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, since 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. Cauliflower is white and is loaded with nutritional value. It's low in calories, provides fiber and is part of the cruciferous vegetable group that includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. All help reduce the risk of cancer. Other healthful white foods include garlic, onions, white cannellini beans, many cheeses, and milk (cow's and soy, both of which come in low-fat versions).

Even white potatoes have some nutritional attributes. They pack a fair amount of vitamin C and other nutrients; if you eat the skin, they also provide some fiber. And while 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 are not only more flavorful, but they also provide more than a day's worth of beta carotene. (The body converts beta carotene into vitamin A, which 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 reader 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."

Use moderation

Here's where common sense and the adage "everything in moderation" come in. There's nothing wrong with eating pasta and potatoes as part of a healthful diet. Top that pasta with a 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 a baked potato.

As for the jelly beans, well, there's still no recommended dietary allowance set for candy, nor is there likely ever to be one. But 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.

So soothe a sweet tooth the smart way with healthful sweet alternatives to jelly beans. Some options 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, a frozen banana counts toward the recommended daily intake of two cups of fruit for most adults, set by the Dietary Guidelines. So does a small bunch of frozen grapes that can serve as a healthful icy treat on a blistering summer day.

The point is that there's no need to demonize entire food groups based simply on their color -- a wise idea in other aspects of life too. Look at what these foods offer nutritionally and use common sense to make smart choices. Can you imagine your grandmother saying "Don't eat anything white"? I can't. And mine lived to age 90 by walking nearly everywhere and eating a little bit of everything -- in moderation, of course.

You can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter at Sally Squires is a writer for the Washington Post.