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Screened & Examined: Bravo for Broccoli

Ballard, Dustin MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000436703.98650.78
Screened & Examined

Dr. Ballardis an associate emergency physician at Kaiser-Permanente in San Rafael, CA, and the chair of the CREST ED Research Network. His writing credits include co-authorship with Angela Ballard of the award-winning travel narrative A Blistered Kind of Love: One Couple's Trial by Trail (Mountaineers Books, 2003) and authorship of The Bullet's Yaw (IUniverse, 2007). Dr. Ballard writes a biweekly-medical column for the Marin Independent Journal, which he posts on his blog:



What's the difference between broccoli and snotty boogers? Children will eat snotty boogers.

Actually, I don't think that's entirely true. Sure, children have been known to munch on boogers, but they'll also, in optimal circumstances, consume broccoli. Take my children, for example. If there's a dessert-bribe involved or if I drizzle the target vegetable with enough warm honey, they have been known to finish their servings of broccoli with minimal gagging.

In fact, we've had enough broccoli success in our home that, remarkably, I've even received kudos from my wife, a well-known broccoli-gagger. “It sure makes grocery shopping easy,” she said, “when the only vegetable you have to buy is broccoli.”

Broccoli has been getting plenty of publicity of late. Twenty-some years after President George H. Bush proclaimed, “I'm president so no more broccoli,” we now have a president who praises broccoli as a favorite food. Researchers have recently designed a version of the broccoli plant that can grow outside its normal habitat and even in the steamy summers of the South. Perhaps the future holds a crisper and sweeter variant to tempt us all?

Let's be real, though; very few people at this moment in vegetable time eat broccoli purely for the taste of it. We eat it because we think it is good for us. Wouldn't it be a shame if this actually weren't true but rather a suburban myth perpetuated by the clever marketing of Big Broccoli? Fortunately, I'm here to assure you that the evidence of broccoli's benefits just continues to grow.

Chew on this: broccoli consumption has been implicated in decreased risk of stroke and cancer and in better control of insulin release for diabetics. Its effects on insulin release make it a powerful weight loss adjunct, and broccoli is a friend to bowel regularity (for most people at least) because it's full of fiber.

How does this wonder vegetable do it? We only partially know the answer to that question. The source of its magic for weight and bowel control has a simple answer: broccoli is a complex carb with a lot of fiber. You burn calories just by chomping it because it is often difficult to chew! The other benefits are mediated by phytochemicals that are part of the plant's natural defense mechanisms. Broccoli and other cruciferous (love that word!) vegetables like cabbage, brussel sprouts, and radishes contain glucosinolates, a family of sulfur-based phytochemicals that, when cleaved to active forms, stimulate adaptive mechanisms in humans. Think antioxidants and heat shock proteins — bodily means of cleaning up cellular damage and preventing abnormal cell proliferation (i.e., cancer).



Akira Murakami wrote recently in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition: “Different from synthetic drugs and natural deadly toxins, food phytochemicals can be described as 'mild toxins,' and thus have great potential to activate adaptive self-defense systems with lower toxicity. It can be said that they are good friends because they are weak foes.” (2013;52[3]:215.)

The result of eating broccoli is not unlike that of a vaccine. Phytochemicals in broccoli, like a weak form of a disease introduced into the body, stimulate the immune (and autoimmune) systems to gear up and work better. Regular consumption of broccoli has been associated with lower rates of several different types of cancer, including colon, lung, breast, and prostate.

Recent evidence also suggests that sulforaphane, a particular type of glucosinolates found in broccoli in high concentrations and especially in broccoli sprouts, can play a role in improving insulin control and lessening organ damage (like to blood vessels and the kidneys) in diabetics.

But broccoli does not stop there! (Why would it?) It also brings multiple other nutrients: vitamins K, C, and A and the minerals manganese, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron.

But what if you are like former President Bush — “I haven't liked it since I was a little kid, and my mother made me eat it” — and just cannot stand broccoli? Despite this evolutionary disadvantage, you are not alone and the situation is not hopeless. Here are some suggestions:

  • Experiment with phytolicious recipes. Cheesy broccoli casserole might not be as healthy as steamed broccoli, but it is certainly better for you than cheesy casserole sans broccoli. Broccoli and carrots make a tasty pairing, and Honey Broccoli is about as nutritious as dessert can get.
  • Some people have been permanently scarred by a history of poorly cooked broccoli. Maybe it was too mushy or gray. Perhaps it was just too stalky. A fresh take on its preparation can make all the difference. Dr. Matthew Willis, the public health officer for Marin County, California, has this suggestion: “For us, broccoli is usually drizzled in olive oil, sprinkled with parmesan cheese and pepper, and grilled or baked. Even the kids love it; they call it green French fries.”
  • Some people cannot tolerate the taste of broccoli, and others have gastrointestinal systems that just can't endure the fiber load. Folks with irritable bowel syndrome fit in this category. If you're nodding your head, maybe other cruciferous veggies are a better fit. Or perhaps you simply need to pass on the cruciferous family and move on to the green leafies like spinach.

If vegetables are a lost cause (how tragic), there might be other options. Investigation is underway to determine whether snot ingestion may help boost the immune system. I'm serious; a Canadian biochemist is out to prove that eating boogers is good for you. ( Personally, and unlike my children, I'll await the definitive evidence on that one, and stick to a daily dose or two of a phytochemical-rich broccovaccine.

Please pass the honey.

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