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Superfood in the Spotlight: Nutrition of Broccoli

At Essential Balance, we are starting a new blog series named: Superfood in the Spotlight.  This will be an occasional series, with each blog discussing the health benefits of choice foods, plus recipes and/or meal ideas. 

We are opening this series with a focus on the nutrition of broccoli!

Broccoli was my favourite vegetable as a child, but only because I would smother it in ranch dressing. Broccoli has always been regarded as one of the healthiest foods. However, over time broccoli has been cast aside and kale has taken the spotlight.

While kale is a very healthy leafy green, it is time broccoli reclaimed its superfood status.

Broccoli is a member of the cruciferous family or cabbage family. It developed from wild cabbage in Europe over 2,000 years ago. It was cultivated by the Romans and later throughout Italy. Now it is grown all over the world. The name broccoli is derived from the Latin term brachium meaning branch or arm. This is quite fitting due to broccoli’s tree-like appearance.

Broccoli comes in many different varieties and colours ranging from sage, dark green or purple. The most popular variety in North America is known as Italian Green or Calabrese, named after Calabria, Italy. Broccoli is not only nutritious, but also versatile. It can be used in everything from soups, stir fries and salads.

Below, we cover top 10 broccoli nutrition benefits and why you should eat more broccoli:

1. Broccoli for Weight Loss

While it is low in calories, broccoli’s higher fibre content makes it quite filling. This is why broccoli is considered to be an excellent “weight loss” food. However, weight loss is about so much more than calories.

When we feel hungry, this is the hormone ghrelin signalling to our body that we require sustenance. However, if we consume something low in fibre, it may not trigger a release in the hormone leptin which signals that we are full.

This is why 100 calories of broccoli reacts quite differently in the body than 100 calories of soda.

It is less about the numbers and more about the biochemistry. Consuming a nutritious fibre-rich food will result in stable blood sugar and therefore less cravings and hunger.

2. Broccoli for Energy and Focus

Broccoli’s ability to keep blood sugar stable is why it is excellent for energy and focus. Digesting a fibre-rich food like broccoli takes times and therefore the carbohydrates (or sugar) will be released more slowly into the blood stream. This will result in a gentle increase in blood sugar – which simply means the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood. The hormone insulin will then be released triggering the cells to absorb the sugar, where it can be converted into energy we can use.

The goal is to have a steady supply of energy that slowly drops off, then we get hungry again and we are ready for our next meal.

However, simple carbohydrates devoid of any fibre, such as soda, will be absorbed more readily by the blood stream, causing a drastic spike in blood sugar. In this situation, insulin will be released, but may overcompensate.  The excess amount of sugar delivered into the cells will either be stored in the liver as glycogen, or in the fat cells. The blood sugar may drop too low causing fatigue, irritability, and sugar cravings. Keeping blood sugar stable is key to improving energy levels, mood and focus. So, if you find yourself hitting that 3PM wall, instead of having coffee, try some broccoli dipped in hummus.

3. Broccoli for Hormonal Balance

In addition to keeping blood sugar balanced, broccoli is also key in balancing hormones. Anytime blood sugar dips too low, the hormone cortisol is released. Cortisol is our long-term stress hormone. Chronically high cortisol has been linked to burn out, anxiety, weight gain, low immunity, and an imbalance of sex hormones.

Keeping blood sugar balanced by consuming fibre-rich foods like broccoli is key to keeping cortisol balanced.

However, broccoli plays a much more important role in hormonal balance. If you have ever overcooked broccoli, you may find that it has the smell of rotting eggs. This is due to the sulfur present in the form of sulforaphane.

Sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol are nutrients in broccoli that aid in the detoxification of estrogens in the body. While estrogen is a naturally occurring hormone, it must be constantly decommissioned and excreted from the body in order to maintain balance. In order to achieve this, it must be processed by the liver and then excreted through the bowels. High estrogen has been linked to PMS, infertility, fibroids, endometriosis and even some forms of cancer. The fibre content in broccoli also aids in estrogen balance, as slow-moving bowels can cause estrogens to be reabsorbed into the bloodstream.

4. Broccoli for Immunity

Broccoli also contains a wide variety of other immune-boosting antioxidants, such as vitamin A, B6, and E.

One cup of chopped raw broccoli contains 81 mg of vitamin C. By comparison, an orange (100g) has only about 51 mg of Vitamin C.

In order to obtain the full benefits of the vitamin C in broccoli, it should be consumed raw.

Broccoli can be chopped up in a broccoli slaw salad, or you can consume broccoli sprouts, which actually provide a more concentrated source of nutrients than regular broccoli.  A 2008 UCLA study found that the presence of the sulforaphane, as well as other antioxidants in broccoli, can greatly reduce the oxidative stress that contributes to decreased immunity with age.

5. Broccoli for Healthy Bones

Broccoli is one the highest vegetable sources of calcium. However, broccoli also contains other important minerals for bone health, including magnesium and phosphorus. In addition to this, it contains vitamin K, which is a vital nutrient in mineral absorption.

6. Broccoli as an Anti-Inflammatory

Inflammation is at the root cause of many chronic illnesses we are faced with today.

Multiple studies have demonstrated broccoli’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties.

A 2018 study showed that the flavonoid kaempferol in broccoli reduced inflammation in in-vitro studies and animal studies. A 2014 study in humans showed that broccoli consumption may reduce some anti-inflammatory markers for tobacco users.

7. Broccoli for Cancer Prevention

There have been many studies around broccoli’s cancer fighting benefits.

In a study conducted on rats exposed to a standard carcinogen, those fed broccoli sprouts extracts had a significant reduction in the frequency, size, and number of tumors. This was believed to be due to the sulforaphane in broccoli.

Other studies have found that the indole-3-carbinol compound found in broccoli can arrest the growth of cancer cells in both the breast and prostate.

Preliminary studies have shown that an average person should consume about two pounds of broccoli or similar vegetables per week.This could the cut the risk of cancer in half.

Broccoli sprouts have a higher concentration of sulforaphane over broccoli. Lutein, which is also present in broccoli, has been shown to have anti-cancer benefits.

8. Broccoli for Gut Health

Our digestive tract is home to many beneficial microorganisms that boost immunity, improve digestion, and convert certain vitamins into an active form.

These microorganism feed and thrive off the fibre.

A 2012 study on mice found that consuming broccoli reduced inflammation in the digestive tract and improved beneficial gut flora.

9. Broccoli for Healthy Eyes

Not only does broccoli contain vitamin A, an important nutrient for eyes, it also contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which may prevent oxidative stress and cellular damage in your eyes.

While broccoli may not stop you from needing glasses, consuming this food regularly may prevent age-related eye damage further down the road.

10. Broccoli for Heart Health

Broccoli is high in antioxidants, which protect the body from oxidative stress.

The circulatory system is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which is one of the main causes of heart disease.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that broccoli is healthy for your heart. In fact, there have been several studies to support this.

A 2010 study in rats showed that broccoli sprouts can reduce myocardial oxidative stress following a cardiac arrest. A 2014 study demonstrated that it is particularly the sulforaphane in broccoli that can reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

Scientific studies have now confirmed what our mothers have always told us: broccoli is healthy. Of course, as holistic nutritionists we are always looking at the bigger picture. Having a piece of broccoli with your burger and fries most likely will not improve your health very much. However, including broccoli in your overall healthy diet is a great way to improve your health and prevent disease.

Here are some fun ideas to include more broccoli in your diet, without smothering it in ranch dressing:

  • Broccoli tossed with olive oil and salt in the air fryer
  • Broccoli slaw-finely chopped florets, stalk peeled and grated so nothing goes to waste
  • Broccoli stir fry with toasted sesame seeds
  • Broccoli patties
  • Broccoli rice -just like cauliflower rice
  • Vegan Cheesy Broccoli soup
  • Broccoli sprouts added to salads, garnish for a soup, rice bowl, sandwiches, anything!

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Kirsten Colella, CNP, is a Holistic Nutritionist who graduated from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition with high honours. She is also a certified yoga teacher and studied chemical engineering at the University of Toronto. Kirsten has had a lifelong passion for holistic health and all it encompasses; she believes in a practical well- balanced approach that also involves having fun. As a mom of three, she enjoys making healthy food for and with her children.  You can see Kirsten’s healthy recipes, including for broccoli-based foods and healthy vegan ranch dressing, on Instagram @essentialbalanceholistic

Sources quoted:

  • Broccoli, raw Nutrition Facts & Calories (self.com)
  • Conzatti A, Fróes FC, Schweigert Perry ID, Souza CG. Clinical and molecular evidence of the consumption of broccoli, glucoraphanin and sulforaphane in humans. Nutr Hosp. 2014 Nov 30;31(2):559-69. doi: 10.3305/nh.2015.31.2.7685. PMID: 25617536.
  • Paturi G, Mandimika T, Butts CA, Zhu S, Roy NC, McNabb WC, Ansell J. Influence of dietary blueberry and broccoli on cecal microbiota activity and colon morphology in mdr1a(-/-) mice, a model of inflammatory bowel diseases. Nutrition. 2012 Mar;28(3):324-30. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2011.07.018. Epub 2011 Nov 23. PMID: 22113065.
  • Akhlaghi, M., Bandy, B. Dietary Broccoli Sprouts Protect Against Myocardial Oxidative Damage and Cell Death During Ischemia-Reperfusion. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 65, 193–199 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11130-010-0182-4
  • Murray, M. T., Pizzorno, J. E., & Pizzorno, L. (2006). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Time Warner International.

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