Health benefits of root vegetables

Woman carrying a box of just harvested vegetables

By Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD

I often advise people to “eat with the seasons” to get the most health benefits and flavor from their food. Now with fall here, that means enjoying root vegetables. And there’s a huge variety of nutrient-rich roots out there for you to explore.

Let’s “go underground” and find out more about the health benefits of root vegetables — and how to enjoy them.

What’s different about root vegetables

The nutritional benefits of root vegetables are underrated. One reason is that this whole category of plant foods sometimes gets whittled down to just potatoes, onions and carrots. But there are so many root vegetables with much to offer:

  • Tubers, corms, and rhizomes, strange words for a class of root veggies that includes potatoes and yams, water chestnut, turmeric and ginger
  • Bulbs, which include onions, garlic, fennel, Jerusalem artichokes and shallots
  • “True” roots, such as carrots, parsnips, beets, radishes, jicama, turnips and sweet potato

Another reason is that people often consider roots just another vegetable. But they aren’t! Root vegetables evolved to store nutrients for the plants themselves, so they offer us a true powerhouse of energy, minerals, vitamins and more.

3 healthy reasons to eat more root vegetables

1. Dietary fiber. Root veggies tend to be rich in complex carbohydrates. This includes dietary fiber, which promotes better blood glucose stability and improved digestive health. Dietary fiber is something most of us could definitely use more of!

2. Resistant starch. Many of root veggies also have significant amounts of what’s called resistant starch. This is a type of complex carbohydrate that doesn’t easily break down in the gut. It arrives intact in the colon and ferments there, feeding gut bacteria and producing beneficial short-chain fatty acids.

3. Vitamins and minerals. Because of their close contact with the soil, root veggies are particularly rich in minerals like potassium, zinc, copper, phosphorus and magnesium. However, mineral content is dependent on the health of the soil they’re grown in — another reason why organic is better. Remember also that it is the high mineral content of root crops that make them such alkalizing foods. Measuring your pH can help you see just how well you are maintaining optimum alkaline pH balance.

As for vitamins, many roots are loaded with vitamins A, C and B6. Roots that come with edible greens, such as beets and radishes, are also good sources of vitamin K.

carrots-in-the-garden-ready-to-be-harvested

In other cases, root crops can be important sources of nutrients that are hard to get in other places. Take the carrot, for example. You’ve probably heard that eating carrots is good for your eyesight because they are rich in beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor. But did you know carrots are also a good source of a rather rare trace mineral, molybdenum? This mineral aids in fat and carbohydrate metabolism, as well as magnesium (important for bone health and many other processes).

But what about the carbs?

Limiting your carb intake because of concerns about weight gain or insulin resistance? You may be trying to avoid “starchy” root vegetables like potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, carrots and parsnips.

But “low carb” doesn’t mean no carb. If you’re “not eating carbs” it is better to focus on cutting out simple sugars like sucrose and fructose. Both are readily absorbed in the gut, unlike the resistant starch present in many of the root veggies we’re talking about.

Get all the health benefits of root crops

Many root veggies also have antioxidant properties. Some, like onions, ginger, beets and turmeric, have known anti-inflammatory capabilities.

A few, like garlic, contain natural antibacterial qualities that can help limit bacterial overgrowth in the gut. Radishes have long been known to have a mild hypoglycemic effect in diabetes. Ginger and turmeric both have widely been researched for their anti-inflammatory properties.

Find out 10 ways to alkalize your body from Dr. Brown.
References

Allen J.C., Corbitt A.D., Maloney K.P., Butt M.S., Truong V.-D. Glycemic index of sweet potato as affected by cooking methods. The Open Nutrition Journal 2012;6: 1-11.

Annigan J. Sweet potato vs yam nutrition. Livestrong.com, Oct. 3, 2017.

Banihani S.A. Radish (Raphanus sativus) and diabetes. Nutrients 2017, 9(9), 1014; doi:10.3390/nu9091014

Chandrasekara A., Kumar T.J. Roots and tuber crops as functional foods: a review on phytochemical constituents and their potential health benefits. International Journal of Food Science 2016:Article ID 3631647. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2016/3631647

Da Silva Dias J.C. Nutritional and health benefits of carrots and their seed extracts. Food and Nutrition Sciences 2014;5:2147–2156.

Han C., Ji Y., Li M., Li X., Jin P., Zheng Y. Influence of wounding intensity and storage temperature on quality and antioxidant activity of fresh-cut Welsh onions. Scientia Horticulturae 2016;212:203-209

Trinidad T.P., Mallillin A.C., Loyola A.C., Encabo R.R., Sagum R.S., et al. Nutritional and health benefits of root crops. In: R.R. Watson and V.R. Preedy, Eds., Bioactive Foods in Promoting Health. Burlington, MA: Academic Press.