Vegetables are one of the most important food groups. After all, they provide us with essential vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals with antioxidant properties, and fiber that keeps us full and simultaneously feeds our healthy gut bacteria—which, in turn, helps support our immune system, digestion, and mental health.* Plus, researchers say there are likely countless beneficial micronutrients in vegetables that we haven’t even identified yet!
But of all the choices out there, from asparagus to zucchini and everything in between, which vegetables pack the most powerful punch for overall health? Here, a list of the vegetables that reign supreme, plus what qualities make a vegetable extra healthy in the first place.
10 of the healthiest vegetables you can eat.
We asked Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian and health coach, along with fitness and nutrition expert JJ Virgin, CNS, CFHS, to share the top picks that make it onto their healthiest vegetables list. (Plus how to make them taste great!) Each one of their picks supports immune function, detoxification, and more.*
1. Dark leafy greens
Don’t underestimate the power of a loaded mixed greens salad. Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and Swiss chard are packed with a variety of antioxidants, including carotenoids, which have been shown to protect against free-radical damage.*
Of course, you can’t go wrong with any dark leafy green, but Cording’s absolute favorites from a nutrient-packed perspective are kale and spinach.
“Just one serving of spinach provides more than half of your vitamin A needs, and it’s also a good source of vitamin K, folate, magnesium, and the antioxidants beta-carotene and lutein,” says Cording. “It also provides fiber and even 3 grams of protein per serving.”
Kale offers much of the same leafy green goodness as spinach—”lots of vitamins A, C, and K; plus B-vitamins, potassium, calcium, copper, and more,” says Cording. “It’s also noted for its antioxidant properties and has been studied for its beneficial impact on heart health, blood pressure, and blood sugar.*”
Pro tip: Cooking kale and spinach is a great way to enhance the bioavailability of its bone-strengthening calcium.*
Try it: There are so many ways to enjoy dark leafy greens—this recipe roundup includes soups, smoothies, tacos, and more.
2. Broccoli & broccoli sprouts
“Broccoli is an antioxidant-rich cruciferous vegetable that can protect against adverse health conditions,*” says Cording. Cruciferous veggies contain sulfur-containing phytochemicals called glucosinolates (and their byproduct sulforaphane).
These sulfur-containing compounds support immune function and normal inflammatory processes and help the body remove toxins through natural detoxification processes of the liver.* Research supports that intake of cruciferous vegetables is protective, with one study showing that a drink made with broccoli sprouts activated enzymes in the body that picked up pollutants from the bloodstream and flushed them out via urine.*
Virgin loves broccoli, too, because it contains lots of vitamins C and K and minerals like potassium and manganese, which together make broccoli a potent food for supporting bone and heart health and improving overall immune function.*
Try it: Consider this roasted broccoli dip your guilt-free, immune-supporting alternative to spinach and artichoke.*
3. Brussels sprouts
“Brussels sprouts are another cruciferous vegetable, and they offer many of the same benefits as broccoli, plus they contain the antioxidant kaempferol, which has been shown to help counteract cell damage,*” says Cording. “It’s also an approachable ‘gateway’ vegetable for skeptics when it’s roasted until crispy.”
In addition to helping us ward off adverse health conditions, Brussels sprouts are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.* They’re particularly high in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium and folate, which makes them a great pick for supporting overall immune function and blood and bone health.*
Not only do their antioxidants play a pivotal role in keeping you healthy, but Brussels sprouts provide 3 grams of fiber per 1 cup serving, which can help you feel more satiated after a meal.*
Try it: This simple but delicious recipe for Brussels sprouts with bacon will leave you craving even more cruciferous veggies.
4. Sea vegetables
Although you probably don’t even think to eat them, seaweed (nori, kombu, wakame, kelp, dulse, etc.) and other sea veggies such as chlorella (a type of algae) are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can give to your body.
“Seaweed is a nutrient-rich sea vegetable that provides a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—including some that are difficult to find in other foods,” says Cording. For example, it’s a great source of iodine, which helps maintain healthy thyroid hormone levels.* Just be mindful not to overdo it, advises Cording, because too much iodine can actually have a negative effect on thyroid health. It’s all about balance!
Chlorella is a powerful chelator, which means it can bind to and remove heavy metals and other toxins that might otherwise tax your liver.* One lab study showed that it absorbed 40% of the heavy metals in a test solution within seven days, while human studies show that it supports the removal of toxins like mercury from the body.*
Try it: The easiest way to incorporate sea veggies into your diet may be the powdered form, which can be stirred into soups and smoothies. If you can find fresh seaweed, this wakame and shaved Brussels sprout salad is a perfect introductory sea veggie dish.
“Asparagus is rich in folate as well as vitamin K, selenium, and B vitamins like thiamin and riboflavin,” says Cording. “It also has been noted for its potential to help support the liver’s natural detoxification process.”
In fact, asparagus is one of the few dietary sources of glutathione, an antioxidant concentrated in the liver that helps bind toxins and escort them out of the body via urine or bile. Sufficient levels of glutathione in the body also help maintain energy, reduce muscle pain, improve sleep quality, and boost immune function.
Try it: This asparagus and quinoa bowl is the perfect happy desk lunch—and will totally make your co-workers jealous.
6. Red cabbage
Deeply hued veggies are typically a great pick, and red (or purple) cabbage is a prime example. In addition to being a good source of vitamin C and fiber, red cabbage contains anthocyanins. “These pigments are powerful antioxidants,” says Cording.
Anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid antioxidant, are found in many foods and plants that appear dark red, purple, or blue in color. They support normal inflammatory processes in the body and have been shown to promote heart and brain health, likely due to their ability to combat oxidative stress. Research has shown that anthocyanins help enhance memory and cognition as well as lowering cholesterol.
Virgin loves cabbage because it’s also “rich in naturally detoxifying sulfur,” because it’s part of the cruciferous vegetable family.
Try it: This cleansing cabbage and chickpea salad is a delicious way to detox after a period of overindulgence.
7. Butternut squash
You can think of butternut squash as an alternative to sweet potatoes (although we really love those too!) while containing many of the same powerful nutrients. Butternut squash is a great source of magnesium and potassium, which makes it a top choice for maintaining healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, and a stable mood.
This hearty fall favorite also makes the cut because “it contains a hefty dose of beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) to support immune function and possibly reduce disease risk,” says Virgin. Research shows that beta-carotene, an antioxidant plant pigment, can also literally give your skin a natural glow and protect against damaging UV rays (but don’t skip the sunscreen!).
“Garlic is forgotten sometimes, but this vegetable has been used therapeutically for thousands of years and has been studied extensively for its benefit to heart health and immune system function,” says Cording.
Garlic—along with onion, leeks, chives, and scallions—is part of the allium vegetable family, known for its health-boosting organosulfur compounds, including allicin and diallyl sulfides. These compounds are largely credited for garlic’s ability to help reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, lower oxidative stress, and help support heart health.
Garlic also has antimicrobial properties, making it a potent cold- and flu-fighter, and it’s been shown to increase our body’s supply of glutathione, a natural detoxifier.
Try it: This 3-ingredient garlic toast recipe is the perfect way to reap garlic’s immune-boosting perks. It has you chop the garlic and allow it to rest for 20 minutes—key for activating allicin.
9. Red onion
“Onions, like garlic, aren’t always top of mind when we think of vegetables, but they are a food source of prebiotic fibers to nourish probiotic bacteria in the gut and have been studied for their potential to help fight disease,” says Cording.
Virgin loves them, too, in part because they’re a rich source of quercetin, a flavonoid antioxidant that’s also a natural antihistamine. Antihistamines are commonly used to treat allergies, so red onions are a worthy salad ingredient for anyone suffering from hay fever. Bonus: Heating onions doesn’t seem to lower their quercetin content.
Try it: This refreshing corn and mango slaw contains raw red onion and tastes like summer in a bowl.
10. Chili & cayenne peppers
Strong flavors often mean big health benefits—and spicy peppers are no exception. “Chili peppers contain capsaicin, a compound that has been shown to have many health benefits, such as mild metabolic rate increase, lowering blood pressure, and even protecting against some adverse health conditions,” says Cording.
If you’re looking to control cravings and portions, consider adding a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, chili powder, or chopped-up chili peppers to your next omelet: In one study, participants who ate a breakfast that included a serving of capsaicin-containing red-pepper powder were less likely to snack or even feel hungry before lunchtime.
Capsaicin also has potent antioxidant properties, and some lab studies have shown that it has the ability to kill prostate cancer cells.
Try it: There are big flavors all around in this Caribbean-inspired chickpeas with cilantro and coconut recipe, featuring two chopped red chili peppers.
How to pick the healthiest veggies.
“I tend to think all vegetables are great and that variety helps us cover more bases, nutritionally,” says Cording. “But if you have to keep it to just a few, then going for nutrient density is a good guide. Look for high-fiber choices packed with lots of vitamins and minerals, plus antioxidant benefits.”
One way to ensure you’re getting a decent amount of antioxidants is by opting for deeply hued picks. Think dark green, bright orange and red, deep purple. Organic vegetables have also been shown to contain, on average, 20 to 40% more antioxidants than their conventionally grown counterparts—so if you can, opt for organic.
All veggies lose nutrients over time, too, so it’s important to eat them while they’re fresh. Buying locally grown vegetables from a farmers market or food co-op is great for this reason but not essential.
The bottom line.
Vegetables are probably already a part of your daily diet, but knowing which vegetables pack the biggest health-boosting punch means you can maximize the health benefits you get from the veggies you eat. Next time you sit down for a meal planning session, keep this list close at hand.