following keto diet will cut out fruits and vegetables altogether. However, it’s not a good idea. “I advise clients to eat an abundance of nutrient-dense, colorful, whole foods like vegetables and fruits in moderation daily. Lack of fiber from a variety of fruits and vegetables is detrimental to our gut microbiome,” Sharma says. (Yes, keto constipation is real.)

Essentially, your body legit needs fruits, vegetables, and other carbs in order to get the vital fiber and nutrients you need to survive. If you’re still dedicated to doing keto despite the bodily risks, though, you should know what kinds of food are best to include to ensure you don’t develop nutrient deficiencies. For carbs, foods like squashes and sweet potatoes are a solid option that can provide a lot of nutritional value. Specifically, here's what you need to know about eating sweet potatoes while participating in keto, according to experts.

So, are sweet potatoes actually keto-friendly?

Well, technically, no. “On a standard keto diet, sweet potatoes are considered too high in carbohydrates, and are excluded because they make it difficult to remain in ketosis,” says Sharma. On average, a medium sweet potato has 27 grams of carbs, which would make up over half your allotted daily carbs on a traditional keto diet.

The thing is, there are different types of keto diets, and some of them may allow more carbs than others. For instance, the cyclic keto diet allows for one to two days a week of higher carb days—about 140 to 160 grams per day. This type of keto diet does take you out of ketosis temporarily, but it’s often followed by athletes who need a higher-carb day after intense activity in order to properly replenish their energy stores.

Another carb-friendly version of the keto diet is the targeted keto diet, where dieters consume 20 to 50 grams of carbs around 30 minutes before working out, with the assumption that even though this may put them out of ketosis temporarily, the additional carbs are burned off immediately and won’t get stored as body fat.

How Carbs Impact Ketosis

Here's the thing: "To start ketosis, we need to be consuming a really low amount of carbohydrates because our body prefers them as an energy source over fat," Zellner explains. "It takes a few days before your body depletes your carbohydrate reserves and enters the metabolic state of burning fat for fuel," Zellner says. Even a small amount of excess carbs will kick you out of ketosis because your body wants to burn carbs for fuel, first, since it's an easier source for your body to process and use, she notes.

That's why if you’re trying one of the more carb-friendly keto diets, you can easily incorporate more starches like sweet potatoes into your daily routine. If not, it’ll be a little trickier to enjoy sweet potatoes while still remaining in your ketosis state.

Wait, what about other types of potatoes and the keto diet?

The biggest difference between sweet potatoes and a typical white potato is the amount of fiber it contains, Zellner says. Similar to a sweet potato, one cup of diced white potato contains around 26 grams of carbohydrates. Unlike sweet potatoes, though, a diced white potato has only around two grams of fiber (which isn't much!).

"But to balance that out, one thing that's beneficial is in that same cup of white potatoes, you get 316 grams of potassium, which is one of the electrolytes that can be easily depleted on a ketogenic diet," Zellner says. In short, other types of potatoes have a similar nutritional profile, just with less fiber and more potassium. Since there are benefits to eating potatoes, whether or not you want to make that work with your carb intake on your preferred keto method is up to you.

How can I eat sweet potatoes on a standard keto diet?

A lot of people on the keto diet don't just keep track of their overall carb consumption, but also the amount of net carbs they're consuming. The concept of net carbs was popularized by the Atkins diet; they're the amount of carbohydrates leftover in a food once you subtract the fiber and sugar alcohol from the total carb count. Essentially, the theory is that since your body can’t digest most of the fiber and sugar alcohols, they don’t need to be counted.

Tracking net carbs instead of total carbs makes it a little easier to fit sweet potatoes into your 40 grams of allotted daily carbs on the keto diet. For a basic medium-sized sweet potato, you’d remove the fiber content (3.8 grams) to get an average of 24 net carbs.

It’s also important to note that you don’t have to eat the entire sweet potato if you want to keep your carb count low. Just cut the portions. “Consider adding in sweet potatoes or your favorite vegetables according to the net carbs appropriate for your activity levels,” says Sharma. Basically, if you're working out a ton or at a super high intensity, you can easily have more carbs and burn them off without totally throwing off your keto diet.

What’s the most keto-friendly way to prepare sweet potatoes?

“Essentially, anything made with sugar isn’t sustainable on the keto diet, since sugar is a carb,” says Sharma. However, you can definitely add some yummy savory options, like cheese, sour cream, or avocado oil.

“Cooking with a lot of oil helps shift the macros of the dish toward being more fat-dominant,” says certified nutritional consultant Ariane Resnick. “I don't recommend frying because of that creates unhealthy trans fats."

Roasting with a hearty amount of an oil that won't oxidize at high heat—like avocado oil—would be the most keto-friendly approach, Resnick says. "If you want them mashed, adding lots of high-fat dairy like butter, heavy cream, and/or sour cream will also shift the macros to being more fat-heavy." Okay, yum!
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