Eating the Rainbow for Health Can Villainize Cultural Foods

sYou’ve probably heard the term “eat the rainbow” for good reason. The compounds that give plant foods their colors also have unique health benefits, so eating a variety of colors means you’re getting a wide variety of nutrients. But I’m a registered dietitian, and this adage–much like the “conventional wisdom” in the nutrition world–is driving me crazy.

It is true that most Americans could benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. Currently, only about 10 percent of adults get five a day. But who said they had to be colorful in the rainbow? Not everything you eat – for health reasons or otherwise – has to be vibrant. Embracing the nutritional value of only colored foods leads to white, beige, and brown foods being overlooked (and even demonized) unnecessarily. In fact, it paints a narrow view of what healthy eating can look like. This is why beige isn’t boring, bland, or “bad” for your nutrition—and more importantly, how focusing solely on eating rainbows offends many cultural foods and whitens nutrition.

White fruits and vegetables contain health-supporting compounds too

Although the colorful pigments seem to get all the health credit (chlorophyll in deep greens; lycopene in bright red tomatoes; anthocyanins in blueberries), the white pigments provide unique health benefits, too. For example: Anthoxanthins, the pigments that give plants their creamy white or yellow color, are a type of antioxidant with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Think broccoli, parsnips, daikon radish, and jicama. One cup of cooked broccoli will get you more than half of your daily vitamin C goal, and one cup of raw parsnip contains nearly a quarter of the folic acid most adults need in a day.

Even starchy white vegetables, which are sometimes saucy, are rich in nutrients. “White potatoes are loaded with fiber and potassium we need on a daily basis,” says registered dietitian Elizabeth Barnes, MS, RD, owner of Weight Neutral Wellness. Fiber, which is found in all plant foods, helps keep your digestive system moving, lowers your risk of developing high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and can also support your immune system by feeding the probiotic bacteria in your gut. Potassium, also found in bananas, is essential for nerve and muscle function and heart health.

…and they’re not the only ones

Although white fruits and vegetables don’t take center stage in the healthy eating conversation, most people know that they are nutritious. After all, they are still fruits and vegetables. Other plant-based white foods, such as nuts and seeds, are highly acclaimed by wellness lovers, too.

The real problem with the concept of “eating the rainbow” is that it excludes white and brown starchy foods: rice, bread, tortillas, grits, grains, and other carbohydrates that many people mistakenly believe should not be central to a healthy diet. Madalyn Vasquez, MS, RD, CDCES, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator, explains that starchy white foods play an important role in health. “Carbohydrates are our body’s preferred energy source and provide other nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals,” she says. All carbohydrates, whether they come from sweet potatoes or from flour tortillas, provide the body with energy and important nutrients.

Carbohydrates such as beans, whole grains, and starchy vegetables Also High in fibre. Fiber aids digestion, helps prevent constipation, and can reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases, Vasquez says. But processed carbs like cereal and packaged bread products aren’t bad. They are a source of energy, and are often fortified with certain essential vitamins and minerals that many people may be deficient in. In addition, we usually eat these foods along with other things as part of the meal – bread in a sandwich, rice with vegetables and meat, cereal with fruit and milk, etc. – which means we get a variety of nutrients overall.

Fatty foods and cheese White foods aren’t inherently bad either. A consistent diet of creme brulee and queso blanco with tortilla chips is definitely not nutritionally sound. But eating these occasionally, as part of an overall varied diet, is a good thing. They are often a great source of calcium, which is essential for bone health, as well as heart, nerve, and muscle function. And some fatty foods, such as yogurt and sugar, are highly nutritious, high in protein, vitamins, minerals and health-supporting probiotic bacteria.

Defaming white foods isn’t just a bad approach to nutrition science – it’s also culturally insensitive

Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, nutritionist and owner of Your Latina Nutritionist, says many of her Latina clients come to her thinking they need to stop eating rice, beans, tortillas, yucca, and other staples to be healthy. She says some nutritionists and other health care providers write off these traditional Latin staples like rice, bananas, toston and tortillas as being rich in carbohydrates, especially for people with type 2 diabetes. They recommend limiting or eliminating them, rather than taking the time to explain how our bodies process it. For carbohydrates and ways to include these things as part of a healthy diet. Sometimes, Soto says, this has to do with the language barrier: An English-speaking provider can’t explain the nuances of healthy eating to a Spanish-speaking patient. Without a translator in the room, the only way to communicate information might be to say something oversimplified like, “Avoid white foods,” or with a flyer that lists white foods as foods to avoid.

This stereotype demonstrates the demonization of foods that have not only been a part of Latinx cultures for centuries, but are also inexpensive and quick to prepare. (Unlike the cereal bowl, for example, which has more than six different veggies, vegan meats, and homemade sauce) and that has consequences. Soto shares that some people give up on their health: “They feel, what’s the point if they can’t enjoy familiar foods?”

Rather than offering blanket advice that is doomed to fail, Soto takes a more individualistic approach. “Everyone is completely different,” she says. “Even if I work with someone who has type 2 diabetes, I talk to them about what really happens when they eat these high-carb foods.” (And she notes that not everyone’s blood sugar levels react to all carbohydrates the same way, so an individual approach is really key.) She talks about ways to keep blood sugar stable and get adequate nutrition without completely avoiding basic foods, like added carbohydrates and protein. And vegetables along with white and beige high-carb foods.

In his family’s Laotian culture, which has been heavily influenced by Theravada Buddhism, meals are traditionally built around a balance of flavor — sweet, spicy, sour, umami — versus nutrition or aesthetics. “Believes [in Buddhism that] He explains that a balance in these restores the “hot and cold forces”. While colorful vegetables and herbs are abundant in Laotian cuisine, foods such as rice and pasta are also important. And in this context, white foods actually provide nutritional balance.

Make good nutrition easier including white and brown foods

Soto, who rarely shares food photos with her 62,000+ Instagram followers, believes social media is fueling the fire of people who believe healthy eating should look a certain way. “There are all these reds and greens and violets,” she says. “Everything is dripping with color, and the photography makes it look great.” Oftentimes, this can also mean intimidation and inaccessibility.

In fact, colorful foods are visually vibrant, while white and brown foods don’t quite pop out of your feed—especially when they have to compete with spirulina spirulina, pumpkin spice latte, and bright purple acai bowls. “We tell you to eat the rainbow because a lot of these colors have different vitamins and nutrients in them,” Soto says. “But you don’t need to throw something green in everything you eat.” It’s okay if some meals and snacks lack color, because less bioavailable foods also provide nutrients.

Aesthetics is not a great criterion against which to measure nutrition. In fact, a diet consisting of cabbage salads and smoothie bowls is not healthy at all. As someone who helps adults overcome disordered eating behaviors, I often see that what begins as a decision innocent enough to “prioritize colorful foods” can quickly turn into an unhealthy obsession with eating loads of fruits, vegetables, and more.

There’s no doubt that eating colorful produce supports good health, but that’s no reason to exclude other foods from the conversation. White, beige, and brown foods — from broccoli and chickpeas to rice, bananas, lentils, potatoes, tofu, and much more — all have a place in a healthy diet. Nutritious and revitalizing in their own right, they are staples of deeply meaningful traditional cuisines in ways that go beyond their vitamin and mineral makeup. Instead of trying to avoid these less colorful foods, think of them as another shade of your healthy eating rainbow, with their unique texture, flavor, and nutritional benefits.

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