5 powerful health benefits of asparagus you probably didn’t know
By Cheryl Forberg, R.D., April 11, 2011 - 11:03am
One of the first foods that signals the start of spring is the appearance of fresh asparagus at local farmers’ markets and grocery stores. Just as spring is a time of new beginnings, asparagus is one of those veggies that I love to experiment with during this time of year.
And just as a spear is used as a weapon, asparagus’s javelin-shaped form could be viewed as symbolic for its age- and disease-fighting abilities. Asparagus is just packed with health benefits:
- It’s loaded with nutrients: Asparagus is a very good source of fiber, folate, vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as chromium, a trace mineral that enhances the ability of insulin to transport glucose from the bloodstream into cells.
- This herbaceous plant—along with avocado, kale and Brussels sprouts—is a particularly rich source of glutathione, a detoxifying compound that helps break down carcinogens and other harmful compounds like free radicals. This is why eating asparagus may help protect against and fight certain forms of cancer, such as bone, breast, colon, larynx and lung cancers.
- Asparagus is packed with antioxidants, ranking among the top fruits and vegetables for its ability to neutralize cell-damaging free radicals. This, according to preliminary research, may help slow the aging process.
Related: The 3 Colors You Really Need to Eat More Of
- Another anti-aging property of this delicious spring veggie is that it may help our brains fight cognitive decline. Like leafy greens, asparagus delivers folate, which works with vitamin B12—found in fish, poultry, meat and dairy—to help prevent cognitive impairment. In a study from Tufts University, older adults with healthy levels of folate and B12 performed better on a test of response speed and mental flexibility. (If you’re 50-plus, be sure you’re getting enough B12: your ability to absorb it decreases with age.)
- One more benefit of asparagus: It contains high levels of the amino acid asparagine, which serves as a natural diuretic, and increased urination not only releases fluid but helps rid the body of excess salts. This is especially beneficial for people who suffer from edema (an accumulation of fluids in the body's tissues) and those who have high blood pressure or other heart-related diseases.
And finally, to answer a question I often get regarding why eating asparagus causes a strong urinary odor: asparagus contains a unique compound that, when metabolized, gives off a distinctive smell in the urine. Young asparagus contains higher concentrations of the compound so the odor is stronger after eating these vernal shoots. There are, however, no harmful effects, either from the sulfuric compounds or the odor! While it is believed that most people produce these odorous compounds after eating asparagus, few people have the ability to detect the smell.
The most common type of asparagus is green, but you might see two others in supermarkets and restaurants: white, which is more delicate and difficult to harvest, and purple, which is smaller and fruitier in flavor. No matter the type you choose, asparagus is a tasty, versatile vegetable that can be cooked in myriad ways or enjoyed raw in salads.
Keep in mind these cooking tips to preserve antioxidants and keep your preparation healthy:
- Roast, grill or stir-fry your asparagus. These quick-cooking, waterless methods will preserve the fabulous nutritional content and antioxidant power of asparagus. (Click here for how-to details on the best asparagus prep and cooking directions.)
- Enjoy your asparagus without salt, butter or sauces to get the most out of its diuretic properties, as salt can cause water retention in some people.
Here’s an easy recipe to try:
Asparagus Spears with Smoked Salmon and Tangy Mustard Dressing
This is a great last-minute appetizer idea. Thicker asparagus spears are easier to handle for wrapping. [Recipes reprinted with permission from “Positively Ageless: A 28-Day Plan for a Younger, Slimmer, Sexier You” by Cheryl Forberg, R.D. (Rodale).]
Makes 4 servings (4 spears each)
1 pound asparagus, tough ends snapped (about 16 spears)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 thin slices smoked salmon (about 4 ounces), each cut in 4 lengthwise strips
2 tablespoons Tangy Mustard Dressing (see recipe below)
Cilantro sprigs or toasted sesame seed, for garnish
Preheat the grill to medium-high heat.
Lightly coat the asparagus with the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Grill for 2 to 3 minutes, or until al dente but not soft. Remove from the grill. The asparagus will continue to cook as they cool. Do not overcook or the spears will be too soft and difficult to handle. When cool enough to handle, wrap each spear with a slice of the salmon. Arrange on a serving platter and drizzle with the dressing. Garnish with the cilantro or sesame seed and serve immediately, or chill to serve later. This recipe also works well with grilled asparagus spears.
Nutrient analysis for one serving: 92 calories, 8 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 4 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 2 g monounsaturated fat, 150 mg omega-3s, 3 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 661 mg sodium
Tangy Mustard Dressing
This addictive dressing goes together in a flash. The best surprise is that there is no added oil. It’s great on salad or as a condiment for grilled salmon or chicken.
Makes 1 1/2 cups
3/4 cup silken tofu
1/4 cup white miso
1/4 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon agave nectar or brown rice syrup
2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Combine all of the ingredients in the jar of a blender or bowl of a food processor. Blend or process until smooth.
Nutrient analysis for2 tablespoons: 39 calories, 2 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 1 g total fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg monounsaturated fat, 0 mg omega-3s, 1 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 373 mg sodium
Cheryl Forberg, R.D.
Cheryl Forberg, R.D., is a James Beard Award-winning author, the nutritionist for NBC's The Biggest Loser and author of Positively Ageless: A 28-Day Plan for a Younger, Slimmer, Sexier You (Rodale, 2008).
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