People who care about nutrition — which includes many people with diabetes, and those who are trying to lose weight — are often on the lookout for rules to follow that might lead to better food habits. These rules can consist of anything from avoiding hydrogenated oils to filling half of one’s plate with vegetables. But not every rule that gains the public’s attention is equally helpful, or necessarily helpful at all.
One of the more confusing pieces of dietary advice to emerge in recent years is to avoid white-colored foods. You may be wondering whether there is any evidence to support such a rule. If there is, does it apply to all white foods, or just certain ones? And what does being white have to do with it, anyway?
Like other slogans that distill complex information into catchy phrases, calls to avoid white foods contain a kernel of wisdom. When used as verbal shorthand for limiting refined carbohydrates, avoiding white foods makes dietary sense. After all, many low-nutrient-value, calorie-dense foods are made with white sugar and/or white flour, such as sugary drinks and many baked goods. But whiteness does not relegate a food to junk status. Rather, excessive calories, saturated fat, and forms of processing that destroy nutrients are what should provoke health-minded individuals to white out certain white foods.
On that basis, a no-white-foods eating plan should not mean scrapping foods such as parsnips, white fish, or onions. Balanced consumption of unprocessed, wholesomely prepared white foods can be part of any healthy diet. This article examines white foods that can easily be part of a diabetes-friendly diet, and those that are best avoided or consumed in limited amounts.
For several years now, the nutritional spotlight has been shining on colorful produce, as study after study has shown health benefits associated with blueberries, tomatoes, and other brightly colored foods.
While antioxidant- and nutrient-rich “rainbow foods” are good for you, the flip side — that foods lacking in color are bad for you — does not hold true. On the surface, foods that are white or pale-colored might appear to be boring and somewhat short on flavor. White’s basic blandness may lend credence to the notion that white foods are nutritionally empty and to be avoided.
But nutrient profiles of many white foods tell another story. Nature’s animal, plant, and fungus kingdoms boast a number of white superstars that fit right in alongside the garden’s color guard.
White foods to limit
The most widely shunned white food ingredients are sugar and white flour. (Also cited at times is salt, which raises a different health issue, discussed later on.) These ingredients and the often nutrient-poor, carbohydrate-rich, highly processed products in which they appear have contributed to the rising daily caloric intake among Americans, which today averages 200–300 calories more than a generation ago.
Common dietary sources of sugar and white flour include candy, cookies, pastries, breakfast cereals, pasta, white bread, and breading for fried foods. People with diabetes should approach these foods with caution —not because of the whiteness of their ingredients, but rather because of their high carbohydrate and low nutrient and fiber content. Remember that metabolism is color-blind when it comes to metabolizing brown versus white sugar.
Potatoes are sometimes grouped with sugar and white flour as a food to avoid. After all, potatoes have a high glycemic index (GI) of 85 — meaning they raise blood glucose quickly and high after eating — and a medium-size potato contains 30 grams of carbohydrate. Potatoes are also often turned into high-fat, high-calorie foods, from French fries to buttery mashed potatoes. Yet potatoes naturally contain no fat and are rich in fiber, potassium, B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and other trace elements — all that and protein, too.