Photo Courtesy of Stronger Together Coop
Root vegetables are powerful sources of nutrition. Traditionally, they have supported people through the harsh winter months when other plant produce is scarce. They have permitted poorer people to survive by providing an inexpensive array of minerals and vitamins along with calories for energy. And, last but not least, on an energetic level they link us back to the earth: they keep us grounded and present.
In late fall and early winter, everything is sinking deeper towards the core of the earth. In northern climes, there is little movement in winter except perhaps the winds bringing blizzards or flurries of snow and freezing rain; life must patiently wait out the cold and the dark months where, despite glittering wintry beauty, death seems to have gained the upper hand. It is during this season that eating plenty of root vegetables is especially beneficial.
In winter, the energy plummets down under the earth’s surface. Everything has contracted inward and downward from the airy expansiveness of summer and the rich, colorful bounty of fall. Edible plants which contain within them the natural imprint, or cellular experience, of living within the earth’s dark therefore resonate with both our bodily and psychic needs during winter.
Winter, when everything sometimes appears so still, is actually a recoil downward and inward before the rebound of the life force that occurs in spring. It is a time of quiet introspection; it presents us with an opportunity to review our current patterns of behavior; where we touch, or have lost touch with, our life purpose.
The consumption of root vegetables, roasted, steamed or turned into hearty soups, provides us warm sustenance rich in minerals which is substantial yet easy to digest. Such fare will help guide our consciousness inward and downwards to our own roots, where energy naturally will seek to flow during winter time.
Winter, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, is the time of Water, whose vital energy tends to seek low, hidden places where its power resides, just like the hidden aquifers and waterways under the earth. Root vegetables are filled with this type of concentrated water. Therefore, eating plenty of them over the winter period will sustain our bodies and minds in preparation for the new, upward moving energies of spring.
Nutritional and Medicinal Properties of Root Vegetables
High in fiber and mineral content, they generally have a complex carbohydrate profile which provides ongoing, slow release of energy as the starchy component breaks down slowly instead of providing a sugar rush. They are typically high in vitamin C and also in beta-carotene, a precursor for vitamin A and an important anti-oxidant. The fiber content helps in the elimination of waste and weight loss. They often have anti-inflammatory properties and can provide a satisfying meal, neither too heavy nor too light.
Beets: high in Vitamin C, in folic acid and in betaine, they assist in detoxification of the liver and movement of bile through the gallbladder. Their distinctive red color is derived from pigments known as betanins. These pigments catalyze the action of enzymes which will bind with toxins and help the body get rid of them.
Carrots: a prolific source of beta-carotenes. Very high in antioxidants, they strongly support our natural immunity. Like beets, carrots also have a very high sugar content, so this needs to be taken into consideration. However, just as sweet potatoes can, carrots actually help regulate blood sugar metabolism, so the pendulum swings both ways. Carrot tops can be eaten and are indeed delicious and nutritious when steamed or lightly sautéed with sesame oil and topped with freshly crushed sesame seeds. Very high in vitamin K, the tops are beneficial for bone health. Carrot juice is diuretic and also helps enhance the quality of breast milk. It is beneficial for skin problems, ulcers, eye problems, asthma and congestion of the respiratory system.
Celeriac: celery root is one of my personal favorites. This root is low calorie and high in Vitamins C, B and K and also rich in potassium. High in fiber, it is cleansing for the blood and assists detoxification.
Garlic: has stronger microbe killing properties than onions, with which it shares many properties and benefits. Garlic is a superfood containing over twelve different antioxidants. Its antimicrobial power can attack viruses, parasites, fungi, protozoa bacteria and pathogenic yeasts. It strongly enhances our immune function, cleans the blood and also prevents it from excessive coagulation (thickening.) By stripping plaque and deposits from the arteries, garlic protects against arteriosclerosis and helps to lower blood pressure. However, garlic needs to be treated with respect and consumed carefully, especially females. It is too strong for some people while others can eat large quantities with no adverse effects. Raw or cooked, garlic is without question “food which heals”.
Jerusalem artichokes: These delicious roots are naturally high in inulin (as is asparagus). Inulin is actually a vital nutrient for the maintenance of our gut flora such as acidopholus. Without inulin, our friendly flora (prebiotics) would starve away. Together with their high fiber content, this makes them very beneficial for the health of the gut.
Jicama: This South American root vegetable is high in vitamins A, B, C and K as well as zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium and manganese. The manganese is beneficial for blood sugar regulation. Jicamas are low in calories and high in antioxidants. They support general health and can speed up wound healing and improve skin tone. Jicamas can be eaten raw or cooked.
Lotus root: the root portion of lotus flowers, they grow in water. Rich in vitamin C and minerals, lotus root is also prized for its medicinal properties. It is beneficial for both heart and intestinal health and for the lungs, eliminating mucus and phlegm. Lotus root and seeds boost the body’s natural vitality and also support the blood when one is suffering from anemia or excessive menstruation
Maca root: usually taken in powder form or in capsules, maca is an amazing cruciferous root vegetable from Peru with a panoramic amino acid profile. It can recalibrate the hormonal system as a whole, support the thyroid in particular, powerfully strengthen the libido in both men and women, lower blood sugar, and reduce stress. It is an important consideration for women’s health issues as it can support the body through menopause.
Onions: excellent – even a must – for the health of the heart, the onion lowers LDL cholesterol and fights inflammation. Onions strengthen immunity, low blood pressure and reduce hyper-coagulation (thickening of the blood). Their high iron content makes them useful for anemia, while their type of sugar content (FOS, or fructo-oligosaccharides) feeds the friendly flora in our gut. Onions additionally have anti-microbial and antiseptic properties, thus preventing diseases such as UTI and cystitis, whilst attacking E-coli and salmonella. Onions even support bone health and prevent osteoporosis. Last but not least, onions, and garlic, stimulate sexual desire, which is why they are prohibited for Buddhist monks!
Parsnips: far higher in fiber than potatoes, they are sweet tasting and high in calories, similar to grapes or bananas. High in vitamin C, B complex, fiber, and minerals, parsnips are particularly rich in the poly-acetylene group of antioxidants. British researchers at Newcastle University determined that this class of antioxidants has anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. (Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis 41 (2006) 683–693. This research paper may be read online through www.sciencedirect.com)
Potato: technically a tuber as opposed to a root, potatoes are eaten in a variety of well-known forms and ways. The high starch content in potatoes is problematic for some people meaning that potatoes have a high glycemic index (releasing sugars rapidly into the blood). However, we should remember that many people survived in northern Europe in the past on little more than a potato diet. People in Russia managed to get by for years during World War II eating nothing else but potatoes. Potatoes provide Vitamin C along with B1 and a range of minerals.
Radishes: very good for the liver and for skin problems, radishes belong to the cruciferous family and share the same cancer-preventive properties as other members such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. Radish juice helps with all sorts of upper respiratory complaints and assists with waste elimination by acting as a gentle laxative and diuretic. Daikon (an Asian type of radish) and black radish are especially helpful for liver issues. When black radish is taken as a juice it with meals it is strongly detoxifying for liver cells.
Rutabagas: sweet tasting but low in calories, rutabagas also belong to the cruciferous family and share similar cancer preventive properties.
Sweet potatoes: these are actually not potatoes at all, but real roots whereas potatoes are actually tubers. Higher in starch and sugars than potatoes, the release is slower which makes them healthier for people with blood sugar problems. Sweet potatoes effectively assist in blood sugar regulation and so can in fact be beneficial for people with diabetes or insulin resistance. An excellent source of vitamins A and C as well as other antioxidants make it a good choice for an anti-inflammatory diet for a wide variety of conditions ranging from asthma to gout. Also, its high potassium content makes it a favorable choice for the heart, and to prevent muscle cramps.
Taro root: this delicious root vegetable grows in large parts of Asia, Africa and South America. It can usually be found in Oriental grocery stores. Higher in calories than potatoes, it is formed of gluten free complex carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (meaning it releases sugars into the blood slowly and gradually.) It is rich in pyrodoxine (vitamin B6) and other B complex vitamins, vitamins , and E plus a wide variety of minerals (especially potassium and magnesium), trace minerals, and high fiber content. It can help to lower blood pressure and also slow down the aging of joints due to its high content of hyaluronic acid
Turnips: high in water and low in calories and starch, they belong also to the cruciferous family. They contain high levels of glucosinolates, which are sulfur containing compounds that protect us against certain types of cancer. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, other compounds known as indoles present in turnips may reduce one’s risk of lung or colorectal cancer. Turnip sprouts contain even higher percentages of glucosinulates. These compounds can also be beneficial in treating an enlarged prostate.
Yams: the highest starch content of all root vegetables. However, as with sweet potatoes, they have a low glycemic index. Their high fiber content is beneficial for digestion and for colon health. They are high in potassium and so can help regulate blood pressure and support heart health. Their high vitamin B6 level is also beneficial for the heart in that it breaks down a metabolic toxin called homocysteine. Wild yams are often processed into medicinal creams or tinctures to address menopausal problems, but do not have the same efficacy as Maca root or Pueraria Mirifica root. (Pueraria Mirifica root, whilst traditionally consumed as a food in Thailand where it grows, is only available as a medicinal extract in capsule form in the USA.)
Eat Local, Eat Humble
Much of what we consume today is highly processed, including packaged forms of “health food.” The beneficial properties of food tend to diminish the farther such produce has been shipped from its original source. Even organic produce which is neither seasonal nor local can imbalance us, making us either sluggish or spacey. Not so root vegetables, especially locally grown ones. True, roots do not look as glamorous as fruits, highly pigmented peppers or tomatoes. Their knobby appearance will win them no beauty pageants. Due to living their quiet lives underground, they will understandably appear a little perplexed and awkward once pulled up into the bright air where we live. But they are generous in spirit: they pass on to us the strength and patience of the earth. For we must not forget that foods have soul qualities as well as nutrient profiles, and what we consume (and the way we consume it) will determine how we look and even who we are.