When it comes to healthy foods, you hear this all the time: eat the rainbow, avoid white foods. There’s even a “No White Foods Diet.” Sure, eating rainbow foods is a healthy habit, as the color in fruits, vegetables and legumes typically means they are packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber.
But contrary to what many believe, so are many white foods. Take white beans like cannellini, great northern and garbanzo (chickpeas). They’re a good vegetarian alternative to meat proteins and can help build and repair your body’s tissues and muscles. They’re rich in vitamin B, iron, potassium and good-for-your-gut fiber. They don’t typically contain many calories. And they’re inexpensive.
Not all white foods, then, are your meal plan’s public enemy number one. Here are five quick tips for eating healthy white foods.
Subtract refined whites.
These are foods with processed sugars or sucrose found in cake and cookie mixes, or refined white grain foods like white bread with the good bits processed out. There are many healthier, whole grain options on your grocery store shelves.
Refined white foods can be part of your diet, but moderation is recommended, especially if you have diabetes, as they can be high in calories and raise blood sugars rapidly. Look at the nutrition facts label on the food package to see how much sugar you’d be eating per portion.
Add natural whites.
These are the fresh superstars among nature’s plant and fungus foods that you can put in your shopping basket:
- White corn
- White-fleshed fruits such as apples, bananas and pears.
- Cheeses like cottage, goat, mozzarella and ricotta
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report very few Americans-—just 1 in 10—eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day anyway. This can put you more at risk for chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and obesity. It’s best, then, not to discount anything healthy from your grocery store aisle.
Related: Your essential diabetes checklist
Cut back on salt.
Salt still makes lists of white foods to avoid in large quantities. It’s not really about avoiding salt altogether. Salt makes foods tasty. It’s about keeping your daily amount under what’s recommended—somewhere between 2300 mg and 1500 mg per the American Heart Association.
- Consider putting away your salt shaker at home.
- Buy fresh, dried or frozen white foods without added salt. Look for “No salt added” food labelling—it’s your friend.
- For canned vegetables and beans, drain and rinse to remove excess salt.
Then, control how much salt (or any sodium-laden condiment) you add for flavor, or season with spices and herbs instead. For ideas, refer to the American Diabetes Association’s helpful salt-swap tip sheet.
Prepare white foods smartly.
Some people, especially those with diabetes, tell me they’re concerned about the high glycemic index (GI) of whites like potatoes or rice. These can rapidly increase blood sugar and insulin levels, and our bodies operate optimally when blood sugars are kept relatively constant and not fluctuating to extremes.
But relying on glycemic index for a specific food doesn’t consider everything that affects blood sugars, such as how a food is prepared or whether it’s consumed as part of an overall meal that contains the recommended portion of good carbohydrate choices.
For instance, there are all sorts of food preparation tips that can help make white foods even healthier. Frying whites like potatoes or rice in oil can add heart-unhealthy fats, so bake, broil or boil instead. If you want to lower the GI of potatoes or rice, try mashing the starchy potato flesh or combining the rice with an equal amount of a lower-carbohydrate, lower-GI vegetable like asparagus, broccoli or cauliflower.
For potato or rice salad, you might add a vinegar-based dressing, since vinegar is a blood sugar moderator, meaning it slows down food digestion and, thereby, reduces blood sugar spikes. You can even leave the potato’s fiber-rich, disease-fighting skin on, as this too can slow down digestion and make you feel fuller longer.
Check how whites affect your blood sugars (if you have diabetes or prediabetes).
The reason is simple: different people’s bodies react differently to the same foods, including white foods. The next time you’re shopping for healthy food choices, don’t judge a food by its cover. The truth is, many white foods pack a bigger nutritional punch with more health benefits than you may think.
Those of us who consume five daily servings—specifically two fruits and three vegetables—have, according to a large new study, a 12 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, 10 percent lower risk from cancer and 35 percent lower risk from respiratory disease, compared with those who only eat two daily servings.
So, don’t be afraid to try white foods, as long as you follow these smart tips for making healthy choices!
For weekly nutrition and wellness advice you can trust, subscribe below!