You know you’re supposed to eat your vegetables, but do you know why, exactly? Let’s explore the health benefits of two green giants — broccoli and spinach — plus a favorite ingredient in everyday cooking — garlic.
Why: Not only low-calorie and inexpensive, broccoli is also one of the tastiest and healthiest vegetables, and it’s readily available year-round and easy to prepare.
Nutrients: It’s high in vitamins A, C and K (which helps keep bones strong), it’s a great source of iron and folate (lacking in our diet), and it has plenty of fiber. One cup of steamed broccoli has 44 calories.
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Health perks: According to Karen Collins, nutrition adviser to the American Institute for Cancer Research, “Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli have been linked with a lower risk of colon, prostate, lung and other cancers.” Broccoli contains phytochemicals, including beta-carotene, indoles and isothiocyanates.
Indole-3-carbinol has been shown to suppress not only breast tumor cell growth but also cancer cell movement to other areas of the body. Indoles also block carcinogens before they start the damage that allows cancer to develop, and they cause cancer cells to self-destruct.
Another substance in broccoli, sulforaphane, boosts the body’s detoxification enzymes, thus helping clear potentially carcinogenic substances more quickly. Broccoli also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, said to protect the eyes from ultraviolet light damage and cataracts.
Purchasing tips: According to chef and food expert Aliza Green (alizagreen.com), choose dark green bunches, which indicate high nutrient value. Florets that are dark green, purplish or bluish-green contain more beta-carotene and vitamin C than paler or yellowing ones. Choose stalks that are very firm, not rubbery.
Avoid broccoli with open, flowering, discolored or water-soaked bud clusters and tough, woody stems. As for storage, “Refrigerate unwashed in an airtight bag for up to four days,” advises Green.
Uses: Enjoy raw in salads, cooked in soups or sauteed with garlic and a little olive oil.
Why: It’s packed with an amazing quantity of nutrients for very few calories, and it tastes great either hot or cold.
Nutrients: It’s a great source of vitamins A, B2, C and K, as well as folate, potassium, magnesium, beta-carotene and fiber. One cup of steamed spinach has 42 calories.
Health perks: “Spinach is helpful in controlling blood pressure, keeping blood vessels healthy, reducing cancer risk and slowing the development of age-related eye damage (macular degeneration). Spinach also seems to protect against breast cancer risk linked to excess alcohol,” says Collins.
Spinach has 13 flavonoid compounds that function as antioxidants and anti-cancer agents. Additionally, vitamin C, beta-carotene and lutein reduce the risk of heart disease by keeping cholesterol from building up on artery walls. Lutein and zeaxanthin also seem to protect the eyes from ultraviolet light damage and cataracts.
Lutein and folate may also protect against birth defects. And according to one recent study, a carotenoid called neoxanthin helps destroy prostate cancer cells.
Purchasing tips: Green recommends “deeply colored, crisp, perky leaves that are unbroken — avoid yellow leaves.” Spinach spoils quickly, so check for any unpleasant odor if you are unsure it’s still good. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for two to three days.
Uses: Add to pastas, soups, casseroles and salads. Substitute for lettuce. Replace spinach for a third of the eggs or half the cheese in your morning omelet or even in lasagna — it will add volume and flavor with fewer calories.
Why: It can fight disease and make vegetables (and most food) taste great.
Nutrients: Garlic is an excellent source of manganese, a very good source of vitamin B6 and vitamin C and a good source of selenium. One clove has about 4 calories.
Health perks: “Substances in garlic block formation of nitrosamines, which have been linked to stomach cancer. In addition, garlic’s phytochemicals stimulate enzymes that detoxify carcinogens, potentially stopping cancer before it even starts,” says Collins.
Garlic’s organic sulfides and polysulfides disrupt the metabolism of tumor cells. Garlic is also reported to enhance immune function by stimulating lymphocytes and macrophages to destroy cancer cells.
Allicin, which is released when a clove is cut or crushed, has anti-microbial properties that inhibit a wide variety of bacteria, molds, yeasts and viruses. Garlic may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by lowering total and LDL (bad) cholesterol as well as triacylglycerol without affecting HDL (good) cholesterol.
Purchasing tips: Choose large, plump, firm bulbs with tight, unbroken sheaths, says Green. Avoid soft, spongy or shriveled bulbs or those with a green sprout in the center. Store up to three weeks in the refrigerator.
Uses: Saute chopped garlic in a bit of cooking spray with chicken, spinach and broccoli for an antioxidant-rich, delicious dish. Eat a couple cloves a week or up to five cloves a day for benefits, says Collins. Chopping garlic activates its phytochemicals. Cooking it too much, however, destroys that enzyme, so chop garlic and let it rest, then add toward the end of cooking, recommends Collins.
Charles Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com