There’s a reason the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, built his first hospital in close proximity to a stream where watercress grew. He wanted his patients to have easy access to this healing food.
We’d be wise to follow his lead and plant it in our own gardens, or at least seek it out on a regular basis. That’s because this leafy-green nutritional powerhouse continues to impress the anti-cancer community – and I can see why.
I’ve written before about its many health benefits, but lately some research suggests it may be the most nutritious of all foods. It’s certainly high on the list. . .
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For starters, the Huffington Post listed watercress as one of the key foods you should add to your diet in 2015. They and other news outlets even go so far as to call it the superfood that will unseat kale. (I don’t know that it’s worth comparing the two; they’re both powerful in different ways — so I say eat them both.)
The rise of nutrient profiling
Part of this fanfare for watercress stems from landing the highest nutrient score of any fruit or vegetable. In an elaborate, cross-sectional study with a three-step identification process published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), watercress scored a clean 100 (out of 100) in terms of nutrient density (kale scored 49, if you’re curious).
The study measured 17 nutrients of public health importance, including potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K.
To win the distinction of powerhouse vegetable, the foods studied needed every 100-calorie portion to provide an average of 10% or more of the daily value of nutrients. Scores were based on nutrients and calorie density (calorie density is the number of calories in a certain weight of food, which was 100 grams for the purpose of this study).
What this score “officially” means is simple: Watercress can now be classified as a powerhouse food with the potential to significantly reduce your risk of chronic disease. Gram for gram, watercress has more iron than spinach, more vitamin C than oranges, and more calcium than milk. Translation: Eat it as often as you possibly can.
How watercress chokes the life out of cancer cells
In the world of cancer prevention, the logic is simple. Somewhere between 30 and 40% of cancers are linked directly to poor diet and related factors. Watercress — as the little-known cousin of cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts — has a staggering ability to bring high levels of antioxidants to your system.
This is why mounting evidence shows watercress may lower the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancers, and may keep cancer from growing and spreading.
Watercress is loaded with many of the anti-cancer chemicals I’ve written about in the past, such as glucosinolates, phytochemicals, and nasturtiin. In fact, it’s exceptionally rich in nasturtiin, which is a precursor to phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC). So what? Here’s what. . .
PEITC exerts an anti-carcinogenic effect by inhibiting the liver’s phase I enzymes, which can activate carcinogens. In a study where human prostate cancer cells were exposed to PEITC, tumor growth was inhibited and apoptosis occurred (death of cancer cells).
In another study, compounds from watercress and broccoli suppressed a strain of invasive breast cancer cells. Specifically, isothiocyanate compounds were shown to hinder an enzyme that promotes the progression of certain cancers by breaking down the body’s natural barriers. Watercress compounds brought this activity to a halt.
Even better, another study on the effects of eating raw watercress showed supreme DNA-protective effects. The study involved eating three ounces of raw watercress every day for eight weeks. At the end of the study, on average, basal DNA damage improved by 17%, beta-carotene levels rose by 33%, and lutein levels shot up by 100.2%.
But what’s really interesting is that half the study participants were smokers. And the smokers enjoyed more DNA-protective benefits on average than did the non-smokers in the study. Which means watercress doesn’t just go in and fix things by a certain percentage… its nutrients attempt to recalibrate your body to normal, no matter how bad things have gotten.
By the way, it’s not just cancer that’s positively affected by watercress. Growing evidence shows eating watercress daily may lower the risk of age-related macular degeneration (which leads to adult blindness). This isn’t surprising, considering the high levels of lutein referenced above.
Watercress also offers protection to the cardiovascular system by lowering levels of atherosclerosis in the arteries of the neck. Researchers believe these benefits are due to watercress being so densely packed with the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, both of which are beneficial to the eyes and heart.
No longer just a decorative garnish
Watercress is available at grocery stores year round, but its peak months are April through June (meaning it might be cheaper or taste fresher). When you go to buy it, look for a bunch with healthy green leaves that smell fresh and spicy. You can store it in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for up to four days.
The best way to incorporate more watercress into your life is to use it as you would lettuce. Trim the stems, rinse it in cold water, then dry it on a paper towel or with a salad spinner. Once cleaned, you can put it in salads, sandwiches, soups, or stir fry recipes, or you might sprinkle it over pizza.
But you’ll get optimum benefits if you eat it raw (think salads or smoothies), because heat exposure could affect some nutrients. Even cooked, I bet it will provide more nutritional benefit for you than most foods.
“15 Foods to Add to Your Diet in 2015.” By Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D. for Huffpost Healthy Living; 11 December 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-kirkpatrick-ms-rd-ld/15-foods-to-add-to-your-d_b_6257344.html
“Astounding Findings About the Benefits of Watercress.” By Danica Collins for Underground Health Reporter, retrieved 20 March 2015. http://undergroundhealthreporter.com/benefits-of-watercress-fight-cancer/#axzz3VJGxTpdX
“Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach.” By Jennifer Di Noia, PhD. Prev Chronic Dis 2014;11:130390. http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2014/13_0390.htm
“Eating watercress found to kill cancer cells.” By David Gutierrez, staff writer for Natural News. 26 February 2007. http://www.naturalnews.com/021646_anti-cancer_foods_watercress.html
“Powerhouse Rankings: Watercress Tops List, Blueberries Missing.” American Institute for Cancer Research: Cancer Research Update; 11 June 2014 issue of AICR Cancer Research Update. http://www.aicr.org/cancer-research-update/2014/june_11/cru_powerhous-rankings-watercress-tops-list.html
“Watercress.” Web MD: Find a Vitamin or Supplement. Retrieved 20 March 2015. http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-346-watercress.aspx?activeingredientid=346&activeingredientname=watercress
“Watercress: Anti-Cancer Superfood.” Medical News Today, 18 February 2007. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/63314.php
“Watercress: Benefits for Cancer Protection, Vision, and Heart Health.” Life Extension Magazine, November 2007. http://www.lef.org/magazine/2007/11/sf_watercress/Page-01
“Watercress: Is it the Kale of 2015?” University Cancer Centers, 26 December 2014. http://www.universitycancercenters.com/#!Watercress-Is-it-the-Kale-of-2015/ceqp/F8DE6543-812E-4AF4-9B64-2ED531EB091A
“Watercress. The Cancer Fighting Super-Food.” Health section, retrieved 20 March 2015. http://www.watercress.com/cancer.aspx
“Watercress Turns Off Breast Cancer Cell Growth.” By Margie King for GreenMedInfo. 1 October 2013. http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/watercress-turns-breast-cancer-cell-growth