Don’t Forget Your Whites!

For years, nutritionists have touted the benefits of eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, citing the plants’ bright, vibrant colors for their nutrients and antioxidant power. Most often, the darker the hue, the more nutrients the fruit or vegetable has to offer. Blueberries, for example, owe their deep color to anthocyanins, a class of phytonutrients that offer protection against a wide range of diseases, including cancer and diabetes. Carrots, mangoes, and sweet potatoes are orange and yellow because they contain beta carotene, an antioxidant that enhances the immune system and protects against cardiovascular diseases. It’s so important to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables because each offers a unique set of nutrients and antioxidants that you may otherwise not get if you stick to a monochromatic diet. So what about these tasty plants – onions, garlic, banana, jicama, and mushrooms – that are colorless? Is a bright orange carrot stick more nutritious than a bland, white jicama stick? It turns out, white fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as their more colorful counterparts, offering unique nutrients and antioxidants to boot.

Onions, a member of the Allium family (which also includes garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives), owe their pungent odor to their sulfur-containing compounds. These compounds offer cardiovascular protection by acting as anti-clotting agents in the blood,  as well as lowering blood levels of cholesterol as well as triglycerides. Onions are also a top-10 source of quercetin, a flavonoid that is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. Quercetin also has anti-cancer benefits; in one study, people with a diet rich in onions and garlic have a 20-fold lower cancer risk than those who do not consume the potent bulb. Onions impart huge flavor for very little calories: add chopped onions to salads and sauces or caramelize them and stuff into paninis, chilis, soups, burgers, or eggs.

Garlic contains the same sulfur-containing compounds as onions, so it offers similar cardiovacular protection. More specifically, garlic boosts our own natural supply of hydrogen sulfide, a compound that increases blood flow and signals blood vessels to relax – thereby helping to decrease blood pressure. Garlic has powerful anti-inflammatory effects as well, which may play a role in obesity. Obesity is believed to be a disease caused by chronic, low level inflammation; a sulfur compound in garlic appears to decrease the conversion of preadipocytes into adipocytes (fat cells). The odoriferous bulb also has antibacterial and antiviral properties; in fact, in World War I and II, garlic was used as an antiseptic to prevent gangrene among injured soldiers! For a nutrition boost, chop or crush a bulb and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes to increase the formation of sulfur-containing compounds.

Bananas are one of nature’s easiest snacks, offering prepackaged nutrition anywhere, anytime. Bananas are touted for their high potassium content, a mineral that aids in muscle and nerve function and contributes to bone health by minimizing the excretion of calcium through the kidneys. Bananas are good for your mind, too: each banana contains about 10.6 mg of tryptophan, an amino acid that encourages serotonin production. Serotonin has a calming effect on the brain and can act as a mild sedative, making it a great pre-bedtime snack. Bananas also contain resistant starch, a type of fiber also found in beans, potatoes, and whole grains, that promotes fullness and satiety and increases fat burning. This makes bananas a great post-workout snack as well; the creamy fruits refuel and replenish important vitamins and minerals lost during exercise.

Jicama, also known as the Mexican potato, is a root vegetable often used in Central American cooking. It is sweet but mild with a crisp, refreshing bite. Composed of mostly carbohydrates and water, it is a good source of inulin, a type of dietary fiber that has system-wide benefits: it enhances calcium absorption for better bone health, decreases LDL cholesterol, and even acts as a prebiotic, helping the good bacteria in your intestines to function more efficiently. Jicama is heart-healthy: it contains the powerhouse trifecta of beta-carotene, folic acid, and vitamin C, three nutrients that, together, decrease blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that may negatively affect cellular metabolism and damage blood vessels. Enjoy the crisp vegetable raw, like carrot sticks or in salads, or add to stir-fries, sautes and soups for a high-fiber, healthy crunch.

Mushrooms have been held in high regard throughout history: in Rome, they were seen as a gift from God and were only eaten during celebrations; the Chinese prized them as as medicinal herbs; and the Japanese still use them to treat colds and the flu. Science confirms mushrooms as immune-boosting plants. Mushrooms beneficially shift the activity of monocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells, each a type of white blood cell, either shutting off activity when they should be inactive and triggering activity when they are needed. High in niacin, copper, potassium, zinc, selenium, and B vitamins, mushrooms are a rich source of antioxidants. For vegetarians, mushrooms are an especially crucial dietary component: they have high protein levels and are one of the richest naturally-occurring non-animal source of vitamin D. In addition to soups, salads, and sandwiches, their earthy, robust flavor lends well as a substitute in burgers and meat sauces.

While you continue to eat your way through ROY G BIV, make sure to also mix in some white vegetables every now and then. These colorless plants are not as bland as they seem: in addition to adding new, unique tastes, they harbor health-boosting nutrients and antioxidants inside and out!

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