Unexpected Health Benefits Of Cruciferous Vegetables

Brussels sprouts are a contentious topic. Some people love them, and some people despise the very thought of them. Interestingly enough, about 70% of people have a gene that makes the vegetable taste bitter, while 30% of people don't pick up on that flavor (via University of Derby). If you're in the latter category, you're lucky — because Brussels sprouts are one of the healthiest vegetables you can eat. 

Brussels sprouts join a variety of other veggies — such as broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, cabbage, turnip, collard and mustard greens — in the cruciferous vegetable family (via the Cleveland Clinic). These vegetables have similar flavors due to the presence of specific chemical compounds, which also provide a host of health benefits. In addition, cruciferous veggies are a rich source of essential vitamins and minerals, making them nutritional powerhouses — superfoods that have been shown to boost your health in a variety of ways, from reducing your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes to helping you lose or maintain your weight. And, they have a few benefits you wouldn't expect, like helping protect against dementia. So, your health will benefit if you make cruciferous veggies a regular part of your diet. With all the variety, you're sure to find a few that appeal to your taste buds.

Increase vitamin and mineral intake

You know vegetables are good for you, so it's not unexpected that cruciferous vegetables are nutritious. But you might be surprised at just how nutritious they are. One cup of broccoli provides 90% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin C, an important nutrient for the immune system and skin health (via Nutrients). That's almost as much as a cup of orange sections. 

Many cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and collard greens, are good sources of the B vitamin folate. One cup of collards has 12% of the DV, and one cup of broccoli has 14%. Folate is involved in the creation of genetic material such as DNA, and it has wide-ranging health benefits, from lowering blood pressure to boosting brain health (via the Cleveland Clinic).

One cup of Brussels sprouts has 7% of the daily value (DV) for the mineral iron. Iron is essential for energy, as it helps transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Broccoli is also a good source of iron, with 4% of the DV. And while you may not think of vegetables when you think of calcium, collard greens are a rich source. One cup provides 6% of the DV. Calcium is an essential mineral that helps maintain and build bone mass and prevent bone disease such as osteoporosis (via the Mayo Clinic). 

May reduce risk of cancer

It's well-documented that a healthy diet high in vegetables can reduce your risk of chronic disease, including cancer. Vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients, which are biologically active chemical compounds found in plants, all play a role. Cruciferous vegetables contain several nutrients and phytonutrients that may be protective against cancer. Vitamin C and carotenoids — plant pigments — have antioxidant properties. They can help neutralize free radicals that may damage healthy cells and contribute to the development or progression of disease (via UCLA Health). Although antioxidants on their own don't fight cancer, they play a part in your body's defense system, along with the other health-promoting nutrients in cruciferous vegetables (via Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). 

Another group of compounds called glucosinolates may have an even greater impact on cancer. During digestion, glucosinolates are broken down into substances called isothiocyanates and indoles that help reduce inflammation in the body (via UNC School of Medicine). Chronic inflammation can damage DNA and contribute to cancer development (via NIH). It's not clear how glucosinolates and their derivatives work. It may be that they activate genes that slow the growth of tumors and encourage cancer cell death. They may also encourage anti-carcinogenic enzyme activity that stops cancer cells from spreading. More research is needed to confirm the effects of cruciferous vegetable consumption on cancer, but so far there is promising evidence that regular consumption can reduce the risk of lung, breast, colorectal, and stomach cancers, among others.

Aid weight loss and management

Eating more low-energy-dense foods is the cornerstone of any weight loss or weight maintenance program. Low-energy-dense foods are those that are low in calories and high in components that help you control your appetite and make you feel more satiated after eating a smaller portion of food, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cruciferous vegetables, like most vegetables, are high in fiber, a non-digestible substance that forms the cell walls of plants (via Food Quality and Safety). Fiber contributes minimal calories, and it digests very slowly and stays in your stomach for a long time (via the Mayo Clinic). This can help you feel fuller for longer after a meal. In a 2011 study, greater consumption of fiber among adults was associated with reduced long-term weight gain.

In addition, fiber has positive effects on gut health and the microbiome by providing a source of food for the healthy bacteria in your digestive system (via The New York Times). A healthy and diverse population of microbiota in the gut is linked to less weight gain over time (via Nutrients). 

The American Heart Association recommends getting 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day from food. One cup of Brussels sprouts has 3.3 grams of fiber, and a cup of broccoli has 2.4 grams of fiber.

Boost heart health

More than 120 million adults in the U.S. have heart disease, and it's a leading cause of death among Americans (via the American Heart Association). Eating an unhealthy diet high in saturated and trans fats and cholesterol significantly increases the risk of heart disease (via the CDC). Consuming more vegetables — including cruciferous vegetables, which are rich in fiber — can help reduce cholesterol, and it can also help reduce high blood pressure, which contributes to the development of heart disease (via the Mayo Clinic).

Cruciferous vegetables may provide more of a benefit for heart health than other vegetables. Glucosinolates found in cruciferous vegetables help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which play roles in heart disease. Indeed, a 2011 study analyzed the diets of more than 130,000 people and found that those who consumed vegetables — especially cruciferous vegetables — in greater amounts had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and from all causes. 

May protect cognitive function

Cognitive function includes complex activities of the brain, such as memory, processing, attention, and executive functions, e.g., reasoning, problem-solving, planning, and multi-tasking (via Oregon State University). Many things can affect cognitive function, including genetics, age, brain injury, and chronic health conditions like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes (via the CDC). Diet has been found to play a role in protecting cognitive function, with a diet high in vegetables, fish, whole grains, and olive oil associated with increased cognitive ability (via the NIH).

Biologically active compounds in cruciferous vegetables may offer additional benefits for brain health. The isothiocyanates created by the breakdown of glucosinolates help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress that can contribute to a number of brain diseases. In older adults, chronic inflammation has been found to increase the risk of age-related cognitive decline, including dementia and Alzheimer's disease (via the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing). According to a 2021 research review, pre-clinical research repeatedly shows that the active substances in cruciferous vegetables have a neuroprotective effect on the development of Alzheimer's disease. More research is needed to confirm these findings.

Lower risk of type 2 diabetes

With type 2 diabetes, the body doesn't regulate sugar properly and doesn't efficiently use it as a source of fuel (via the Mayo Clinic). This is caused by the pancreas being unable to make enough of the hormone insulin, which helps usher sugar into cells. The cells don't respond to insulin as they should, which means they don't absorb as much sugar. This causes long-term high blood sugar that, if left uncontrolled, can negatively affect the immune, circulatory, and nervous systems. 

Unhealthy diet and obesity are the main causes of type 2 diabetes. Losing weight and eating more vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can help prevent and control type 2 diabetes. Cruciferous vegetables, with their high fiber content, can aid control blood sugar control and aid weight loss. In fact, a 2023 study showed that higher vegetable intake lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes among nearly 55,000 participants, and that cruciferous vegetables consumption, in particular, was associated with a significantly lower risk. Researchers concluded that results were due in part to reduced body mass index (BMI).

Improve gut health

Gut health isn't just related to your digestive system. A healthy gut has wide-ranging effects on your health, including boosting your immune system and helping to prevent such conditions as overweight and obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and liver diseases (via International Journal of Molecular Sciences). Eating more cruciferous vegetables can improve your gut health and your overall health by increasing your fiber intake. Gut microbiota in the colon break down fiber and ferment it using enzymes (via Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). Fermentation creates short-chain fatty acids, which reduce the colon's pH. A lower pH is harmful for bad bacteria and beneficial for good bacteria. 

Additionally, a 2023 study found that glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables encouraged proliferation of some strains of good microbiota. Researchers also discovered that this effect may be even greater when two different types of cruciferous vegetables are combined — broccoli and Brussels sprouts, for example. This is because different cruciferous vegetables have varying phytochemical makeups, so they have different types of glucosinolates. However, existing research is still inconclusive, and more scientific studies are needed to confirm these findings. 

Boost bone health

When you reach age 50, you start to lose bone mass faster than your body can rebuild it (via the National Council on Aging). In the five to seven years after women enter menopause, they may lose as much as 20% of their bone mass. This increases the risk of fractures and bone diseases such as osteoporosis. But even if you're 20 or 30, it pays to take care of your bones. The more bone you build by age 30, the more you'll have when you start to lose it at age 50 (via NIH). 

One way to protect your bones is to eat more cruciferous vegetables. A 2017 study found that postmenopausal women who ate more cruciferous vegetables had a lower incidence of bone fractures. High levels of vitamin K in cruciferous vegetables may explain the findings. One cup of Swiss chard has 477% of the DV. A cup of Brussels sprouts has 130%. Vitamin K is important for healthy bones, and research has shown that high intakes of the vitamin are linked to a lower incidence of bone fractures.

Another explanation is the phytochemicals in cruciferous vegetables – including glucosinolates and their derivates — which may reduce oxidative stress that can damage healthy bone cells. They may also encourage activity in bone-building cells and lower bone resorption, which is the breakdown of bone by the body. 

Support healthy pregnancy

Pregnant women have to pay special attention to their nutrition. Certain nutrients are important for growth and development of the fetus, and a deficiency in some nutrients could lead to a baby being born with birth defects. Cruciferous vegetables are a good source of the B vitamin folate, which is an important nutrient for mothers-to-be. Folate helps create genetic material, including DNA, and it helps cells divide (via NIH). If women don't get sufficient amounts during pregnancy, the risk for having a baby with neural tube defects such as spina bifida increases. It may also increase the risk of having a premature baby or a baby with low birth weight.

Additionally, early research has found that the phytochemicals in cruciferous vegetables could have a protective effect on infants and later in life. A 2009 study found that supplementing the diets of pregnant mice with phytochemicals from cruciferous vegetables provided significant protection from leukemia and lymphoma in their offspring. It also protected against lung cancer as the mice aged. Another 2009 study found a link between cruciferous vegetable consumption and childhood brain tumors (via Oregon State University). Researchers found in a mice study that babies whose mothers had received during pregnancy a supplement of the protective phytochemical Indole-3-carbinol – which is naturally found in cruciferous veggies, per WebMD — had a lower risk of developing a type of brain tumor called anaplastic astrocytoma.