For many people, asparagus is considered a pricey, gourmet vegetable that is not a part of their every day diet. Some may not even like the texture or flavor of asparagus, and choose to avoid eating it. However, when you hear about its considerable nutritional and health benefits, along with some tasty ways to prepare it, you may just change your mind.
Asparagus has been valued for thousands of years for its many medicinal uses, as well as for its unique flavor and succulence. Asparagus is mentioned in the literature of ancient Egypt, and was also popular throughout the African Continent and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions. It was revered as a luxury and a “royal” vegetable, a favorite of the upper and ruling classes. The ancients were probably unaware of its additional value as a nutritional powerhouse. Today asparagus is grown in many countries and available in most parts of the world.
This member of the lily family has some rather interesting characteristics. The shoots or spears that we are familiar with are harvested from the underground body of the plant known as the crown. It takes about three years after planting for a crown to give spears, but these hardy perennials can continue to produce for up to twenty years.
How Can Asparagus Benefit My Health?
If you are pregnant or trying to conceive, asparagus may help. It is rich in a B Vitamin called folate (or folic acid) that plays a key role in cellular division (especially nerve cells) and DNA formation. Studies have shown that folate may also help to reduce risk for certain birth defects, including Spina Bifida. Asparagus can also boost fertility, and is used by some women to fight PMS and menstrual cramps, as well as for stimulating milk production in nursing mothers.
Asparagus are high in Vitamin K, a necessary nutrient that is involved in the formation of blood clotting factors, and is also important for bone health and for that of the circulatory system, particularly the smallest blood vessels known as the capillaries.
One of my favorite uses for asparagus is to nurture intestinal tract health. This vegetable is rich in a carbohydrate called inulin that nourishes friendly bacteria in the gut, causing the intestines to operate more efficiently by absorbing more nutrients and eliminating wastes better. This in turn boosts the immune system, thus affecting the entire body.
Asparagus is also a natural diuretic, and has an anti-inflammatory function as well. Asparagus is high in potassium, and this mineral works together with an amino acid found in the vegetable called asparagine to stimulate urination, and to rid the body of excess fluids in other ways too. Thus asparagus in your diet can help relieve conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and the bloating and swelling often associated with water retention.
Asparagus is great for cardiac health too. It helps to reduce levels of a harmful amino acid in the blood called homocysteine, elevated levels of which have been linked to increased risk for heart attacks. Getting enough folate, which asparagus is high in, may decrease heart attack risk by up to 10% according to some estimates.
Other benefits of asparagus include:
– Less urinary tract infections
– Phytonutrients that decrease cancer risk (especially lung cancer)
– Lowered blood pressure
– Improved eye health
– Excellent body detoxifier
– Less bruising and faster healing of skin wounds
– Improved bowel health, both for constipation and diarrhea
– Great for the kidneys, helping to flush them and to prevent kidney stones
How to Buy and Prepare Asparagus
Of course you want to choose only fresh, organic asparagus if at all possible. Look for spears that have buds that are tight and not opened and shafts that are not too woody (tough and fibrous.) You may cut off the shaft about half way up, if necessary, in order to avoid eating the toughest portions. Most varieties are green, but there are also white and purple asparagus available, but may be rather hard to find. The purple variety is a treat because of its somewhat fruity flavor and increased phytonutrients due to the purple color.
As with all vegetables, raw is always best. However, if you prefer asparagus cooked, steaming or baking them are popular ways of preparation that preserve more nutrients than boiling, for example. Wash them well, as they are grown in sandy soil.
Asparagus may be chopped and added to salads, smoothies, and casseroles. Eating them raw with a healthy vegetable dip is also a delicious way to enjoy them (try organic olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and spices). Including this wonderfully tasty and nutritious veggie in your diet is a terrific way to bring more variety and beneficial nutrition to your table.