Throughout history, this odd-looking Mediterranean vegetable has been referred to by a variety of names, including “sparrowgrass,” “Battersea grass,” “sperage” and “sparagus.” Its long stalks and bunched tips give it a stark, almost prehistoric appearance, inspiring some to give it the unofficial nickname “dinosaur grass.”
We are talking, of course, about asparagus. And, by whatever name you call it, this unique vegetable can contribute surprising gifts to both physical and psychological health. Let’s take a closer look at the four unexpected benefits of asparagus.
For starters: Asparagus may help brighten mood
First of all, asparagus is packed with folate, also known as vitamin B9. According to many natural health experts, a five-ounce serving of asparagus provides close to 60 percent of the adult RDA of this essential nutrient.
In addition to vitamin B9, asparagus is rich in vitamin B1 (thiamin) and vitamin B6, or pyridoxine.
As it turns out, this exact combination of B vitamins is advised by many natural health experts as an intervention to reduce elevated levels of homocysteine, a pro-inflammatory amino acid.
Not only is homocysteine linked with heart disease, but it inhibits the production of serotonin and dopamine - neurotransmitters needed for stable mood and restful sleep. As a result, high levels of homocysteine can contribute to raised risk of anxiety and depression.
Fortunately, scientists say that lowering homocysteine with B vitamins can help. In a recent review published in Nutrition Journal, the authors credited folate with reducing the risk of depression.
Nutrient-rich asparagus helps build healthy bones
Asparagus contains essential nutrients such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and iron, all of which are essential to healthy bone formation. But, after years as an “unsung hero,” yet another vitamin in asparagus - vitamin K – is now getting credit for supporting bone health.
This important nutrient is found in good supply in asparagus, with a cup supplying 55.7 micrograms, or over a third of the RDA.
Scientists have found that vitamin K works hand-in-glove with vitamin D to promote bone and bone cell growth, and an influential study published in BioMed Research International reveals that vitamin K not only supports bone remineralization, but suppresses bone resorption (bone loss) as well.
In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that vitamin K may help prevent osteoporosis and lower fracture risk in older people - a boon to an aging population.
Love your heart with asparagus
Asparagus contains a varied and potent cast of antioxidants, which support heart health by fighting oxidative stress from free radicals. These include glutathione – the body’s premier disease-fighting molecule – along with quercetin, selenium, beta-carotene and tocopherol (a natural form of antioxidant vitamin E).
Asparagus also supports cardiovascular health with its generous amounts of potassium, a mineral essential for healthy blood pressure. In addition, asparagus’ high levels of folate may help it protect against stroke.
Finally, vitamin K in asparagus helps to prevent atherosclerosis by keeping unwanted calcium deposits from forming in arteries. There is even evidence that asparagus can help combat obesity, a known risk factor for heart disease. It contains a prebiotic fiber known as inulin, which can promote weight loss by imparting a feeling of fullness.
Incidentally, asparagus is startlingly low in calories. Offering up a mere 26.8 calories, a full cup of asparagus provides a wealth of vitamins, minerals, fiber and polyphenols – with roughly the same caloric cost as three (count ‘em: three!) commercially prepared potato chips!
Asparagus can help preserve vision
You may have heard that eating carrots can benefit vision – a bit of folk wisdom that turns out to be true. Carrots support good vision mostly through their content of lutein and zeaxanthin, a pair of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory carotenoids (natural plant pigments).
In fact, these carotenoids are used along with vitamins C and E in supplements designed to preserve vision. But, carrots are far from the only source of these beneficial nutrients. With 951 micrograms of lutein and zeaxanthin in each cup, asparagus is no slouch at serving up the carotenoids.
A large body of evidence shows that lutein and zeaxanthin protect the eyes from damaging ultraviolet waves in sunlight – and can even help prevent and alleviate age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
Action step Enjoy asparagus as part of a healthy diet
Ways to enjoy asparagus are limited only by your imagination.
After cutting off the bottoms of crisp, fresh stalks, you can use them to scoop up tasty dips like hummus or salsa. Or, dice fresh asparagus and add some crunch to salads and sandwiches.
You can also bake asparagus with lemon, Parmesan cheese and olive oil - or roast it with minced garlic and a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Good news: The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering people to live healthier lives, acknowledges asparagus as among the 15 “cleanest” types of produce - meaning it is less likely to contain significant amount of pesticides.
For an extra boost of antioxidant power, seek out purple asparagus. This colorful variety is particularly high in anthocyanins, the same beneficial plant pigments found in blueberries.
In the end: no matter how you prepare it, asparagus - a true superfood - deserves a place on honor on your plate.
Sources for this article include: