The many health benefits of cruciferous vegetables

Diets, General / Lifestyle choices

  9 Minutes
You are not leaving this table until you’ve eaten all your vegetables. Vegetables. For some a blessing. For others, a bitter mouthful to swallow. We all have a cross to bear. Even vegetables carry that burden… literally.

Quite poetically, cruciferous vegetables carry the burden of all that distaste in their name. Their pretty flowers are usually lilac, white, or yellow (mostly but not always) and cruciform, meaning that they have four petals that resemble a cross. They get their name from the Latin word cruciferae or ‘cross bearing’.

What are cruciferous vegetables? Why are they so important to our well-being? What are their health benefits? How much should you be eating and how often? Who should be eating less of them? We explore this hugely beneficial veggie group and explain why they are more of a blessing than a burden. (PS. It’s pronounced ‘kroo-sif-er-is’).

What are cruciferous vegetables?

It’s official. We know that diets rich in whole foods including fresh fruit, vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, and good quality filtered water is beneficial to our health. We also know that some vegetables do more than others to help with certain health conditions.

What are cruciferous vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables are a diverse group of vegetables that belong to the mustard family of flowering plants officially called Brassicaceae or Brassica for short. They have a signature bitter and peppery taste. There are more than 3,700 different types and they come in all different shapes and sizes. They fall into the ‘dark green’ and ‘other’ vegetable categories.

Popular types include broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, mustard seeds, radish, rocket, and wasabi. Love them or hate them, they are affordable, easy to grow, and they pack a nutritional punch.

Cruciferous vegetables are calorie light and nutrient dense. They are one of the only food groups that contain a very beneficial phytochemical compound called glucosinolate. This is also what gives these veggies their bitter and pungent bite.

Glucosinolates are very high in a pure form of sulphur. Sulphur is the third most abundant mineral in the body after calcium and phosphorous. It’s what your body needs to stay healthy because it is a fundamental building block and a potent antioxidant.

When cruciferous vegetables are broken down through cooking, chewing, chopping or digestion, it leads to sulphur molecules being released creating their signature sharp aroma too. Believe it or not, this compound is life affirming and exceedingly good for you.

Did you know? Some people are more sensitive to bitter tastes than others. Babies are born disliking bitter flavours and do so until they become teenagers which is why eating cruciferous vegetables might be a chore.

Many poisonous or spoiled substances have a bitter taste and sulphuric smell. We are hardwired to dislike them as a protective mechanism to keep us safe from harm and to stop us from eating them by accident. That’s why bitter things are sometimes said to be an acquired taste. We need to learn to like them.

Top tip: Sulphur is an essential component of your connective tissue – the group of substances that holds your entire body together. This includes your tendons, ligaments, bone, cartilage, and skin, but also the network found between all your cells called the extracellular matrix. Learn all about how sulphur can relieve your pain naturally here.

What are the benefits of eating cruciferous vegetables?

Cruciferous vegetables present an impressive nutritional profile that includes favourable plant proteins, plant-based Omega-3 fatty acids, specific antioxidants, nutrients and micronutrients, vitamins, and other beneficial phytochemicals.

As a group, they tend to include great sources of vitamins C, E, K, and folic acid as well as beta-carotene which breaks down and coverts to vitamin A in our bodies.

Cruciferous vegetables are celebrated for the naturally high quantities of the calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, and zinc minerals that they contain. They are low in calories, fats, sugars and rich in both soluble and insoluble fibre needed to keep the gut healthy. Almost 70% of our immunity originates in the gut.

Among leafy green vegetables, trendy kale catapulted into the mainstream as a superfood and became so famous that its name graced the world’s fashion runways. BBC, National Geographic, Netflix, and other respected sources have created documentaries in its honour. Some say it’s all a conspiracy or a kalespiracy. It’s infamous. Regardless of whether kale is trendy or not, deep down we know that it’s good for us.

What are the benefits of eating cruciferous vegetables

The world produces around 139 million tons of cruciferous vegetables every year, 24% of which is broccoli and cabbage. In the USA, the top sellers are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts and kale – in that order. In South Africa, we eat more than 160,000 tonnes of cabbages per year. And thank goodness that we do.

When we eat cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, the glucosinolates get broken down in our stomachs by digestive juices and by enzymes. When they combine with a specific enzyme called myrisonase in our gut, it releases another specific compound that is only found in these veggies called sulforaphane.

Sulforaphane is a type of polyphenol or naturally occurring plant made antioxidant that only cruciferous vegetables make to protect themselves from harm such as bugs, diseases, and the elements. Broccoli, cabbage, and kale are particularly rich in sulforaphanes.

When sulforaphanes combine with all the other nutrients and by-products, cruciferous vegetables are potent antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, detox agents, regulators of the hormone oestrogen, anti-cancer agents, and they help the body fight off many other diseases.

Did you know? It is possible to extract sulforaphanes from cruciferous vegetables, specifically broccoli. It can be used to treat a variety of maladies as outlined below.

Some people need to be more cautious especially those with thyroid issues i.e., those with hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. Supplementing with extra sulforaphanes may interfere with treatment and the absorption of iodine. Take precautions and always consult a registered homeopath before starting a new supplement regime to check for side-effects and interactions.

Cruciferous vegetables have been shown to provide the following health benefits:

  • Powerful anti-inflammatories: Cruciferous vegetables are shown to help manage inflammation, and therefore pain, by supporting our connective tissues and the fluids between our joints because of the high amounts sulphur they contain.
  • Natural antioxidants: Cruciferous vegetables are powerful antioxidants which neutralise free radicals naturally. They fortify our immune systems and bolster our natural defences.
  • Cancer protection: Cruciferous vegetables help prevent different types of cancer such as colon, lung, prostate, rectal, stomach and thyroid cancers. Eating one portion a day has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 40%. They quench carcinogens and cancer-causing agents. A diet rich in cruciferous vegetables also helps those undergoing treatment by retarding the growth of existing tumours.
  • Anti-diabetes: Sulforaphanes are proven to be effective against diabetes, specifically type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance.
  • Help manage weight: They are low in calories, fats, and sugars, yet high in minerals, nutrients, vitamins, and fibre. This promotes weight loss, especially around the belly area. Eating more of them will keep you fuller for longer while providing you with the nutrition you need. They help with obesity.
  • Lower bad cholesterol: Eating at least 100g of steamed broccoli or cabbage five times a week significantly reduces the amount of bad cholesterol. It also protects your heart in the long run.
  • Improve brain function and assist with nervous disorders: They help with thinking and calm you down. Sulforaphanes from broccoli have been shown to reduce cognitive deficits, specifically in autism. They have also been used to prevent the onset of psychosis in schizophrenia. They may also help delay and manage Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Supporting liver function in remarkable ways

The liver is the largest gland in the body. It’s part of our filtration system. It has around 500 different functions and takes a beating every day to keep us safe. Sulforaphanes from cruciferous vegetables support the liver in different ways:

Supporting liver function in remarkable ways

  • Detoxification: Sulforaphanes cleanse and protect the liver. They neutralise toxic heavy metals and help get them out of you. These can then be more easily removed from the body via the bile duct into the intestine and the urinary tract.
  • Provides the liver with the nature’s vitamins: The liver stores many vitamins, especially the fat-soluble ones including vitamins A, D, E and K. It is also the factory where these vitamins are produced so that the body can use them. Cruciferous vegetables are rich in them.
  • Regulates hormones: The liver deactivates certain hormones and removes excess and unsafe hormones. Sulforaphanes have been shown to cleanse the liver and then also, reduce the amount of oestrogen in the body via the liver, restoring balance.

Top tip:

How much cruciferous vegetables should I eat?

When looking at portion size, it is important to remember that the empty stomach is approximately the size of your fist. It can stretch to around four times that size. Everyone is different.

  • Babies: Babies up to three years old should be eating one fistful of vegetables per day. That’s the size of their fist and not yours. This gives you some indication of the size of your child’s stomach. When in doubt look at the size of your child’s fist. One fifth of our veggie consumption should be of the cruciferous variety.
  • Children: Children up to around the age of nine years old should now be eating roughly one and half cups of various veggies per day to get their nutrients. Alternatively, check the size of their fists to measure out portion sizes. Again 1/5 of that should include their leafy greens. They should also be eating five pieces of fresh fruit a day too.
  • Adults: Adults should be eating around two and half cups of vegetables a day. Cruciferous vegetables can cause bloating. These should be combined with vegetables from other groups, especially from the ‘red and orange’ group such as beets, butternut, carrots, or pumpkin which may help. Come to think of it, coleslaw works. Cabbage and carrots!

Top tip: Beat the bloat by eating smaller portions more regularly.

How should I prepare my cruciferous vegetables?

Steaming your cruciferous veggies is scientifically proven to be the most beneficial to your health. Boiling them is proven to be the least effective as it removes many of the nutrients. Baking, grilling and stir frying them are all proven to be better than boiling.

Because many of the nutrients are fat soluble, Living Naturally’s serving suggestion is with a dollop of butter or drizzle of olive oil to aid digestion, and naturally aid in extracting as well as optimising all their wonderful goodness. To enhance the flavour naturally, consider a sprinkling of A.Vogel Herbamare, pure sea salt infused with organic garden-fresh herbs and vegetables.

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow. Indeed, it is. And there is a certain satisfaction that comes from nurturing and harvesting your own. Would you agree? We’ve learnt the bitter truth about cruciferous vegetables. Although fruit develops from the flower of the plant and contains seeds, vegetables can consist of the leaves, roots, and stems. This begs the question, why are we planting flower beds that only please the eye when so many fruit and vegetables could also be healing our bodies? Food for thought or is that food for grumbling tummies and modern maladies too. Happy healing.

References and additional reading:

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