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Carrot and stick incentive.

The question: I've been told I should avoid carrots because they're too high in sugar. Is that true? Aren't they nutritious?

The answer: It is true that carrots have natural sugar, but not much more than many other vegetables. And you certainly don't need to avoid these low-calorie, nutritious root vegetables. One half-cup of chopped raw carrot sticks has three grams of sugar and only 26 calories. You might be surprised to learn that the same serving size of chopped raw broccoli has similar numbers at 6 g of sugar and 31 calories. Vegetables such as leafy greens, asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower and mushrooms provide 1 to 2 g of sugar per serving.

What carrots are packed with, however, is beta-carotene, a phytochemical that gives them their bright orange colour. Beta-carotene is important for two reasons. First, your body converts some of it to retinol, an active form of vitamin A. A deficiency of vitamin A can cause symptoms including night blindness, dry eyes, dry skin, impaired bone growth and susceptibility to respiratory infections. (Night blindness is a condition in which vision is normal in daylight, but very weak or completely lost at night or in dim light.)

Beta-carotene is also a powerful antioxidant, protecting cells from damage caused by harmful free radicals. Studies suggest that a diet high in beta-carotene – from foods, not supplements – can help lower the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.

There isn't an official recommended dietary intake for beta-carotene, but experts contend that consuming three to six milligrams of beta-carotene daily will maintain blood levels of the phytochemical in the range that's associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases. One half-cup of cooked carrots deliver 6.5 mg of beta-carotene, a full day's worth.

You'll get more beta-carotene if you eat your carrots cooked, rather than raw. That's because heating vegetables releases antioxidants by breaking down cell walls. Another tip: Since beta-carotene is fat-soluble, it's best absorbed if you eat carrots with a little fat or oil. All it takes is 3 to 5 g of fat in a meal (roughly one teaspoon worth) to enhance beta-carotene absorption.

Carrots also offer fibre, vitamin C and potassium.

Bottom line: Go ahead and eat your carrots. They're nutritious and they are not high in sugar. Here are a few ways to enjoy carrots – raw, cooked or baked:

  • Add grated raw carrots to whole-grain muffin batter.
  • Add grated carrots to omelettes, frittatas, pasta sauces, coleslaw and green salads.
  • Combine grated carrots, beets and apples for a nutrient- and antioxidant-rich salad.
  • Make carrot soup by pureeing boiled carrots and potatoes (and cooking water). Add herbs and spices to taste.
  • Add baby carrots or sliced carrots to curry and stir-fry recipes.
  • Enjoy a beta-carotene-rich protein shake by blending leftover cooked carrots (or one half-cup carrot juice), one banana, almond milk and protein powder.
  • Mix a little Dijon mustard, honey and pepper with steamed or boiled carrots.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct;