Why You Shouldn’t Say “Hold the Onions”

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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.  The surprising health benefits of onions was the topic of my latest post for WebMD’s Real Life Nutrition blog.  Hope you’ll go over to the page and check it out.

6283624340_c05b2f9a73_bMaybe 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.

4532838016_bed7fae0c8_bOnions 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.

1174193963_50ba174a31_bAim 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 saute when making soups and stews.
  • Add onions when you’re roasting vegetables (bell peppers, potatoes, eggplant, etc.), making a pot roast or assembling your slow-cooker favorites.
  • 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)

Do you like onions or do you avoid them?  What are your favorite ways of eating onions?

Red onion heart photo courtesy of Max F. Williams on flickr.com
Raw onion sandwich courtesy of DocileFascist on flickr.com
Balsamic roasted onions courtesy of LindseyFrances on flickr.com
Bloomin Onion photo courtesy of sourskittled on flickr.com

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  • Excellent post!
    I have always enjoyed the taste of onions, but never really understood what, if any, benefit they gave to my body. Now I have a solid excuse for onion breath 😉

  • We’ve documented the benefits of Quercetin (over 40 citations), and thought your readers may find it useful: http://examine.com/supplements/Quercetin/

  • I love onions! I think that it’s from years of doing Weight Watchers – they’re a free food that is nice and flavoursome. I swear I went for years (before I met my husband, the mushroom-hater) eating mushrooms and onions twice a day.

  • I love and adore onions, if I’m not chipping onions then I’m not cooking. I like the crumpled sound of the paper skin, the nice neat way they chop or slice and of course I consider it a triumph if I don’t shed a tear. But most of all I love that they are spicy when raw and sweet when cooked and even sweeter when caramelized. 😀

  • People have different ideas about super foods. I am a nutritionist and an anti aging consultant from Mumbai and I have my own list of superfoods and onions are definitely amongst them! My list includes salmon, allium (which includes onions, garlic, leeks, and chives), oatmeal, blueberries, ginger root, virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, sprouts and yogurt.

  • Reading your article on “Hold the Onions” gets my saliva glands working again as I remember time and again when I eat curry. I live in Australia now and love my curry especially as I grew up in the Sub-Continent years ago. Leaving India has not in the least made me forget my rich background of spices and condiments.

    I always ask the waitress taking my meal order for an extra side order of sliced onions, lemon and green chilies to add flavor to my rich korma curies. Dipping naan bread into the thick curry sauce and a munch of sliced onion is my favorite way of dining out at a curry muncher restaurant. Thank you for bringing a flood of tasteful memories back.

  • Robyn :)

    I avoid onions because they give me heartburn, but maybe now that I am eating better overall my body will tolerate them more.

  • I love onions and when I’m in the US I always head for Outback Steakhouse and order a Blooming Onion!

    Shame we don’t have them in the UK.

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