By Janet Helm, MS, RD
Famously known for making you cry when you cut them and giving you bad breath when you eat them, onions just don’t get any respect. Yet, this Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables has a lot to boast about.
Maybe you’re ignoring onions – avoiding these pungent vegetables on a salad bar and skipping them on your sandwich or burger. But “holding the onions” means you’re missing out on the bevy of bioactive compounds hiding underneath the paper-like skin.
Onions, like garlic, belong to the Allium family. Both bulbs are rich in sulfur-containing compounds that are responsible for their distinctive odors and for many of their health benefits. Yet garlic seems to get all the glory.
It’s true that garlic is more heavily researched, but the scientific support for onions is not too shabby. People often underestimate the nutritional prowess of pale vegetables compared to deeply hued plants, but white and yellow onions contain a lot more health-enhancing polyphenols than you might expect. Red onions contain even more.
Onions are especially high in quercetin – one of the most well-studied flavonoids believed to protect against heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer. Population-based nutrition studies, or research that compares groups of people based on what they eat, have found that people who consume a lot of onions and other Allium vegetables have lower risks of stomach, colon, and prostate cancer.
Other studies suggest onions have anti-inflammatory benefits and anti-bacterial effects. Onions are rich in fructans – a type of carbohydrate that acts as a prebiotic, helping to fuel beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract.
To reap the benefits of onions, you need a bit more than a sprinkling on your salad once a week. Also, don’t count on deep-fried onion rings or the nearly 2,000-calorie Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse as ways to increase the amount of onions you eat. Aim for at least one serving of an Allium vegetable on your plate every day – including onions, scallions, garlic, leeks, shallots, and chives. For onions, that’s about one-half of a medium onion. Here are some tasty ways you can do that:
- Skewer chunks of onions when grilling kebabs.
- Add slivers of onions to your stir-fry dishes.
- Double the amount of chopped onions you sauté when making soups and stews.
- Add onions when you’re roasting vegetables or making a pot roast.
- Chop onions to add to omelets and frittatas.
- Make a big batch of caramelized onions to top a lean filet or use on a homemade pizza (great combined with gorgonzola cheese)