Roots are some of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world. While each root looks and tastes different, and contains its own set of health benefits, they share many of the same characteristics. Some of our most common edible roots are beets, carrots, celery root (or celeriac), horseradish, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, turnips, yams, and yucca. Some not so common roots include daikon radish, kohlrabi, jicama, and Jerusalem artichokes. Other foods that grow under the ground, such as bulbs and tubers like onions, garlic, ginger and turmeric, are also considered roots.
Just like the name implies, root vegetables are the root of the plant—the part that develops and grows to maturity underground. The energy from the water and sunshine the plants receive from above the earth’s surface, move in a strong, constrictive, downward motion and store that energy in the root of the plant. These root vegetables have the strong grounding energy that can also ground our bodies. Their nutrients calm us and keep us balanced.
Because root vegetables grow underground, they absorb a great amount of nutrients from the soil. They are loaded with high amounts of vitamins A and C, B vitamins, antioxidants and iron, helping to nurture and cleanse your body. They are also filled with slow-burning complex carbohydrates and high amounts of fiber, which help you feel full for longer, and keep your blood sugar levels steady. These qualities, plus all the important nutrients and low calories in root vegetables, make them the perfect food for weight release, managing diabetes or simply to maintain health.
Here’s a list of some of our most common root vegetables:
Sweet Potatoes & Yams – Sweet potatoes come in all shapes and colors, depending on the variety. Their flesh can vary from white to orange and even purple, with skins that range from brown, reddish and purple. Often times a purple skinned sweet potato has a yellow flesh inside. The orange-fleshed variety was introduced to the United States several decades ago.
What’s fascinating about sweet potatoes is their ability to improve blood sugar regulation—even in persons with type 2 diabetes, despite their starchy content. They are packed with fiber, beta-carotene and many antioxidants.
All so-called “yams” are in fact just one of many varieties of sweet potatoes, and it’s possible that you’ve never even tasted a real true yam! The name “yam” was adopted from “nyami”, a West African word that means “to eat” and that has traditionally been used to refer to yams. The variety of sweet potato that we know as “yams” are native to Africa and Asia, and have the potential to grow to a much larger size than most other varieties of sweet potatoes. The USDA has allowed the terms sweet potato and yam to be used somewhat interchangeably on labeling, so that you often cannot rely on the grocery store signs to help you determine whether you are looking at a sweet potato or a yam. For example, in many stores you can find bins that are labeled “Red Garnet Yams” and “Jewel Yams” and both of these are actually sweet potatoes.
A true yam is a starchy edible root that is generally imported to America from the Caribbean. It has a brown skin that is rough and scaly and it’s flesh is a beige color that is very low in beta carotene. True yams are not typically sold in most grocery stores, so if you are looking for one it might be helpful to visit a store that specializes in foods from tropical countries, such as an ethnic market.
Carrots: While we usually associate carrots with the color orange, carrots come in a variety of other colors including white, yellow, red, or purple. In fact, purple, yellow and red carrots were the only color varieties of carrots to be cultivated before the 15th or 16th century. All varieties of carrots contain high amounts of antioxidants like beta-carotene and vitamin C, which provide cardiovascular benefits, anti-cancer benefits and support for the eyes and immune system.
Beets: Touted as a superfood, beets are among the healthiest foods on the planet. They’re full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, and are well known to support weight loss and detoxification. Beets are commonly a rich red color, but other varieties include golden, Chioggia, and baby beets.
Parsnips: Parsnips belong to the same plant family as celery, parsley and carrots, and in fact they resemble large white carrots, but are harder in texture than carrots and have a deeper, warm cinnamon-like flavor. They contain a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, including dietary fiber, folate, potassium and vitamin C.
Some of the most important health benefits of parsnips include their ability to lower the chances of developing diabetes, reducing cholesterol levels, improve healthy digestive processes, prevent depression, protect against birth defects in infants, promotes proper growth and development, strengthens the immune system, and lower blood pressure to protect cardiovascular health.
Turnips: Turnips resemble potatoes in texture and appearance, but they are from the same vegetable family as broccoli, collards, kale and Brussels sprouts, which means they contain many of the same antioxidants that protect us from cancer, inflammation and obesity. Turnips are versatile and very subtle in flavor, which makes them great for pairing with more strongly flavored vegetables.
They are great roasted, sautéed, or included in vegetable stir fry. You can also combine turnips with herbs, or use them in tomato-based chunky soups or creamy pureed soups.
Rutabagas: Rutabagas, sometimes called yellow turnips, are a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. They are high in vitamin C, zinc, fiber and many antioxidants. Rutabaga’s are known to improve digestive health, boost the immune system, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, prevent certain cancers, build strong bones, and can even help you lose weight. Similar to turnips, rutabagas are subtle in flavor. Their texture is harder than turnips and they taste a bit more earthy. Best when pureed or roasted, rutabagas go well with herbs, particularly dill.
Potatoes: The most beloved root vegetable of all, potatoes are comfort food for many people. When eaten in their natural form, without the extra fat, deep frying, butter and sour cream, a baked potato is an exceptionally healthful low calorie, high fiber food that offers significant protection against heart disease and cancer.
There are about 100 varieties of potatoes, ranging in size, shape, color, starch content and flavor. The skins of potatoes are generally brown, red or yellow, and may be smooth or rough, while the flesh of potatoes is yellow or white. There are also other varieties, such as the purple potato, with a greyish purple skin and a beautiful deep violet flesh.
Some of the more known varieties of potatoes include the large varieties of Russet, Idaho and Yukon, and the small varieties called “new” potatoes, such as the Red LeSoda and Red Pontiac. There are also delicate fingerling varieties which, as their name suggests, are finger-shaped.
In reference to potatoes, the term “new” refers to potatoes that are harvested before maturity and are of a much smaller size. Mature potatoes are the large potatoes that we are generally familiar with.
All potatoes contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity, which help to lower blood pressure, protect against heart disease and even help with weight loss.
It is important to eat the skins of potatoes along with the flesh, as the skin is where most of the antioxidants in potatoes are located.