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In Designing a Healthful Diet, White Can Be a Fine Accent Color

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Eat nothing white?

That's a question that pops up from time to time on the Lean Plate Club Web chat and in e-mails from readers. It comes from the idea that some highly processed foods, especially those loaded with sugar and white flour, are not the best nutritional choices because they often lack fiber, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients.

But the question always makes me think of white foods that have strong nutritional attributes: garlic, onions, white cannellini beans, many cheeses, milk (cow's and soy, both of which come in low-fat versions).

Even potatoes could fall into this category: They pack a fair amount of Vitamin C and other nutrients; if you eat the skin, they also provide some fiber. And though no one would suggest that eating french fries cooked in unhealthy trans fat is a wise choice, a baked potato now and again is not a bad thing. Neither is adding some potatoes to stew, sipping potato leek soup (without heavy cream, of course) or eating a salade nicoise, which features sliced potatoes as an ingredient.

For potato lovers who want to boost their nutritional intake, sweet potatoes not only are more flavorful, but they also provide more than a day's worth of beta carotene. (The body converts beta carotene into Vitamin A, which, among its other attributes, is important for good vision and healthy skin.)

The idea of demonizing foods of a certain color seemed a bit strange to a Lean Plate Club member who wrote to me recently. This LPCer is at a healthy weight (body mass index 22) and eats plenty of fruit, vegetables and fish. For medical reasons, nearly all artery-clogging saturated fat has been eliminated from this member's diet. Only fat-free dairy foods are consumed and only limited amounts of healthy oils -- a little canola and olive oil -- are on this member's plate.

"I read a lot about how white sugar and white flour should be avoided," this LPCer wrote in a recent Web chat. "But other than the fact that they don't add nutritional value to your diet, I don't see why I should be avoiding them when I get all the nutritional value I need in my diet from the good stuff. . . . Is it really that bad to eat white flour and white sugar? I can't snack on common high-fat treats, so I go for things like pasta, baked potatoes or jelly beans."

Here's where common sense and the adage "everything in moderation" comes in. There's nothing wrong with eating pasta and potatoes as part of a healthful diet. Top that pasta with a rich tomato sauce with mushrooms, eggplant, peppers, onions and a little low-fat cheese for a fast meal that's both delicious and nutritious. For another tasty dish, add steamed broccoli or beans with a little low-fat cheese to that baked potato.

As for the jelly beans, well, there's still no recommended dietary allowance set for candy. The 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines said so-called "discretionary calories" could be used for foods with added sugar or fat. These are the calories left after requirements for all daily nutrients are met. Trouble is, most people have very few discretionary calories to spare: about 100 to 200 per day, to account for everything from margarine on toast to a little salad dressing.

Sweet alternatives to jelly beans are dates, raisins, and fresh or frozen cherries without added sugar. Or take a banana, freeze it, then eat it as a cold dessert that can rival prepared frozen confections. Plus, it counts toward the recommended daily intake of two cups of fruit for most adults.

Lean Plate Club members are an inquisitive lot who regularly pepper me with wide-ranging questions. Here's another question that popped up in the electronic mailbag recently: "My husband and I work out regularly, but not together. . . . I love outdoor running, but he doesn't want the possible knee problems associated with this activity. Are there any rowing clubs that teach you the method and enjoyment of the sport?"

Both U.S. Rowing and its partner, the Foundation for Rowing Education, offer plenty of help to novice rowers as well as to experienced crew members. Whether you want to row a shell alone, with a partner or with a bunch of friends, these national nonprofit organizations can help teach you the right form and help keep you safe on the water. Find a rowing club near you by calling 800-314-4ROW or logging on to U.S. Rowing's interactive search site.

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