Ian Lecklitner- Writer
Brussels sprouts? Mushrooms? Which will best cancel out the damage I did over the holidays?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Everyone should eat more vegetables. But if navigating the produce section gives you anxiety, don’t worry: I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank popular vegetables — from superfood to just plain really healthy.
Before plunging into our ranking, though, Friedman feels the need to debunk some carnivorous propaganda. “The one misconception I hear a lot is that vegetables don’t provide us with enough protein, and therefore, we need to eat meat,” Friedman says. “The truth is that a vegetarian diet can provide sufficient protein requirements for humans. For example, 100 calories of ground beef contain 10 grams of protein, whereas 100 calories of baby spinach contain 12 grams of protein.” Friedman also mentions that beans and nuts — both of which fit into a vegetarian diet — are high in protein.
“This doesn’t only apply to the average person: It also goes for athletes and bodybuilders who are intent on building lean muscle,” Friedman continues. “If this sounds counter-intuitive — that bodybuilders can gain enough muscle to compete professionally by eating a diet of only plant-based protein — I ask, ‘How does an elephant grow to 10,000 pounds by eating nothing except plants?’ They couldn’t grow that big if plants weren’t loaded with protein.”
With that, let’s rank some veggies…
1. Asparagus: “This tasty green stalk comes in first place on my vegetable ranking,” Friedman says. “Asparagus is a great source of vitamin K, which helps with blood clotting and building strong bones.” Friedman also mentions that asparagus provides vitamin A (which prevents heart disease), vitamin C (which supports the immune system), vitamin E (which acts as an antioxidant) and vitamin B6 (which, like vitamin A, also prevents heart disease).
Asparagus is also loaded with minerals, including iron (which supports oxygen-carrying red blood cells), copper (which improves energy production) and calcium (which improves bone health). “Asparagus increases your energy levels, protects your skin from sun damage and helps with weight loss,” Friedman continues. “It’s also an excellent source of inulin, a type of carbohydrate that acts as a prebiotic, supporting the growth of health-promoting bacteria in the colon.”
Lastly, Friedman suggests that asparagus might be something of a natural aphrodisiac. “If you’re on a dinner date, you may want to consider ordering asparagus,” he says, adding that the vitamin B6 and folate it contains can boost feelings of arousal. “It’s high vitamin E content also stimulates sex hormones, including estrogen in women and testosterone in men.” Just be sure to close the bathroom door if you pee afterwards.
2. Sweet Potatoes: “These sweet, starchy tubers are rich in beta-carotene, which helps maintain healthy skin, vision and organ function,” says Friedman. “Beta-carotene consumption has been linked to a decrease in the risk of lung and breast cancer.”
“If you suffer from neck or back pain, sweet potatoes are my top ‘food-is-medicine’ prescription,” Friedman continues. “That’s because one large sweet potato contains more than 850 milligrams of potassium, a nutrient that helps relieve muscle spasms and reduces inflammation.”
Friedman also mentions that one cup of baked sweet potatoes contains approximately 50 percent of your daily vitamin C requirement and lots of manganese, a mineral that “helps produce collagen and promotes skin as well as bone health.” On top of that, Friedman says that sweet potatoes contain anti-inflammatory compounds called anthocyanins.
3. Brussels Sprouts: “These low-calorie miniature cabbages are rich in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A, folate, iron and manganese,” Friedman explains. “Their high fiber content also helps support bowel regularity and gut health.”
Friedman also emphasizes that Brussels sprouts contain kaempferol, “an antioxidant that may reduce cancer growth, decrease inflammation and promote a healthy heart.” Additionally, Brussels sprouts keep your blood sugar in check. “Research has linked an increased intake of cruciferous vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, to a decreased risk of diabetes,” Friedman says.
“Brussels sprouts also contain alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant that’s been researched extensively for its brain health and anti-aging properties,” Friedman continues. “Lastly, eating Brussels sprouts can also supply the antioxidants your body needs to protect it from cellular damage and promote general good health.”
4. Spinach: “Popeye was right: Spinach is one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet,” Friedman emphasizes. “It’s loaded with vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid [which helps the body produce new cells], iron and calcium. Spinach also contains potassium and magnesium, both of which helps keep blood pressure under control.”
Friedman also mentions that spinach is full of carotenoids, “antioxidants that promote healthy eyes and help prevent macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults.”
“Spinach is one of the richest dietary sources of quercetin, a powerful antioxidant that helps ward off infection and inflammation,” Friedman continues. “The antioxidants found in spinach may help fight aging and reduce the risk of cancer as well as diabetes — spinach contains two components, MGDG and SQDG, which have been shown to slow the progression of cancer growth.” Lastly, Friedman says that spinach contains sulforaphane — a compound found in many cruciferous vegetables — which also protects against cancer.
5. Broccoli: “Many people think about orange juice or citrus fruits when it comes to getting their required daily vitamin C, but one cup of broccoli provides more vitamin C than you need in an entire day without causing the blood sugar spike that happens with citrus juice,” Friedman says. “Many health experts consider broccoli to be the healthiest of all the cruciferous vegetables because of its ability to help lower the risk of lung, colorectal, breast, bladder, stomach and prostate cancer.”
Friedman also says that broccoli is a solid source of vitamin K, which again, promotes bone health. Additionally, Friedman points to several studies showing that broccoli consumption lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease.
6. Lettuce: You can see our separate ranking of every type of lettuce here, but, “As a general rule of thumb, the nutritional value of lettuce increases as the leafs get darker,” Friedman explains. “Iceberg lettuce is the most widely eaten but has the least nutritional value — the reason being that iceberg lettuce grows in a tighter head, so the inner leaves get less sunlight, remain lighter green and have fewer nutrients. My top pick is Romaine lettuce: It’s the most nutrient-rich of all lettuce varieties and excels in the vitamin and mineral departments. It’s an excellent source of calcium, folate and vitamin K. It also provides 10 times more beta-carotene than iceberg lettuce and almost as much as spinach, making romaine the healthiest of all the lettuces.”
7. Beets: Friedman first explains that beets lower your blood pressure. “Researchers attribute the blood-pressure lowering effects of beets to their high concentration of nitrates,” he says. “When you eat beets, your body converts nitrates to nitric oxide, a molecule that dilates blood vessels, causing your blood pressure to drop.” This increase in circulation, Friedman says, also increases blood flow to the frontal lobe of the cerebrum, “an area associated with higher-level thinking, such as decision making and memory.”
Friedman mentions, too, that beets contain lutein, which protects your eyes, and pigments called betalains, “which may possess numerous anti-inflammatory properties that help combat obesity, heart disease, liver disease and cancer.”
“Beets are often referred to as ‘nature’s Viagra’ due to their high nitrate content,” Friedman continues, adding that the same dilation of blood vessels mentioned above also boosts circulation to the penis. “This leads to better erections for men during sexual intercourse and helps them last longer in bed.”
8. Mushrooms: “These delicious fungi are one of the few natural dietary sources of vitamin D [which helps the body absorb calcium, promoting bone health],” Friedman says. “Countless scientific studies have revealed numerous ways that mushrooms can be useful in preventing and treating many health conditions: Researchconducted at the University of Florida’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, for instance, found that eating shiitake mushrooms daily improves immunity better than any pharmaceutical drug currently on the market.”
“If your New Year’s resolution includes losing weight, it’s ‘shrooms to the rescue: They have lots of nutritional value with few calories and very little fat,” Friedman continues. “They also contain two types of dietary fiber, beta-glucans and chitin, which increase satiety and reduce appetite.”
Lastly, Friedman says, “Mushrooms are great for cardiovascular health thanks to their high fiber, potassium and vitamin C content. If you have high cholesterol, eat more shiitake mushrooms: The stem of the shiitake mushroom is a great source of beta-glucans, which have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels.”
9. Bell Peppers: “Bell Peppers are very high in vitamin C: Just one provides 170 percent of the recommended daily allowance,” Friedman says. “Other vitamins and minerals found in bell peppers include vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin K, folate and potassium.”
Some bell peppers are healthier than others, though. “Yellow bell peppers contain several phytochemicals and carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene, which has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits,” Friedman explains. “Red bell peppers are chock-full of many healthy antioxidants, including violaxanthin, lutein, quercetin and luteolin. These plant compounds are associated with many health benefits, including the prevention of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. Green peppers, meanwhile, are harvested sooner; they’re cheaper to grow, and not quite as nutritious as their colorful counterparts.”
10. Tomatoes: Okay, okay: Tomatoes are technically a fruit, but since basically everyone considers them at least vegetable-adjacent, we decided to include them in this ranking anyway. “They contain a high amount of lycopene, an antioxidant that’s been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer,” Friedman says, adding that cooked tomatoes contain four times more lycopene than uncooked tomatoes. “Tomatoes are also a rich source of vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium and folate. Plus, the skin of a tomato contains naringenin, a flavonoid that has been shown to decrease inflammation, and chlorogenic acid, a powerful antioxidant compound that may help lower blood pressure.”
11. Carrots: “One serving [one cup] of carrots supplies 400 percent of the daily value for vitamin A, and a plethora of nutrients, including vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium and lots of fiber,” Friedman says. B vitamins basically help the body in every way imaginable: “If you want to fight the sands of time, add carrots to your diet — the high levels of beta-carotene in carrots acts as an antioxidant that slows down cellular aging.”
12. Onions: “Onions will make you cry when you cut them, but they make your body smile when you eat them: They supply vital nutrients, including calcium, folate, iron, magnesium, phosphorus [which supports bones and teeth] and potassium,” Friedman says. “They’re also a rich source of quercetin, a plant-based phytochemical with anti-inflammatory properties.” Quercetin, Friedman explains, may help onions combat arthritis, asthma and heart disease. “Research also shows that those who consume onions and other allium vegetables, such as scallions, garlic, leeks, shallots and chives, have a lower risk of stomach, colon and prostate cancers,” he emphasizes.
Onions also contain prebiotic fiber, according to Friedman, which is necessary for a healthy gut and improved digestion.
13. Green Beans (and Snap Peas): “Green beans contain antioxidants similar to those found in green tea, also known as catechins, which can improve heart health and help prevent cancer,” Friedman explains. “Green beans also help to reduce the risk of heart disease due to their high levels of polyphenolic antioxidants, which are flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory properties. Test subjects with high flavonoid levels have shown anti-thrombotic results, meaning they prevent blood clots. They’ve also been shown to reduce the risk of birth defects for pregnant women. Finally, green beans provide calcium, a vital mineral that helps protect the bones from deterioration and osteoporosis.”
14. Cucumber: Similar to tomatoes, cucumbers are actually a fruit, but also like tomatoes, they’re often thought to be a vegetable, which is why we included them in this ranking. “The ‘cuke’ is low in calories and contains a lot of water (96 percent) as well as soluble fiber, making it ideal for promoting hydration and aiding in weight loss,” Friedman says. “It’s also a good source of vitamin K, which may reduce bone loss and decrease risk of bone fractures.”
“Cucumbers contain antioxidants, including flavonoids and tannins, which prevent the accumulation of harmful free radicals and may reduce the risk of chronic disease,” Friedman continues. “Animal studies show that cucumbers may help lower blood sugar and prevent diabetes-related complications.”
Hot tip: “To get their full nutrient content, cucumbers should be eaten unpeeled,” Friedman says. “Peeling cukes reduces the amount of fiber as well as certain vitamins and minerals they contain.”
15. White Potatoes: “White potatoes aren’t as healthy as sweet potatoes, but they still offer a great source of complex carbohydrates, which promote energy and keep you full,” Friedman says. “Studies have shown that white potatoes are among the most filling foods, which is great if you’re trying to lose weight (of course, adding sour cream and butter negates these benefits).”
On a related note, how you prepare your potato seriously affects the health benefits that come with it. “Frying potatoes to make French fries adds more calories and fat than baking them,” Friedman says. “It’s also important to note that the skin of the potatoes contains a great amount of their vitamins and minerals, so peeling potatoes can significantly reduce their nutritional content.” Friedman goes on to mention that a whopping 60 percent of white potatoes in the U.S. are made into French fries.
But when they aren’t fried, white potatoes are fairly healthy, especially for your gut. “White potatoes contain resistant starch, which is a form of starch that isn’t broken down and fully absorbed by the body,” Friedman says. “Instead, it reaches the large intestine, where it becomes a source of nutrients for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. While there, it converts into short-chain fatty acid butyrate, which has been linked to reduced inflammation in the colon, and a lower risk of colorectal cancer.”
On a final note, remember that variety is important when it comes to food, which means only eating asparagus — the absolute healthiest vegetable, according to Friedman — is a bad idea. Your best bet is to include every single one of the above-mentioned veggies in your diet.