Learn The 4 Types Of Vegetables: Root, Cruciferous, Greens & Nightshades
We all know vegetables are good for us—so good for us, in fact, that public health experts recommend they comprise at least half of our plates. One of the beautiful things about vegetables is that there are so many to choose from, far beyond a standard peas-and-carrots regimen. And as any nutritionist will tell you, getting a diverse assortment of veggies is key.
That's because consuming a variety of them helps meet your daily nutrient needs. "The recommendation is to consume at least five servings a day, [with] ideally two servings of leafy greens, one serving of cruciferous veggies, and two servings of other veggies," says Nisha Melvani, RDN, creator of Cooking for Peanuts.
It doesn't have to be complicated either: From root to cruciferous vegetables and greens to nightshades, experts break down exactly what you need to know about the different types of vegetables, how to best enjoy them, and why they make a great addition to your diet.
To improve your diet at the root, opt for root vegetables. As "an incredibly nutritious and energizing addition to your plate," Desiree Nielsen, R.D., author of Good for Your Gut: A Plant-Based Digestive Health Guide and Nourishing Recipes for Living Well, says they contain high-quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates for energy and a host of vitamins and phytochemicals. Namely, carrots are rich in the vitamin A carotenoid known as beta-carotene, which supports the skin and immune system, while beets contain betalain pigments, which have anti-inflammatory properties, as well as organic nitrate, which may help improve athletic performance1 and help maintain healthy blood pressure2, she says.
"When we say root veggies, we mean plants that we eat the underground part of […] These underground parts form to store carbohydrates as energy for the growing plant," Nielsen says.
According to Melvani, you can usually identify them by their thick skins and long, leafy stems and roots.
She does also note that certain root veggies like potatoes are high in starch content, which can cause a spike in blood sugar, so they're best consumed in moderation
Examples of root vegetables include:
Cruciferous vegetables make for an easy—and delicious—way to boost your nutrient intake with their ability to blend seamlessly into a variety of soups, salads, stir-fries, curries, and more.
Melvani explains that the edible members of the cruciferous family, which include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, arugula, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, turnips, bok choy, and radishes, are named as such because their four-petaled flowers look like a crucifer or cross.
"These veggies are rich in vitamins and minerals such as folate, and vitamins K, A, and C, as well as phytonutrients, [and] are also rich sources of sulfur-containing compounds known as glucosinolates, which give them their unique smell and somewhat bitter flavor," says Melvani.
Neilsen adds that these compounds serve as the plant's defense against pathogens, while also supporting overall health. "There is a significant amount of research to suggest that glucosinolate compounds have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity in the body, which may be why eating cruciferous vegetables is associated with improved cardiovascular health in some, but not all, studies."
Examples of cruciferous vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Mustard greens
- Bok choy
The saying "eat your green" has become a catchall for nutrition advice, and while we don't endorse sticking to just one color, there's some truth behind the statement's popularity. "Greens tend to be higher in fiber, B vitamins like folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, and potassium," says Cory Ruth, RDN, registered dietitian and CEO of The Women's Dietitian. "They also contain a range of phytonutrients like lutein, beta-carotene, and zeaxanthin. All of these are important for eye health, liver health, bone health, energy levels, and immunity."
If all these health benefits are making your taste buds tingle (is that a thing?), it's time to dig into those greens. But what are they? "'Greens' is a broad term for plant leaves eaten as vegetables," Ruth says. "There are a variety of tastes and textures, and most can be enjoyed either raw, cooked, or both."
Examples of greens include:
- Bok choy
(Read even more about leafy greens here.)
Despite what it may sound like, nightshades are not curtains you close at the end of a long day. Rather, Ruth explains they're a family of food and spices ranging in taste, texture, and color that contain the chemical compound alkaloids.
It's worth noting that there is some controversy around nightshades in the well-being community; however, there is a lot of nuance when it comes to whether they are "good" or "bad" for any given individual.
In Ruth's experience, she says the alkaloids present in these types of vegetables are "harmless in the small amounts present in the foods we eat that contain them."
They can offer a variety of benefits, too: "Nightshades are all high in different antioxidants, which protect our cells," says Ruth, adding that anthocyanin found in eggplant can help support a healthy metabolism; lycopene found in tomatoes supports cardiovascular health; bell peppers contain hefty amounts of immune support via vitamin C; and potatoes are an excellent source of potassium to promote healthy blood pressure.
Examples of nightshades include:
- Bell peppers
- Pepper (like paprika and cayenne)
No matter which of the four main vegetable categories you introduce into your lifestyle, you're bound to reap their countless benefits, from eye health to heart health and everything in between. "All vegetables include ample amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants along with some fiber," says Ruth. "These nutrients help support a healthy heart, brain, and weight."
Marissa Miller is a certified personal trainer from the American Council on Exercise and holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell. She has over 10 years of experience editing and reporting on all things health, nutrition, beauty, fitness, style and home for publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and many more.
Her first novel PRETTY WEIRD: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome and Other Oddly Empowering Lessons was published by Skyhorse Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster in May 2021.