By Dr. Mercola
Most vegetables are very low in calories and net carbs, while being high in healthy fiber and the valuable vitamins and minerals your body needs for optimal health. As a general rule, vegetables are a nutritional cornerstone.
However, some are more beneficial than others, which is the focus of this article.1,2,3,4,5
Eating plenty of vegetables can help reduce your risk for many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. For example, one 2010 study found that eating just one extra serving of leafy greens a day reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 14 percent.6
Vegetables also contain an array of antioxidants and other disease-fighting compounds that are very difficult to get anywhere else.
Plant chemicals called phytochemicals help reduce inflammation and eliminate carcinogens, while others regulate the rate at which your cells reproduce, remove old cells and maintain DNA. Studies have repeatedly shown that people with higher vegetable intake have:
✓ Lower risks of high blood pressure and stroke
✓ Lower risks of certain types of cancer
✓ Reduced risk of kidney stones and bone loss
✓ Higher scores on cognitive tests
✓ Higher antioxidant levels
✓ Lower biomarkers for oxidative stress
✓ Lower risk for Alzheimer's disease7
✓ Lower risk for eye diseases
✓ Fewer digestive problems
Vegetables Are the Ultimate Among Low-Net Carb Foods
Many of these benefits are actually due to the high fiber content in vegetables. The fiber in vegetables is broken down into health-promoting short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) by your gut bacteria, and SCFAs have been shown to lessen your risk of inflammatory diseases.8
Your liver converts these short-chain fats into ketones that nourish your body and provide important signaling functions.
The fiber content also promotes optimal gut health in general by nourishing beneficial gut bacteria. Leafy greens, which have some of the highest fiber content in the vegetable kingdom, also activate a gene called T-bet, which is essential for producing critical immune cells in the lining of your digestive tract.9
These immune cells, called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs), help maintain balance between immunity and inflammation in your body and produce interleukin-22 (IL-22), a hormone that helps protect your body from pathogenic bacteria.
ILCs even help resolve cancerous lesions and prevent the development of bowel cancers and other inflammatory diseases, including obesity. So which are the "superstars" within the vegetable kingdom? Here I'll review five different categories of veggies worth your daily consideration.
Top Performing Sprouts
Sprouts deliver high amounts of nutrients in small packages, including antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and enzymes that protect against free radical damage, so in terms of volume you can get away with eating far less.
The vitamin and essential fatty acid content increases dramatically during the sprouting process. Sunflower seeds, for example, typically contain 30 times more nutrients than whole organic vegetables!
The fiber content also improves when sprouting, and the protein becomes more bioavailable. Sprouts can also contain up to 100 times more enzymes than raw fruits and vegetables, allowing your body to extract more vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fats from other foods.
Another boon: sprouts are very easy to grow at home, even in small spaces, allowing you to turbocharge your diet at a very low cost. Three of my favorite sprouts are:
• Watercress: Contains more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, and more vitamin C than oranges. In fact, watercress is at the very top of the list of nutrient dense vegetables, with a perfect 100 nutrient density score!10
Compounds in watercress have also been shown to decrease the risk of lung, colorectal, head and neck and prostate cancers, including a particularly virulent form of breast cancer.
• Broccoli sprouts: Three-day-old broccoli sprouts contain anywhere from 10 to 100 times the amount of chemoprotective compounds found in mature broccoli. Research also suggests broccoli sprouts can help detox environmental pollutants such as benzene.
• Sunflower seeds: Rich in vitamin E, copper, B vitamins, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Sunflower seeds also contain one of the highest levels of phytosterols of commonly consumed nuts and seeds.
Phytosterols are beneficial for your heart health and immune system, and may help lower cancer risk as well. Sunflower sprouts are also among the highest in protein.
Leafy Greens Lead the Pack for Healthy Fiber
Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are particularly low in net carbs; the majority of their content being healthy fiber. Among those with the lowest net carb content (i.e. total carbohydrates minus fiber) are:11
|Vegetable||Total Net Carbs|
|Asparagus (high in vitamin C, folate, vitamin K, carotene, and protein)||2 percent|
|White mushrooms (potassium, B vitamins)||3 percent|
|Cucumber (mostly water and some vitamin K)||4 percent|
|Tomatoes (high in vitamin C, potassium)||4 percent|
|Cauliflower (high in vitamins C, K, and folate)||5 percent|
|Eggplant (high in fiber)||6 percent|
|Bell peppers (high in fiber, vitamin C and carotene)||6 percent|
|Broccoli (high in vitamins C, K, and anti-cancer compounds)||7 percent|
|Brussels sprouts (high in vitamins C, K and other beneficial plant compounds)||7 percent|
|Green beans (high in fiber, protein, vitamins C and K, magnesium, and potassium)||7 percent|
|Onions (high in fiber, antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds)||9 percent|
|Kale (high in fiber, vitamins C and K, and carotene)||10 percent|
Top Performing Leafy Greens
When it comes to overall nutrient content, some of my favorite leafy greens include the following. (For more food facts and sample recipes, please follow the hyperlinks provided.)
Kale has a 3:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, which is an exceptionally high amount of protein for any vegetable, and one reason why it has been acclaimed as the "new beef." Like meat, kale contains all nine essential amino acids needed to form the proteins within the human body, plus nine other non-essential ones for a total of 18. It also contains more omega-3 than omega-6, which is almost unheard of in nature.
A 100-gram portion of kale will add a mere 50 calories while providing you with 200 percent of your recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin C, 300 percent of your vitamin A, and an incredible 1,000 percent of vitamin K1. It also contains vitamin B6, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper and manganese.
Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, beet greens contain 220 percent of the RDI of vitamin A, 60 percent of vitamin C, 16 percent of calcium, and 15 percent of iron. In fact, beet greens have more iron than spinach. The vitamin K in beet greens also works with calcium to boost bone strength, and may play a role in fighting Alzheimer's disease. Overall, beet greens score a respectable 87 out of 100 in terms of nutrient density.
Arugula contains trace minerals and antioxidants that block absorption of environmental contaminants — including some that may have a negative impact on your libido. It's also an excellent source of fiber, vitamins A, C (to boost immune function), and K (for bone strength), folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese.
Arugula also provides high levels of protein, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, zinc, copper, and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) that help raise HDL cholesterol levels and lower LDL. Its flavonoid content can help lower blood pressure, increase blood flow, lower inflammation, and improve blood vessel function.
Spinach, scoring 86.4 on a nutrient density scale of 100, is high in niacin and zinc, as well as protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, E and K, thiamin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese. Studies have shown spinach helps maintain your brain function, memory and mental clarity. (To retain the rich iron content, cook only lightly, and add a small amount of lemon juice or vinegar.)
With an overall nutrient density score of nearly 89.3, Swiss chard is particularly rich in vitamins C, E, and A (beta-carotene) along with the minerals manganese and zinc. The betalin pigments in Swiss chard also support your body's Phase 2 detoxification process, which is when broken down toxins are bound to other molecules so they can be excreted from your body.
In addition, Swiss chard contains a flavonoid called syringic acid, which may help regulate blood sugar and provide benefits to those with diabetes, along with kaempferol, a flavonol that may help fight cancer and lower your risk of chronic diseases including heart disease.
Collard greens provide a whopping 1,045 percent of your RDI of vitamins K, and 308 percent of vitamin A — vitamins needed for strong bones, brain health and sharp eyesight. Collard greens also help lower your cholesterol levels better than any other cruciferous vegetable. The key is its ability to bind to bile acids in your digestive system, which facilitates the removal of excess cholesterol from your body. Just be careful about juicing them as they are very bitter.
The Amazing Benefits of Peppers
Peppers are another group of vegetables well worth your consideration. Sure, they taste great, but did you know they're also loaded with valuable nutrients? Four deserving of special mention include:
• Bell peppers: With twice the vitamin C of an orange (more than 300 percent of your RDI of vitamin C for one whole bell pepper), bell peppers are a great way to boost your immune system and lower inflammation that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
One cup of chopped red pepper, which also has the highest antioxidant content of the bell peppers, contains 9 grams of carbohydrates, three of which are fiber (for a net carb content of 6 grams per cup). They also provide 93 percent of your RDI for vitamin A.
• Banana peppers: Available in both sweet and spicier varieties, banana peppers add a nutritious and flavorful kick to dishes and salads. Like other peppers, banana peppers are very low in net carbs. Despite their sweet flavor, less than 2 grams of a 30-gram sweet banana pepper is carbohydrates, and more than half of that is fiber.12
• Poblano peppers: Commonly used in Latin American cooking, a single poblano pepper contains just over half a gram of protein and 3 grams of carbohydrate, more than 1 gram of which is fiber.
One dried poblano pepper also contains nearly 2 milligrams (mg) of iron, or about 24 percent of the RDI of iron for adult men of all ages and women over the age of 51, or 11 percent of the RDI for women under age 51.13 If your iron levels are on the high side, you may need to go easy on poblano peppers, as high iron is highly inflammatory.
• Chili peppers: Fiery hot, chili peppers have a number of medicinal properties. It contains capsaicin, which has antibacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic and anti-diabetic properties. Red and green chili peppers are also a good source of vitamin C and a number of B vitamins.14
Top Performing Root Vegetables
While many root vegetables are high in starch and net carbs, there are some notable exceptions, such as ginger, turmeric and onions. Ginger has more than 40 documented pharmacological actions, including broad-spectrum antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-parasitic properties. Ginger is also a thermogenic substance that has a beneficial impact on your metabolism and fat storage.
Turmeric has an even more impressive healing repertoire with over 150 potentially therapeutic activities, including anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and anti-cancer activity. It may also be useful against Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infections, associated with gastritis, peptic ulcer and gastric cancer.
Raw onion is another potent cancer fighter. It also contains the antioxidant quercetin, which has been shown to help lower blood pressure in hypertensive patients.15 Perhaps surprisingly, onions are yet another vegetable loaded with vitamin C.
Boost Nutritional Value of Veggies by Fermenting Them
Inflammation from bacterial endotoxins may be a factor helping to drive the obesity epidemic. Sugar and processed foods can quickly make the "friendly" microbe community in your gut unfriendly — even downright hostile. When dysbiosis occurs, bacteria release noxious byproducts called endotoxins. Endotoxins increase the permeability of your gut wall (leaky gut syndrome) and make their way into your bloodstream, triggering system wide inflammation.
To counter or prevent this chain of events, you need to avoid sugary foods and regularly reseed your gut with healthy bacteria, and one of the best ways to do that is to eat fermented vegetables.
Just be careful and start slow. Introduce them at about a teaspoon and work your way up from there. One-quarter to one-half cup of fermented veggies with each meal is ideal. You also can't beat the price if you make them at home. In addition to helping break down and eliminate heavy metals and other toxins from your body, beneficial gut bacteria perform a number of important functions, including:
- Mineral absorption, and producing nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin K2 (vitamin K2 and vitamin D are necessary for integrating calcium into your bones and keeping it out of your arteries, thereby reducing your risk for coronary artery disease and stroke)
- Preventing obesity and diabetes, and regulating dietary fat absorption
- Lowering your risk for cancer
- Improving your mood and mental health
A potent superfood trio is a mixture of cabbage, carrots and ginger. I generally recommend eating carrots in moderation because they contain more sugar than any other vegetable aside from beets. However, when fermented they take on healthier qualities.
Besides, the beta-carotene in carrots (and many other vegetables noted above) is important for health, especially healthy vision. Studies have found that the more carotenoids you eat, the longer your lifespan. Savory Lotus16 has a fermented cabbage, carrot, ginger recipe you can try. Besides the benefits already mentioned, the ginger also aids with digestion.
On the whole, you really cannot go wrong with vegetables. Remember, even if 70 percent or more of your daily calories comes from fat, vegetables — being so low in fat and calories — should make up the greatest bulk of your diet. With so many to choose from, there's hardly any reason to ever get bored. It's mostly a matter of learning how to properly prepare them. Many can be eaten raw, but fermenting is a great way to boost their health benefits yet another notch.
Also, if you struggle to get enough leafy greens in your diet, consider juicing them. Another alternative is to grow your own sprouts. Packing such an incredible nutritional punch, you don't need to eat nearly as much of them as you would other vegetables.