Nutrition Hotline

QUESTION: "I want to become a vegetarian, but I hate most vegetables. Can I be a vegetarian without vegetables?" L.W., MA

ANSWER: The more you read about vegetarian diets, the more you'll see statements like, "Eat a variety of foods." That's because different foods provide different nutrients. For instance, dried beans supply protein and iron, while fruits are a good source of vitamin C.

Vegetables make important contributions when it comes to nutrition. Orange vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, have generous amounts of vitamin A. Green vegetables, such as kale and collards, supply iron and calcium. All vegetables provide fiber and phytonutrients (simply put, nutrients that are important and that come from plants).

That's not to say that you can't get many of these vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from other places if you don't eat vegetables. You can get some from fruits, get some from whole grains, and, if necessary, take a vitamin pill. The only problem is that vegetables are such low-calorie powerhouses that you may find that you have to eat a lot more fruit or a lot more beans to make up for what you're missing by not eating vegetables.

In addition, there may be some phytonutrients that are unique to vegetables that we don't even know about yet and that aren't in vitamin pills. If you don't eat vegetables, you will miss out on these potentially important phytonutrients.

Do you really not eat any vegetables, or is it that you really don't like cooked vegetables or certain vegetables? There's no law that says that you have to eat every vegetable. I think of myself as pretty healthy, but after trying a vegetable called kohlrabi several times, I decided this was one vegetable I could get along without. For variety's sake, it would be good to try to find a deep orange-colored vegetable or two, a green leafy vegetable or two, and a few other vegetables that you could eat regularly.

Maybe you decided when you were 3, 4, or 5 that you didn't like vegetables and haven't tried many of them since. Believe it or not, your tastes change as you get older, and what tasted bitter or unpleasant when you were a child may taste pretty good now.

Some people who swear they don't like vegetables admit to liking vegetables in Chinese restaurants. Ever wonder why this could be the case? Perhaps it's because vegetables in Chinese restaurants are frequently stir-friedócooked quickly using minimal water so they don't get soggy and bitter but stay crisp and flavorful. Try eating some vegetables raw or just cooking them lightly and see if that makes them more appealing.

Take a tip from restaurants and serve vegetables with a dash of soy sauce or a little olive oil or balsamic vinegar. Try dipping raw vegetables into hummus or low-fat salad dressing.

You could even grow your own vegetables or get fresh vegetables from a farm or farmer's market. You may find that you don't hate vegetables after all.

QUESTION: "I just discovered that some potatoes I had bought had greenish skin. Is this a problem?" P.A., via e-mail

ANSWER: The potato's greenish skin is due to chlorophyll, a harmless chemical produced when a potato is exposed to light, either because it was not covered with dirt when it was growing or because of post-harvest light exposure. Other factors that cause chlorophyll to form include stress (insects, mechanical injury, heat, etc.). Chlorophyll is not toxic but is often a marker for high levels of another substance, solanine, which can be toxic. Solanine forms under the same conditions that promote chlorophyll formation. Although solanine poisoning due to potatoes has not been reported in the United States in many years, it can occur if green potatoes are eaten. In fact, if you ate as little as a cup of mashed potatoes made from potatoes with the highest amount of solanine ever seen in a potato, you could get sick. Symptoms of solanine poisoning, which generally occur 8 to 12 hours after eating green potatoes, include headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even neurological problems such as dizziness, hallucinations, and confusion. Usually symptoms go away after two to three days. However, a very high dose of solanine can be fatal.

Since solanine concentration is highest in a potato's skin, many experts suggest that peeling a green potato deep enough to remove any green layer should eliminate most of the solanine. Of course, to be completely safe, you can simply discard potatoes with green skin. Solanine gives potatoes a bitter taste, another indication that it's safest to toss potatoes that taste bitter or return them to the store. Cooking is not a solution; solanine is not inactivated by boiling or microwaving potatoes.