To feel energized and free from most of the everyday ills that deplete us, I often tell my patients, ‘think veggies.’ Handmade by Mother Earth, veggies are the side-effect-free medicine you should take every day. Eating lots of fresh, organic or farmers’ market produce should be the foundation of your good-health house. While just about any veggie is a plus for your body, leaning heavily on non-starchy veggies will give you the most nutritional bang for your buck, without nudging blood sugar levels up.

So, which ones are the best of the best? If I had to pick a winner, tying for first place with leafy greens, would be the cruciferous vegetables, those slightly sulfur-scented veggies from the brassica family whose name comes from the Latin word cruciferae, which loosely translates to ‘cross bearing,’ a reference to the shape of their leaves and flowers.

What’s so special about them? Well, they’re versatile, tasty, fairly easy to grow and most importantly, they’re nutritional superstars, rich in a very powerful sulphur-based nutrient compound known as sulforaphane or SFN. Its benefits can enhance your health and could even help save your life. Here’s a topline on sulforaphane, what it can do for you — and how to get more of it into your daily routine:

Sulforaphane is powerful and protective.

Sulforaphane is a powerful phytochemical that’s created when a cruciferous plant’s myrosinase and glucoraphanin compounds combine, through chewing, chopping, cutting, etc. The resulting sulforaphane tamps down the body’s production of free radicals, helping to block a number of the enzymes that can activate cancer cells. In addition to being full of fiber and rich in sulforaphane, cruciferous veggies are brain and heart-protective and are associated with reduced risk for colon and rectal cancer. They’re also credited with helping to protect against prostatic, endometrial and ovarian cancers – so when they’re referred to as superfoods, it’s no joke.

Sulforaphane can help put the brakes on aging. 

The sulforaphane in cruciferous veggies may also help stave off diabetes and help slow the aging process by activating the protein NRF2. NRF2 helps rally the cells’ defenses against oxidative stress (in other words, aging at the cellular level) by switching on genes that turn on the production of antioxidants, blunting the toxic effects of free radicals. You might think of cruciferous vegetables as the ‘killer apps’ that help neutralize the bad actors of cellular metabolism. They’re the guard dogs of the produce aisle.

Sulforaphane bathes your body in benefits.

What else can sulforaphane do for you? It can help tame inflammation by neutralizing the toxins that trigger it. And that may help you sidestep the types of cancer that are linked to inflammation. Sulforaphane is also showing promise in helping to block cancer-causing mutations in your DNA and, when cancer is underway, may slow tumor growth by limiting cancerous cells’ ability to multiply. What’s more, it’s also been shown to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, and be helpful in autism and osteoporosis.

Pick a winner – at every meal.

Nutritionally speaking, you can’t lose with cruciferous, thanks to sulforaphane and the other plentiful nutrients tucked inside. Topping the must-eat list are broccoli sprouts which Johns Hopkins University researchers found had especially high concentrations of myrosinase and glucoraphanin, meaning more sulforaphane for you in every bite – even more than its full grown versions. The other stand-outs in the sulforaphane stakes include preferably organic or farmers’ market cruciferous produce such as arugula, broccoli, bok choy, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, cabbage, kale, turnips, wasabi, watercress, radishes and mustard greens, to name a few. While rutabaga, parsnips and and turnips are also good sources of SFN, they also fall into the starchier veggie camp so tread lightly to help keep carbs in check.

Get your sulforaphane on (your plate).

When you have sulforaphane on your team (and on your plate), you’ll be treating your body to a host of other benefits as well. Besides reducing inflammation, it promotes better detoxification, liver function, brain and heart health. Though there are supplement versions of SFN (we like BroccoProtect by Design for Health) on the market these days, the best way to get yours is in its purest form – and that’s by eating your veggies. Even if you do eat a fair amount of veggies, you can always make room for more– and your body will love you for it! But let’s say you’re not the world’s most creative cook. No problem. You can sneak in more sulforaphane into your meals easily, without much extra effort. Here’s some food for thought:

Arugula

Don’t let arugula’s small, delicate leaves fool you. They’re packing all sorts of good stuff, including vitamins A, C and K, plus iron, potassium, magnesium and numerous beneficial phytochemicals. Also known as ‘rocket’ or ‘roquette,’ arugula consistently scores high as one of the healthiest foods you can eat so putting more of it on your plate is a wellness no-brainer.

Use it – as a peppery alternative to lettuce on its own or mixed with other greens like baby spinach, mustard greens and radicchio. Toss it on top of cauliflower pizza crusts or tucked under scrambled eggs. Got leftovers? Grind up the excess into a pesto and toss raw into spaghetti sauce and paleo noodle dishes.

Bok choy

A gorgeous green member of the cruciferous cabbage tribe, bok choy is an excellent source of carotenoids, flavonoids, Vitamin A, B1, B2, C and K. Topping the nutrition-density charts, bok choy is a winner that’s rich in calcium and folate and a raft of antioxidant compounds, some known for their cancer-fighting powers.

Use it — chop stems and toss into salads, or wilt it into soups and broths, or use leaves as a wrapper, stuffed with your favorite protein. You can also enjoy it lightly sauteed with garlic and a bit of extra virgin olive oil.

Brussels sprouts

Don’t be put off by the sulphur-y scent, they’re one of the most powerful super foods you can eat. These cruciferous all-stars, which resemble mini-cabbages, are loaded with protein, fiber, vitamins A and C, as well as glucosinolate, and help support heart and eye health.

Use it – any number of different ways: shredded raw into a slaw, steamed, roasted, mashed or sautéed. But whatever you do, don’t overcook them or you’ll risk degrading their protective nutrients.

Cabbage

The humble cabbage is one of the most underappreciated cruciferous veggies, but it’s a nutritional heavy hitter, packed with phytochemical compounds that help reduce bad cholesterol levels and cancer risk, while delivering essential vitamins B1, B5, B6, C, K and minerals, including potassium, iron, magnesium, which can help keep hearts, brains and immunity humming.

 Use it — in a classic coleslaw (hold the mayo) or sauerkraut (ferment your own for an extra immunity-boost), or add to stir fry and, of course, there’s kim chi, the spicy Korean condiment. You can add cabbage to kale, mashed potatoes and onions to make the traditional Irish dish colcannon. Also try it raw or lightly wilted as a wrap for leftovers.

Grow some sulforaphane on your windowsill.

If you’re ready to take a page from the Johns Hopkins study mentioned above, why not sprout your own broccoli sprouts at home? It’s easier than you think, you barely need a green thumb and, the body benefits are legion. To get started, all you need is a quart-sized canning jar, a wide-mouthed canning ring and a mesh sprouting screen (or a plastic “sprouting lid”). Add to that high-quality “sprouting” seeds from a good organic/non-GMO source, for example, Sproutpeople.com. Once you’ve got broccoli sprouts growing, explore other types of seeds – like cress, mustard, onion, radish – to expand your repertoire. 

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