Slash your heart risk in half with just a quarter cup a day!
Cruciferous vegetables have a long history—both botanically and medically. A century ago, the British Empire Cancer Campaign documented these vegetables’ ability to reduce the risk of cancer. And research beginning in the 1980s has consistently backed up that initial finding.
But that’s not all that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale—along with their close relatives radish, rutabaga, and turnips—can do for you. Cruciferous vegetables are now being studied for their benefits in blood vessel health, too.
In fact, new research has found that higher consumption of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage is associated with a substantially reduced risk of blood vessel disease in older women.
This finding is important because blood vessel disease can reduce blood flow throughout the body—making it the leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. And, of course, heart disease is the No. 1 killer worldwide.
So let’s take a closer look at this compelling new study, and at the health benefits of cruciferous vegetables in general…
The ancient roots of Brassica plants
Cruciferous vegetables come from the wild mustard plant, which was found on the vast Eurasian continent in ancient times. The plant is mentioned in the Bible, and has a long tradition in China.
Over the years, cultivation of wild mustard has created a family of plants that were named Brassica by the first century AD Roman author and natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder.1
The flowers, seeds, stalks, roots, and tender leaves of many of the Brassica species can be eaten raw or cooked. And not only are cruciferous vegetables tasty, but they’re also packed with nutrients—making them some of the healthiest produce you can find.
Which leads me to this new study…
A little goes a long way towards a healthier heart
Beginning in 1998, researchers looked at the diet and blood vessel health of 684 women, average age of 75, in western Australia.2 They discovered that the women who consumed 45 grams of cruciferous vegetables each day had nearly half the risk of blood vessel disease (specifically, calcification in the aorta) than women who ate little or none of these veggies.
The researchers noted that their prior studies showed that women with a higher intake of cruciferous vegetables had lower risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. But they weren’t sure why, until they performed this new study and found the link to blood vessel disease.
Now, you may think that the 45 grams cited in this study seems like a lot to consume. But it’s actually only a quarter cup of steamed cruciferous vegetables, or half a cup of raw veggies…which isn’t really much.
In 1984, while I was at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), I performed my first study with the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center. We focused on measuring the absorption of carotenoids from foods by feeding selected vegetables to a group of young, healthy volunteers.
The research protocol for broccoli required eating half a kilo daily. That’s 500 grams—or more than 10 times the amount found to be beneficial for the heart in the new Australian study!
The group randomly chosen to consume broccoli during my study balked at the large amounts. So I put together a “panel” consisting of some of the older researchers and myself, and we all publicly downed our portions in front of the volunteers.
And it worked! The volunteers were shamed into eating their broccoli. (We completed the study shortly before Thanksgiving that year.)
Why brassica is an important part of a balanced diet
While my NCI study was intended to focus on beta-carotene, we found that broccoli was also high in other carotenoids (that nobody had yet heard of before), such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Brassica vegetables are also rich in fiber, manganese, isothiocyanates (biologically active phytochemicals), and vitamins C and K .
Vitamin K is thought to inhibit the calcification in blood vessels that leads to blood vessel disease. But just as in the U.S., Aussies don’t eat enough vitamin K-rich brassica vegetables—or any vegetables for that matter!
The researchers noted that a shocking 90 percent of Australian adults don’t consume the recommended daily amount (five half-cup servings) of vegetables.
Results are similar in the U.S. A new study of about 10,000 American men and women, ages 20 and older, found that 37 percent consumed less than three servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and 34 percent ate about five servings a day.3
That means that nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults don’t eat the recommended daily amount of six to eight servings of fruits and vegetables. (In fact, the typical U.S. diet is so poor, it’s not only our leading health hazard, but it’s also considered a threat to national security, as I discuss on page 1.)
And if that weren’t bad enough, 5 percent of the study participants didn’t consume any fruits and vegetables at all.3
Simple and tasty ways to eat your veggies
The good news is that all it takes to substantially lower your risk of heart disease and cancer is a measly quarter cup of cooked (or half a cup of raw) cruciferous vegetables a day.
If you’re not a fan of broccoli, try mashed cauliflower, which is an excellent substitute for mashed potatoes. Or sauté some Brussels sprouts in olive oil and sprinkle them with parmesan cheese, and you’ve got a quick but elegant side dish for meat or fish. (My daughter makes this for our family each Thanksgiving.) You can even add some collard greens, shredded cabbage, or sliced radish to your lunchtime salad.
It really is that simple to make cruciferous vegetables a part of your daily diet—and your healthy lifestyle.
1Foraging Wild Edible Plants of North America: More than 150 Delicious Recipes Using Nature’s Edibles. 2016. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 120–122.
2“Cruciferous vegetable intake is inversely associated with extensive abdominal aortic calcification in elderly women: a cross-sectional study.” British Journal of Nutrition, 2020; 1.
3“Consumption of US Adults by Level of Variety, What We Eat in America, NHANES 2013–2016,” Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 4, Issue 3, March 2020, nzaa014.