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Winter vegetables are something to root about

Winter has arrived, bringing with it added risk of influenza and viral infections which spread more quickly when people remain indoors in close company with others. Thus in cold weather, the body needs extra vitamins and minerals to bolster the immune system and maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. While nutrient supplements might be a necessity for some, the best defence is a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Although we enjoyed fresh lettuce, peas and tomatoes from the garden in summer—and revelled in their taste and nutritional goodness—it’s time to turn our attention to root vegetables which also offer a host of health benefits to keep us healthy until spring.

Root vegetables such as carrots, onions, leeks, beets, parsnips, turnips and potatoes grow underground and so are able to absorb high amounts of nutrients from the soil and gain energy from the sun to grow into healthy plants through their leafy green tops. They mature in fall when they are dug and stored for winter use. Fortunately, root vegetables store well if kept in a cool dry place, and thus can be enjoyed fresh almost until the garden grows again in spring. And the best thing is because of their protective skin, they retain most of their nutrients.

High in fibre

There are health benefits that most of the roots hold in common. One is they are high in soluble fibre which satisfies hunger without adding calories which might help those who are trying to lose weight. Fibre assists the whole digestive process, helping to move food as well as toxins through the tract, thus lowering the risk of colon cancer.

Root vegetables contain a significant amount of vitamin C and E and beta carotene (a precursor of vitamin A) which play multiple important roles in the body. While they support the immune system to help ward off colds and ‘flu viruses, these vitamins are important as antioxidants that protect cells from damage by free radicals (which are formed when oxygen is metabolized or burned by the body). Among other things this means the aging process (which is really deterioration of cells) slows down.

Vitamin A is, of course, essential for the health of eyes—it helps them adjust from bright to dimmer light and vice versa, and as well lowers the risk of contracting cataracts.

It’s important to be aware that in addition to having independent functions in the body, vitamins help increase the absorption of other nutrients so they can be utilized. Vitamin C, for example plays a vital role in the absorption of iron found in meats, grains and in some root vegetables. Iron is essential in the transport of oxygen to the cells of the body; without it, people become anemic which shows itself first in fatigue and listlessness.

Packed with minerals

Root vegetables are packed with a variety of minerals, among them iron (as has been noted), potassium, calcium, phosphorus and manganese. While no one vegetable contains all of them in substantial amounts, a varied diet will help to cover the bases. Potatoes, for example, are high in potassium, which is essential as an electrolyte (in balance with sodium) to maintain healthy blood pressure.

Beets are a good source of several minerals which improve metabolism, important for all around health and high levels of energy. In addition, beets have been shown to contain nitrates which reduce blood pressure and increase blood flow to muscles and the brain. Because this increases oxygen supply to muscles for quick energy, athletes are sometimes encouraged to drink beet juice (a concentrated form of nutrients) before intensive exercise.

In addition to supplying an abundance of benefits, vegetables also provide a great deal of aesthetic appeal. Raw or cooked, they are a pleasure to eat and with their vivid colours, a pleasure to look at. It's hard to imagine a dinner without the various tastes and textures that come from cooked vegetables and fresh crisp salads.

While root vegetables might form the core of winter meals, we are fortunate to have access to a variety of other vegetables that also store well and offer important nutrients during the long cold season. Don’t neglect winter squash such as acorn, butternut and spaghetti, and red and green cabbage, all of which are considered to be some of the healthiest vegetables.