“Don’t eat anything white.” When it comes to dietary rules of thumb, this one seems to be the one I’ve heard most over the last few years. Because humans are so distinct and our bodies have such individual responses to nutritional input, the value of these generalizations usually isn’t any bigger than your thumb. But, admittedly, this one does have some merit. Nutrition is simple, almost disconcertingly so, but you have to know where to apply its basic rules.
We learned some of the most important nutrition lessons in elementary school. Remember ROY G BIV? The mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow is not only a simple way to understand a complex meteorological phenomenon, but also it can be helpful in understanding a few of the fundamental principles of healthy nutrition. The color of natural, unprocessed foods can provide insight as to how rich they are in specific nutrients, particularly flavonoids, carotenoids, melanins, and porphyrins. While my ideology (backed by quite a bit of research) regarding healthy nutrition is slowly moving away from the “vitamin-ization” of nutrition, I don’t think anybody can disagree that one of the foundations of optimum health is basing one’s diet on whole, nutrient-dense (high composition of nutrition per calorie) foods. Red foods often derive their color from their concentration of lycopene, a carotenoid. Deficiencies in lycopene have been shown to be associated with increases in risk for a variety of chronic health concerns ranging from impaired blood glucose regulation to high blood pressure. Likewise, we all know that a healthy diet includes a lot of green, the camouflaging color being provided by nutrients such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, the more color variety in your diet (provided by whole, unprocessed foods) results in access to a more diversified balance of micronutrients and phytochemicals, and greater food enjoyment and health.
Is white a color? Ask a physicist and you’ll probably get a “yes” based on principles of light and reflection. Ask an artist and you’ll likely hear “no” based upon accepted ideas about pigments and coloring agents. Ask this health scientist and you’ll get a “sometimes”. Many of Mother Nature’s most nutrition-packed creations share space with vanilla ice cream on the color wheel. One of the palest of all vegetables, the white onion, is a nutrition powerhouse, packed with significant concentrations of vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, and a list of minerals that rivals the periodic table. The sweet fruit of a banana is a prime source of vitamin B6 and potassium (if you’ve ever had issues with muscle cramps, your dietician may recommend you add a hand of bananas to your grocery cart and call them in the morning). Even the often denigrated white potato can be a regular part of a healthy diet when it is not frenched, fried, dried, or smothered in butter and cheese. When it comes to the relative healthiness of white foods, it comes down to processing (as usual). The absence of color, particularly in grain products, is a signal that the foodstuff has had much of its nutritional content processed out in the name of taste and preservation. White rice has been milled so that its husk, bran, and germ are removed, stripping it of almost all its nutritional value and increasing its glycemic load (how quickly it impacts blood sugar levels). White flour is produced with essentially the same, nutrition-removing process.
Rarely in nutrition does it pay to be exclusionary (unless you are talking about hotdogs) because the benefits of eating food are derived from providing a broad spectrum of health-promoting nutrients into your system. There is little empirical evidence that consuming more than recommended dietary allowances of specific vitamins and minerals provides any benefit, but lifelong health and vitality is about avoiding nutrient deficiencies. Let me be that broken record again: when it comes to your diet, don’t overcomplicate things. It isn’t the color, it’s the processing. Taste the colors of the rainbow, and even hues that are the result of the reflection of all frequencies of light, just make sure that those colors come from nature and not a pack of Skittles®.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.