The 10 Healthiest Vegetables To Support Natural Detoxification, Fight Cancer & Boost Immunity
Megan Fahey, MS, RD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian, Functional Medicine Nutritionist and Registered Yoga Teacher. She holds her Masters of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Bastyr University, where she was trained to artfully blend eastern and western healing modalities.
Vegetables are one of the most important food groups to focus on. After all, they provide us with essential vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and fiber that keeps us full and simultaneously feeds our healthy gut bacteria—which, in turn, helps regulate our immunity, digestion, and mental health. Plus, researchers say that there are likely countless beneficial micronutrients in vegetables that we haven't even identified yet!
Cleary, we're passionate about veggies—and you probably are, too.
But of all the choices out there, from carrots to kale and everything in between, which vegetables pack the most powerful punch for overall health? Obviously, white potatoes aren't equal to kale, but what other factors—besides knowing that green is generally better than beige—are important to consider when you really want to up the ante on your nutrient intake?
Knowing which plants to prioritize can go a long way in boosting your health while eliminating that all too common choice paralysis you experience in the produce section of Whole Foods. That's why we asked two of our favorite nutrition experts to reveal their desert island veggies—aka, the ones that are nutritious, delicious, and pack a little something extra—and offer guidance on what qualities make a vegetable really healthy in the first place.
What makes a vegetable extra healthy?
Before we dive into our list of healthiest vegetables, it's important to have a rough understanding of what makes a particular veggie a standout choice. So we asked Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian and health coach, for some perspective:
"I tend to think all vegetables are great and that variety helps us cover more bases, nutritionally," says Cording. "But if you have to keep it to just a few, then going for nutrient density is a good guide. Look for high-fiber choices packed with lots of vitamins and minerals, plus antioxidant benefits."
One way to ensure you're getting a decent amount of antioxidants is by opting for deeply hued picks. Think: dark green, bright orange and red, deep purple. Organic vegetables have also been shown to contain, on average, 20 to 40 percent more antioxidants than their conventionally grown counterparts—so if you do opt for organic, any of the choices below will be even healthier.
All veggies lose nutrients over time, too, so it's important to eat them while they're fresh. Buying locally grown vegetables from a farmers market or food co-op is great for this reason but not essential.
10 of the healthiest vegetables you can eat.
Even with the guidelines above, we wanted the experts to help us identify which vegetables really go above and beyond, based on their nutrient profile and the latest research. So we asked Cording, along with fitness and nutrition expert JJ Virgin, CNS, CFHS, to share some top picks that would make it onto their healthiest vegetables list.
Here, learn about 10 of the healthiest vegetables you can eat to beat inflammation, fight free radicals, detox your body, and more. Plus, how to make them taste great!
1. Dark leafy greens
Don't underestimate the power of a loaded mixed greens salad. Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and Swiss chard are packed with a variety of antioxidants, including carotenoids, which have been shown to inhibit the growth of various cancers, improve eye and skin health, and reduce inflammation.
Of course, you can't go wrong with any dark leafy green, but Cording's absolute favorites from a nutrient-packed perspective are kale and spinach.
"Just a serving of spinach provides more than half of your vitamin A needs, and it's also a good source of vitamin K, folate, magnesium, and the antioxidants beta-carotene and lutein," says Cording. "It also provides fiber and even 3 grams of protein per serving."
Kale offers much of the same leafy green goodness as spinach—"lots of vitamins A, C, and K; plus B-vitamins, potassium, calcium, copper, and more," says Cording. "It's also noted for its antioxidant benefit and has been studied for its impact on heart health, blood pressure, and blood sugar."
Pro tip: Cooking kale and spinach is a great way to boost the bioavailability of its bone-strengthening calcium.
Try it: There are so many ways to enjoy dark leafy greens—this recipe roundup includes soups, smoothies, tacos, and more.
2. Broccoli + broccoli sprouts
"Broccoli is an antioxidant-rich cruciferous vegetable that may protect against cancer," says Cording. Cruciferous veggies contain sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates (and their by-product sulforaphane).
These sulfur-containing compounds are protective against cancer, anti-inflammatory, and help the body remove toxins through natural detoxification processes of the liver. Research supports that intake of cruciferous vegetables may be cancer protective, with one study showing a correlation with reduced risk of breast cancer. And another study found that a drink made with broccoli sprouts activated enzymes in the body that picked up pollutants from the bloodstream and flushed them out via urine.
Virgin loves broccoli too, as it contains lots of vitamins C and K, and minerals like potassium and manganese, which together make broccoli a potent food for boosting bone and heart health, and improving overall immune function.
Try it: Consider this roasted broccoli dip your guilt-free, cancer-fighting alternative to spinach and artichoke.
3. Brussels sprouts
"Brussels sprouts are another cruciferous vegetable, and they offer many of the same benefits as broccoli, plus they contain the antioxidant kaempferol, which has been shown to help counteract cell damage that can lead to cancer," says Cording. "It's also an approachable 'gateway' vegetable for skeptics when it's roasted until crispy."
In addition to helping us ward off cancer, Brussels sprouts are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They're particularly high in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium and folate, which makes them a great pick for supporting overall immunity and blood and bone health.
Not only do their antioxidants play a pivotal role in keeping you healthy, but Brussels sprouts provide 3 grams of fiber per cup serving, which can help you feel more satiated after a meal.
Try it: This simple but delicious recipe for Brussels sprouts with lemon and ginger will leave you craving even more cruciferous veggies.
Sure, asparagus might make your pee smell, but we promise it's worth it! "Asparagus is rich in folate as well as vitamin K, selenium, and B vitamins like thiamin and riboflavin," says Cording. "It also has been noted for its potential to help support the liver's natural detoxification process."
In fact, asparagus is one of the few dietary sources of glutathione, an antioxidant concentrated in the liver that helps bind toxins and escort them out of the body via urine or bile. Sufficient levels of glutathione in the body also help maintain energy, reduces muscle pain, improves sleep quality, and boosts immune function. (Other foods containing glutathione in include raw spinach and avocado.)
Try it: This asparagus and quinoa bowl is the perfect happy desk lunch—and will totally make your co-workers jealous.
5. Red cabbage
Remember how we said deeply hued veggies were typically a great pick? Red (or purple) cabbage is a prime example. In addition to being a good source of vitamin C and fiber, red cabbage contains anthocyanins. "These pigments are powerful antioxidants," says Cording.
Anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid antioxidant, are found in many foods and plants that appear dark red, purple, or blue in color. They possess powerful anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown to boost heart and brain health, likely due to their ability to combat oxidative stress. Research has shown that anthocyanins help improve memory and cognition as well as lowering cholesterol.
Virgin loves cabbage because it's also "rich in naturally detoxifying sulfur," as it's part of the cruciferous vegetable family.
Try it: This cleansing cabbage and chickpea salad is the most delicious way to detox after a period of overindulgence.
6. Sea vegetables
Are sea veggies the new kale? We think so...even though we'll never give up kale.
Although you probably don't even think to eat them, seaweed (nori, kombu, wakame, kelp, dulse, etc.) and other sea veggies such as chlorella (a type of algae) are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can give to your body.
"Seaweed is a nutrient-rich sea vegetable that provides a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—including some that are difficult to find in other foods," says Cording. For example, it's a great source of iodine, which helps regulate the thyroid hormones. Just be mindful not to overdo it, advises Cording, as too much iodine can actually have negative effects on thyroid health. It's all about balance!
Chlorella (which you can find as a powdered supplement) is a powerful chelator, which means it can bind to and remove heavy metals and other toxins that might otherwise tax your liver. One lab study showed that it can absorb 40 percent of the heavy metals in a test solution within seven days, while animal studies show that it helps remove toxins like mercury from the body.
Try it: This wakame and shaved Brussels sprout salad is a perfect introductory sea veggie dish.
7. Butternut squash
You can think of butternut squash as an alternative to sweet potatoes (although, we really love those too!), while containing many of the same powerful nutrients. Butternut squash is a great source of magnesium and potassium, which makes it a top choice for maintaining healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, and a stable mood.
This hearty fall favorite also makes the cut because "it contains a hefty dose of beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) to support immunity and possibly reduce cancer risk," says Virgin. Research shows that beta-carotene, an antioxidant plant pigment, can also literally give your skin a natural glow and protect against damaging UV rays (but, don’t skip the sun screen!).
"Garlic gets forgotten about sometimes, but this vegetable has been used medicinally for thousands of years and has been studied extensively for its benefit to heart health, cancer risk, and immune system function," says Cording.
Garlic—along with onion, leeks, chives, and scallions—is part of the allium vegetable family, known for its health-boosting organosulfur compounds, including allicin and diallyl sulfides. These compounds are largely credited for garlic's ability to help reduce cancer risk, reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, lower oxidative stress, and help protect against stroke and cardiovascular disease.
Try it: This 3-ingredient garlic toast recipe is the perfect way to reap garlic's immune-boosting perks. It has you chop the garlic and allow it to rest for 20 minutes—key for activating allicin.
9. Red onion
"Onions, like garlic, aren't always top of mind when we think of vegetables, but they are a food source of prebiotic fibers to nourish probiotic bacteria in the gut and have been studied for their potential to help fight disease," says Cording.
Virgin loves them, too, in part because they're a rich source of quercetin, a flavonoid antioxidant that's also a natural antihistamine. Antihistamines are commonly used to treat allergies, so red onions are a worthy salad ingredient for anyone suffering from hay fever. Bonus: Heating onions doesn't seem to lower their quercetin content.
Like so many items on this list, eating red onions has also been associated with a reduced risk of several types of cancer, including stomach cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. Raw red onion has also been linked to lower cholesterol levels among women with PCOS who are overweight or obese.
Try it: This refreshing corn and mango slaw contains raw red onion and tastes like summer in a bowl.
10. Chili + cayenne peppers
Strong flavors often mean big health benefits—and spicy peppers are no exception. "Chili peppers contain capsaicin, a compound that has been shown to have many health benefits, such as mild metabolic rate increase, lowering blood pressure, and even protecting against some cancer," says Cording.
If you're looking to control cravings and portions, consider adding a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, chili powder, or chopped-up chili peppers to your next omelet: In one study, participants who ate a breakfast that included a serving of capsaicin-containing red-pepper powder were less likely to snack or even feel hungry before lunchtime.
Capsaicin is also a potent antioxidant, and some lab studies have shown that it has the ability to kill prostate cancer cells.
Try it: There are big flavors all around in this Caribbean-inspired chickpeas with cilantro and coconut recipe, featuring two chopped red chili peppers.
Vegetables are probably already a part of your daily diet, but there's no reason you shouldn't be working to maximize the health benefits you get from the veggies you eat. When you know which vegetables pack the biggest health-boosting punch, you can make more efficient and informed choices about the food you choose to fuel your body.
Next time you sit down for a meal planning session, keep this list close at hand. Your body will thank you.
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