What are vegetables?

Vegetables are the edible part of plants – such as leaves, roots, bulbs, stems or flowers – excluding the fruit.

Advertisement

Although all vegetables are healthy, there’s no single vegetable or fruit that provides all the nutrients you need, so it’s important to eat a wide variety and, as a minimum, get your 5-a-day.

Discover our full range of health benefit guides and check out some of our favourite vegetable recipes.

Peas, broad beans and eggs in a tomato base

What are the top 20 healthiest vegetables?

1. Asparagus

Asparagus is one of a number of vegetables that act as a prebiotic, feeding the beneficial bacteria which live in our digestive systems, and in so doing, helping them thrive and increase in number.

As a green vegetable, it’s exceptionally high in folate and makes a useful contribution towards our iron intake. The characteristic taste and smell of asparagus is thanks to asparagusic acid, sulphur-containing compounds, that help support the liver and fight inflammation.

More like this

Discover the health benefits of asparagus.

Find inspiration in our top recipes, including asparagus soup, creamy chicken and asparagus braise, and lemony tuna asparagus salad box. Discover our how to cook asparagus guide

2. Beetroot

Naturally rich in nitrates, beetroot is heart-friendly because the nitrates help improve blood flow by relaxing blood vessels, reducing arterial stiffness and promoting dilation – all of which lowers blood pressure. Nitrates may also support exercise endurance and potentially improve sports performance.

Whether you’re sedentary with poor circulation or a keen athlete, including beetroot in your regular diet may improve how your body uses oxygen.

Discover the health benefits for beetroot.

Try our colourful recipes, including beetroot biryani and salmon with beetroot, feta and lime salsa.

3. Broad beans

One of the earliest cultivated foods, broad beans are packed with nutrients and minerals such as iron, manganese and potassium, as well as the B group of vitamins that support nerve and brain function. They’re also rich in fibre, including resistant starch, which while resistant to our digestion is used as a food source by the beneficial bacteria that live in our gut.

Broad beans also contain L-dopa, a compound and precursor to the brain chemical dopamine. L-dopa is used by medical professionals in the treatment of Parkinson’s, and there have been some suggestions that consuming broad beans may be helpful for those with mild symptoms of this condition.

Broad beans are also rich in antioxidants. Including them regularly in your diet may help support your immune system and manage blood sugar levels.

Try our simple broad bean recipes, including broad bean shakshuka and tomato salad with ricotta, broad beans and salsa verde.

4. Broccoli

Brassicas, such as broccoli and cabbage, contain a plant compound called indole-3-carbinol (I3C). It acts as a plant oestrogen and may help balance hormones by regulating oestrogen levels.

I3C has shown promise in lessening the risk of oestrogen-induced breast and reproductive cancers in both men and women, although more studies are needed in this area.

Discover the health benefits of broccoli.

Use up the broccoli in your fridge to make our quinoa, squash and broccoli salad, herby broccoli and pea soup or smoky cod, broccoli and orzo bake.

5. Brussels sprouts

As well as supplying more essential nutrients per calorie than most other veggies, brussels sprouts are especially rich in the plant compound, kaempferol. This antioxidant has been studied for its many health-promoting properties, including its benefits for heart health.

If possible, microwave or steam, rather than boil sprouts to retain as much as twice its nutritional goodness.

Discover the health benefits of brussels sprouts.

Enjoy sprouts in our flavoursome recipes, including brussels sprouts slaw, chilli-charred brussels sprouts and brussels sprouts grain bowl.

Roast squash & hummus winter salad on a stone background

6. Butternut squash

Research has shown that phytonutrients, including zeaxanthin and lutein, may help protect eye health – butternut squash contains both of these carotenoids.

Beta-carotene, which is also found in squash, is converted to vitamin A in the gut and plays an important role in immune health. It may be especially beneficial for the elderly.

Storing squash improves its flavour and increases the levels of carotenoids, making squash the perfect vegetable for the winter months.

Discover the health benefits of butternut squash.

Try our wholesome butternut squash recipes, including butternut squash soup and roast squash and hummus winter salad.

7. Carrots

Famed for improving night vision, carrots are a source of lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect the retina from UV light and may reduce the risk of cataracts. Carrots are loaded with beta-carotene, which our body converts to vitamin A for a robust immune system, healthy vision and skin.

Interestingly, when we cook carrots by roasting, baking, griddling or microwaving we can improve, or at the very least maintain, their carotenoid content.

Discover the health benefits of carrots.

Put the carrots in your fridge to good use, try our roasted carrot, rocket and lentil salad, spiced carrot and lentil soup and Middle Eastern carrot salad.

8. Cauliflower

Cauliflower is a good source of choline, an essential nutrient we need for mood, memory and recall. Little talked about as a nutrient, choline is a key building block of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger involved in signalling the central nervous system.

Like broccoli and cabbage, cauliflower also provides detoxifying sulforaphane which has a number of health benefits, including reducing the risk of cancer. It’s best to chop or slice the vegetable to activate this beneficial chemical and lightly cook or eat it raw to maximise the effects.

Discover the health benefits of cauliflower.

Try our easy cauliflower recipes, including cauliflower rice, spicy cauliflower and halloumi rice and harissa cauliflower pilaf.

9. Celery

Although celery has a high-water and fibre content, it contains numerous vitamins, minerals and plant compounds including flavonoids. These support heart health, liver function and may help manage blood sugar.

Discover the health benefits of celery.

Try our simple celery recipes, including celery soup and creamy celery gratin.

10. Chard

With fewer calories and more magnesium than kale, chard (also known as Swiss chard) is an unsung hero. It also contributes iron and vitamin C. Don’t discard the stems because they’re a good source of heart-healthy, potassium.

Animal studies suggest that chard may be effective at reversing the effects of diabetes, although more studies are needed to assess the relevance for humans.

Use chard in our recipes for celeriac ribbons tossed with chard, garlic and pumpkin seeds, and quick braised chard with lentils.

Celeriac ribbons tossed with chard

11. Garlic

Much of garlic’s therapeutic benefits are due to allicin, an active, sulphur-containing compound that gives garlic its pungent smell and distinctive taste.

While the act of chopping or crushing may stimulate the production of allicin, heat may inhibit some of the perceived properties, making it best to add garlic late in the cooking process.

Numerous studies have focused on garlic’s potential in reducing the risk of heart disease and helping to manage cholesterol levels. Garlic may also lower blood pressure through its ability to widen blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely.

Discover the health benefits of garlic.

Enjoy garlic in our recipes for spicy spaghetti with garlic and mushrooms and garlic and mash potato bake.

12. Kale

A popular ‘superfood’, kale contains twice the vitamin C of spinach (although spinach has twice the vitamin E). Its plant compounds include beta-carotene. All together, these are important for supporting a healthy immune system.

Kale is also a good source of plant-based calcium, needed for strong bones and teeth, and its low levels of oxalate make the calcium more available for absorption. Its significant amounts of vitamin K work alongside vitamin D to support bone health.

Discover the health benefits of kale.

Use versatile kale to make our butter beans with kale, lemon, chilli and garlic, and our easy kale pesto.

13. Mushrooms

Mushrooms are one of the few non-animal sources of vitamin D. Indeed, when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, either from sunlight or a UV lamp, mushrooms actually increase their concentration of vitamin D.

For this reason you can leave mushrooms on the counter in direct sunlight for 15-120 minutes; studies suggest this simple act may result in levels of vitamin D2 as high as 10mcg per 100g fresh weight.

Mushrooms also contain active polysaccharides, one of which is beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre. This compound activates parts of our immune system, including immune cells called natural killer cells and white blood cell macrophages – both increase our body’s ability to fight infection and possibly even stop the growth or progression of tumours.

Discover the health benefits of mushrooms.

Add more mushroom recipes to your repertoire with our healthy mushroom brunch, creamy spinach and mushrooms penne and mushroom jacket potatoes.

14. Onion

Onions are loaded with plant chemicals, including flavonoids, which have both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect. When consumed regularly and in sufficient quantity, these compounds may help protect against chronic conditions, such as cancer and diabetes.

In fact, onions are one of the richest sources of flavonoids in our diets, containing over 25 different kinds. One of them, quercetin, has anti-viral and anti-histamine properties. Try to avoid over-peeling since quercetin is found in the outer layers of the onion.

Discover the health benefits of onions.

For new ways with onions, try our aubergine dhal with onion raita, crunchy baked tomato and onion gratin, spaghetti with caramelised onion, kale and gorgonzola.

Crunchy baked tomato & onion gratin with a spoonful taken

15. Peas

Don’t let their small size fool you, peas are nutrient powerhouses. Not only a source of protein, they contain minerals, including magnesium and potassium, which help manage blood pressure.

Peas are also rich in fibre, which supports digestive health and fuels beneficial gut microbes. Much of the fibre content is in the form of soluble fibre, which may alleviate constipation.

Eating more dietary fibre is associated with a reduced risk of a number of conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Discover the health benefits of peas.

Celebrate the humble pea with our leek, pea and watercress soup, zesty haddock with crushed potatoes and peas, and chicken, sweet potato and pea curry.

16. Peppers

Rich in beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in our bodies, sweet peppers are immune-system friendly. Orange and yellow varieties are especially rich in the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin. When eaten in sufficient amounts, they may help reduce the risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Discover the health benefits of peppers.

Enjoy the peppers in our red pepper, squash and harissa soup, double bean and roasted pepper chilli, and stuffed peppers.

17. Red cabbage

Best known for their cancer-fighting compounds, cabbages are also good for the heart and digestive system. Plant compounds called anthocyanins give red cabbage its beautiful colour; they also have protective antioxidant properties.

Dietary anthocyanins may help improve obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as type-2 diabetes.

Being a brassica vegetable, like cauliflower or broccoli, red cabbage is especially rich in antioxidising nutrients such as vitamins C, E and the carotenoids.

Discover the health benefits of red cabbage.

Make the most of cabbage with our crunchy red cabbage slaw, red cabbage, cauliflower and coconut dahl, and cabbage soup.

18. Spinach

Spinach has long been regarded as a plant that can restore energy, increase vitality and improve the quality of our blood. However, spinach is rich in non-heme iron, which is not readily absorbed in our gut. The high levels of oxalic acid found in spinach also inhibits our absorption of its iron.

Lightly cooking or wilting can help minimise these effects as well as eating with vitamin C. If you do wilt spinach, don’t be tempted to squeeze out the excess liquid because this will be rich in water-soluble vitamin C and the B group vitamins.

Discover the health benefits of spinach.

Use up that bag of spinach in your fridge in our spinach pancakes, spinach and courgette lasage, and creamy garlic, spinach and lemon salmon.

19. Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes, unlike regular white potatoes, count towards your 5-a-day. They possess an impressively high nutritional value and are rich in fibre, which has been shown to promote a healthy digestive system.

Much of the research so far has been conducted on animals, but it would appear that the high levels of plant sterols (phytosterols) found in sweet potatoes may have a protective effect on the digestive system.

They may also be useful in the prevention and management of duodenal and gastric ulcers, including those resulting from NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen.

Discover the health benefits of sweet potatoes.

Enjoy sweet potatoes in our sweet potato cakes with poached eggs, sweet potato and peanut curry, and veggie shepherd’s pie with sweet potato mash.

20. Watercress

Watercress is an aquatic leafy green that’s often overlooked. However, as a member of the cruciferous family, it’s packed with isothiocyanates which may help protect against cancer. These compounds appear to be effective against colon, prostate and skin cancer and may suppress the growth of breast cancer.

Watercress is loaded with antioxidant polyphenols, which may play a role in combatting the chronic diseases associated with ageing.

Try our artichoke and watercress linguine, watercress risotto with goat’s cheese, and lamb meatballs with watercress dressing.

Enjoyed this? Now read …

12 ways to get your 5-a-day
What is the healthiest cooking oil?
Top health benefits of kefir
Top health benefits of lentils


This guide is brought to you in association with Nutracheck, a trusted calorie and nutrient tracking app that supports you in achieving your health and weight loss goals. Nutracheck enables you to monitor the food and drink you consume by logging it on smartphone or tablet. To find out more, visit bbcgoodfood.com/introducing-nutracheck

Advertisement

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

Choose the type of message you'd like to post

Choose the type of message you'd like to post
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement