“You can’t leave the table until you’ve finished your vegetables!”
Sound familiar? Even years later, as adults, many of us still struggle to get the recommended five daily servings of vegetables into our diets. And when we do try to meet that dietary goal, too often many of us turn to starchy corn, peas and potatoes.
It’s true that vegetables are some of the all-around healthiest foods we can consume. Most are low in calories and packed with fiber, vitamins and inflammation-fighting antioxidants—and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli are no exception. In fact, they’re some of the healthiest choices you can make.
This group of vegetables gets its name from the shape of the plants’ flowers: four petals that form a cross-like figure. They’re often green, and most have edible stems, bulbs and leaves. There are more than 20 varieties of cruciferous vegetables, also referred to as crucifers.
One crucifer in particular, kale, has been in the spotlight a lot recently. A leafy green, kale has been the most recent “trendy” vegetable, starring in everything from salads to smoothies and chips. Kale is high in vitamin K, which is important for blood clotting, and is also a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. These same nutrients are found in other crucifers as well.
Fighting Cancer and Free Radicals
In addition to many other valuable nutrients, cruciferous vegetables contain metabolites called glucosinolates, which are sulfur-containing compounds unique to this group of veggies. When glucosinolates are broken down in the body, they release anti-inflammatory compounds. Researchers have noted an association between increased intake of cruciferous vegetables and a decrease in risk for various cancers, including colon cancer. Evidence for reduced risk for other types of cancers is not as clear. Additional studies are under way to determine how to get the most benefit from their cancer-fighting capabilities.
Glucosinolates aren’t the only cancer-fighting compounds in cruciferous vegetables, however. Many of the vitamins and minerals in crucifers also act as antioxidants. Vitamin C and beta carotene, a metabolic precursor to vitamin A, both have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants fight the effects of oxidative stress, a situation that occurs when the body experiences a buildup of free radicals, atoms that can cause damage when interacting with certain organic molecules like DNA. Common sources of free radicals include cigarette smoke, air pollution and fried foods. Crucifers also contain trace metals like zinc and manganese, as well as vitamin E, all of which help the body manage oxidative stress.
Common Crucifers … and Others Not So Well Known
Probably the best-known crucifers are broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. These are some of the most common “go-to” veggies people use when planning a meal. However, you might consider adding some of the “outside-the-box” cruciferous vegetables listed below to combat menu boredom and provide a wider variety of antioxidant and cancer-fighting nutrients.
Rutabaga—a turnip-like veggie with two edible parts: the root and the leaves. The root can be roasted or baked, or cut up and boiled, then mashed. The root is often combined with other veggies like carrots, peas and onions. It’s a great lower-carbohydrate add-on or substitute for potatoes in soups and casseroles. The leaves, or “greens,” can be eaten raw or cooked. Add them to salads for a twist with a little bite, or cook them like you would collard greens or kale. Rutabaga is a great source of vitamin C and potassium.
Kohlrabi—an “off-the-grid” crucifer that is rich in vitamin B6, vitamin C and fiber. The bulb, or root, can be eaten raw or cooked, and has a taste and consistency similar to a broccoli stem. Try kohlrabi cooked in a light stir-fry, chop it up raw in a salad or dip it in hummus as part of a veggie tray. The leaves can be prepared like any other leafy greens.
Arugula—a leafy cruciferous vegetable often found in prebagged salad mixes. Rich in potassium and vitamin C, arugula adds a fresh, peppery taste to salads. To pack an extra antioxidant punch, try topping sandwiches and wraps with arugula instead of lettuce.
A few more exotic crucifers worth trying include the following—you can usually find these in the produce sections of larger supermarkets or in Asian markets:
Bok choy—a leafy crucifer native to China and a staple in Asian-inspired dishes like stir-fry. Both the stalk and leaf are edible. Lightly saute bok choy or add it to salads for a fresh, crunchy twist.
Daikon—a radish that is often used in salads or stir-fry. The leaves can be eaten like greens.
Komatsuna—a dark, leafy vegetable that’s also known as Asian spinach or mustard green. Use this veggie in a stir-fry with garlic and just a small amount of sesame oil for an Asian-inspired taste.
Mizuna—a slightly bitter-tasting mild leafy green similar to kale, watercress or spinach. Saute mizuna with other veggies like onion and carrots; add the mizuna last to prevent excessive wilting.
Thankfully, Mother Nature has provided us with a vast wealth of veggies, including the crucifers—so start exploring new choices and recipes to take advantage of their nutritional bounty!
Noncruciferous Vegetables You Should Be Eating
• Bell Peppers—excellent sources of vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, zinc and manganese (the manganese can help protect against osteoporosis)
• Celery—low in calories and high in phthalides, substances that help lower blood pressure
• Fennel—a great source of fiber, vitamins and minerals; eat it like celery or in soups, pasta or rice
• Leeks—a milder-tasting member of the onion family, leeks go nicely in soups, risotto and quiche; full of cancer-fighting antioxidants and vitamins A and K
• Parsnips—rich in fiber, folate, manganese and other nutrients; delicious roasted or mashed like potatoes
Arugula, Fennel and Avocado Salad
6 cups trimmed arugula (about 4 ounces)
4 cups thinly sliced fennel bulb (about 2 small bulbs)
1 3/4 cups sliced, peeled
avocado (about 1 small)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons shaved
Combine all ingredients except the cheese; toss gently to coat.
Divide the salad among eight salad plates.
Sprinkle the cheese evenly among salads.
1/3 cup canola mayonnaise
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons brown mustard
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 pounds red kohlrabi, peeled
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley
4 green onions, thinly sliced
Combine the first seven ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk.
Cut kohlrabi into slices that are 1/8-inch thick. Cut each slice into thin slices to make about 5 cups julienne-cut kohlrabi. Add kohlrabi, parsley and onions to mayonnaise mixture; toss to coat.
Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
2 teaspoons avocado oil
2 medium onions, quartered
5 garlic cloves, halved
4 cups cauliflower florets (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh
Preheat oven to 500°.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and garlic; cook 5 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently. Remove from heat.
Place onion mixture and cauliflower in a roasting pan coated with cooking spray. Combine water and mustard; pour over vegetable mixture. Toss to coat; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake at 500° for 20 minutes or until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with parsley.