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Cabbage, which is often lumped into the same category as lettuce because of their similar appearance, is actually a part of the cruciferous vegetable family.

Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale, and broccoli are notorious for being chock-full of beneficial nutrients. If you are trying to improve your diet, cruciferous vegetables are a good place to start.

The cabbage may help protect against radiation, prevent cancer, and reduce heart disease risk.

Cabbage can vary in color from green to red and purple, and the leaves can be smooth or crinkled. There is a range of cabbage products available for purchase online. With less than 20 calories per half cup cooked, it is a vegetable worth making room on your plate for.

This MNT feature is part of a collection of articles discussing the health benefits of popular foods. It provides a nutritional breakdown of cabbage and an in-depth look at its possible health benefits, how to incorporate more cabbage into your diet and any potential health risks of consuming this vegetable.

Fast facts on cabbage

Here are some key points about cabbage. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

  • Cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable.
  • A chemical in cabbage may protect against the negative effects of radiation.
  • The sulforaphane found in cabbage may help protect against cancer.
  • Half a cup of cooked cabbage contains 81.5 micrograms of vitamin K.

Consuming fruits and vegetables of all kinds has long been associated with a reduced risk of many adverse health conditions.

Many studies have suggested that increasing consumption of plant-based foods like cabbage decreases the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and overall mortality. It can also help promote a healthy complexion, increased energy, and overall lower weight.

1) Protection from radiation therapy

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The humble cabbage may have a range of health benefits.

A compound found in cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables known as 3,3'-diindolylmethane (DIM) has been shown to increase short-term survival rates in some animal studies on radiation.

In a study conducted at Georgetown University, rats were given a lethal dose of radiation. Some were left untreated, and others were treated with a daily injection of DIM for 2 weeks.

All the untreated rats died, but over 50 percent of those receiving DIM remained alive at the 30-day mark.

The same researchers ran the experiment on mice and found similar results.

They were able to determine that the DIM-treated mice had higher counts of red and white blood cells and blood platelets, which radiation therapy often diminishes.

It is thought that DIM has protective effects against cancer, but this study shows there is also hope for using it as a shield to protect healthy tissues during cancer treatment in the future.

2) Cancer prevention

Another potential cancer-fighting compound found in cabbage is sulforaphane. Research over the past 30 years has consistently shown that consuming cruciferous vegetables is associated with a lower risk of cancer.

More recently, researchers have been able to pinpoint that the sulfur-containing compound that gives cruciferous vegetables their bitter taste — sulforaphane — is also what appears to give them their cancer-fighting power.

Researchers are currently testing sulforaphane's ability to delay or impede cancer. Promising results at the molecular level have been seen with multiple types of cancers, including melanoma, esophageal, prostate, and pancreatic.

Researchers have discovered that sulforaphane has the power to inhibit the harmful enzyme histone deacetylase (HDAC), known to be involved in the progression of cancer cells. The ability to stop HDAC enzymes could make sulforaphane-containing foods a potentially powerful part of cancer treatment.

Another study, conducted at the University of Missouri, looked at another chemical found in cabbage, parsley, and celery, called apigenin; it was found to decrease tumor size when cells from an aggressive form of breast cancer were implanted in mice. Researchers claim that their findings show that apigenin has the potential to be used as a non-toxic treatment for cancer in the future.

Red cabbage contains the powerful antioxidant anthocyanin, the same compound that gives other red and purple fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors.

In the lab, anthocyanins have been shown to slow cancer cell proliferation, kill already formed cancer cells, and stop the formation of new tumor growths. It is not known whether these effects will carry over into cancer prevention or treatment in humans.

3) Heart health

The same potent anthocyanins in red cabbage that help protect against cancer have been shown to suppress the inflammation that may lead to cardiovascular disease.

A recent report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition associated the intake of flavonoid-rich foods with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stated that even small amounts of flavonoid-rich foods might be beneficial. The high polyphenol content in cabbage might also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by preventing platelet buildup and reducing blood pressure.

4) Immunity and digestion

A popular way to consume cabbage is in a fermented form such as sauerkraut and kimchi. Chocked full of probiotics, fermented foods might be one of the best things you can consume for your immune and digestive systems. Healthy microbes generate an acidic environment to preserve and develop flavor; the enzymes produced in fermentation make vitamins and minerals easier to absorb.

The fiber and water content in cabbage also help to prevent constipation and maintain a healthy digestive tract. Eating adequate fiber promotes regularity, which is crucial for the excretion of toxins through the bile and stool.

Recent studies have shown that dietary fiber may even play a role in regulating the immune system and inflammation, consequently decreasing the risk of inflammation-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 1 half cup of shredded cooked cabbage (75 grams) contains:

  • 17 calories
  • 4 grams of carbohydrate (including 1 gram of fiber and 2 grams of sugar)
  • 1 gram of protein

Eating a half-cup of cooked cabbage would provide 30-35 percent of daily vitamin C needs. It also provides:

  • 81.5 micrograms of vitamin K
  • 11 milligrams of magnesium
  • 22 micrograms of folate

Plus, lesser amounts of vitamin B-6, calcium, potassium, and thiamin.

Cabbage contains the antioxidants choline, beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin as well as the flavonoids kaempferol, quercetin, and apigenin.

Red cabbage tends to contain more of these compounds than green cabbage.

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Add shredded cabbage to any salad or fresh coleslaw.

Choose a cabbage that is heavy for its size. Make sure the leaves are tight and firm as loose leaves indicate an older cabbage. Store cabbage in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Cabbage can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, roasted, sautéed, or stuffed. The sulfurous odor often associated with cabbage only develops when the cabbage is overcooked. The longer a cabbage is cooked, the stronger the odor becomes.

Quick tips for eating more cabbage:

  • Keep it simple and drizzle roasted chopped cabbage with olive oil, cracked black pepper, and minced garlic
  • Add shredded cabbage to a fresh green salad
  • Add chopped cabbage to any soup or stew near the end of cooking

Or try these healthy and simple recipes developed by registered dietitians:

Easy white bean and cabbage soup
Tequila spiked fish tacos with peach jalapeno slaw
Kimchi pancakes

A popular fad diet known as the Cabbage Soup Diet surfaced in the 1950s and is still moderately popular. It centers on consuming an unlimited amount of cabbage soup and was touted as a quick weight-loss fix.

However, any weight lost from following this diet will quickly return once the dieter begins eating normally again. If you do not want to eat cabbage soup daily for the rest of your life, you should not start a cabbage soup diet.

Instead, focus on eating more whole, unprocessed foods and a variety of fruits and vegetables, including cabbage. If you are taking blood-thinners, such as Coumadin (warfarin), it is important that you do not suddenly begin to eat more or less foods containing vitamin K, which plays a large role in blood clotting.

Some people also have trouble digesting cruciferous vegetables and may have digestive symptoms. Eating small portions and cooking the cabbage well may help.

It is the total diet that is most important for preventing disease and maintaining good health. It is better to eat a diet with a wide variety of foods than to concentrate on single foods.

A variety of cabbage products are available for purchase online.

Written by Megan Ware RDN LD