Sweet potato dreams: This prebiotic veggie helps babies sleep well, boosts their immune systems

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Watching a baby tear through a bowl of mushy sweet potatoes is an age-old adorable sight for any parent. It turns out there might just be some significant long-term health benefits from the messy meal too. At least, that’s the case when it comes to kūmara, a sweet potato native to New Zealand, according to new research. Scientists say kūmara acts as a prebiotic, supporting the growth of healthy bacteria in the baby’s microbiome, which could lead to improved sleep and protection against viruses.

Kūmara is the Māori name for the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) in New Zealand. This root vegetable has been a staple in the Māori diet for centuries, and it’s known for its sweet taste and vibrant colors, which can range from orange and purple to white.

According to Professor Clare Wall, the principal investigator in the SUN study, the early stages of pregnancy and the first few months after birth are crucial for a baby’s growth and development. What babies eat and the environment they are exposed to during this period can have a significant impact on their overall well-being.

While breastfeeding has been widely recognized for its positive impact on the baby’s microbiome, the effects of introducing solid foods, including kūmara, remain unclear. The gut microbiome plays a vital role in immune function and brain development, but optimal nutrition for microbiome and immune system development is still not fully understood.

The SUN study focuses on kūmara, a popular food choice for babies that contains prebiotics. These prebiotics are dietary fibers and carbohydrates that nourish the beneficial bacteria in the large bowel. By analyzing stool samples before and after the introduction of solid foods, including kūmara, the researchers aim to determine the influence of kūmara on the baby’s microbiome and immunity.

Ripe sweet potatoes
(© fotogurmespb – stock.adobe.com)

The study involves 300 healthy babies who are enrolled before starting solids. Stool samples from babies and, if willing, samples from mothers’ stool and breast milk are collected for analysis. The study also considers other aspects of the mother’s and baby’s diet to assess the impact of breastfeeding and kūmara compared to a control group.

In addition to the microbiome, the study also explores the effect of kūmara on sleep. The breakdown of carbohydrates by the gut microbiome produces short-chain fatty acids, which are essential for gut health and can influence signaling pathways in the body. Some of these fatty acids may contribute to longer and better-quality sleep for babies.

Dr. Robyn Lawrence, the trial manager, hopes that this research will enable dietitians to provide evidence-based advice to parents regarding the introduction of solid foods for optimal long-term development.

More about Kūmara

Kūmara is a nutritious root vegetable that is high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It can be cooked in various ways, including boiling, roasting, frying, and mashing. Its sweet flavor makes it a versatile ingredient in both savory and sweet dishes.

Health benefits of kūmara include:

  1. Rich in Nutrients: Kūmara is high in vitamins and minerals, notably vitamin A (from beta-carotene), vitamin C, vitamin B5, and manganese.
  2. High in Antioxidants: The beta-carotene in orange kūmara and anthocyanins in purple sweet potatoes are powerful antioxidants that help reduce oxidative damage in the body.
  3. Promotes Gut Health: Being a good source of fiber, kūmara can help promote healthy digestion and prevent constipation.
  4. Supports Healthy Vision: The high levels of beta-carotene can be converted into vitamin A in the body, which is essential for good eye health.
  5. May Enhance Brain Function: The anthocyanins in sweet potatoes may have brain-protective effects.
  6. Supports Immune Function: The high vitamin A content in kūmara supports a healthy immune system.
  7. Blood Sugar Regulation: While kūmara is a source of carbohydrates, its fiber content may help regulate blood sugar levels.
  8. Anti-inflammatory Properties: The various nutrients and antioxidants in kūmara have been associated with reduced inflammation in the body.
  9. Promotes Healthy Skin and Hair: The vitamins, particularly vitamin A and vitamin C, support skin health and can boost hair health as well.
  10. Versatile in Cooking: While this isn’t a direct health benefit, the versatility of kūmara in cooking means it can easily be incorporated into a variety of dishes, allowing people to reap its health benefits regularly.

Incorporating kūmara into a balanced diet can contribute to overall health and wellness. However, like all foods, it’s best consumed as part of a varied and balanced diet.

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