We all know that eating vegetables is important, but it’s easy to get stuck in a spinach and broccoli rut. Both Harvard Medical School and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommend adding a wide variety of vegetables to your diet, since each veggie contains a different micronutrient profile of vitamins, antioxidants, amino acids, and minerals. More standard options, like carrots, bell peppers, and mushrooms, are great, too, but if you’re looking to switch things up, consider introducing some of these less popular nutrient-dense vegetables to your plate.
Also known as celery root, celeriac makes a great low-starch alternative to white potatoes. It has a similar flavor and texture when cooked, but celeriac has about one-third the amount of carbohydrates. Dana Lis, director of performance nutrition at the University of California at Davis, notes that this is ideal for athletes who are trying to fuel appropriately on an easy day. “On a rest day, you don’t need the same amount of carbohydrates that you would need after a hard effort,” she says. “So something like this is a perfect way to add nutrients while lowering carbohydrates without sacrificing satiety or flavor.” It’s also high in potassium, vitamins K and B6, and fiber, which are important for digestion and bone, nerve, and brain health.
In 2017, researchers at the University of Southern Denmark theorized that the human brain evolved partially as a result of nutrients found in seaweed—like iodine, which is important for thyroid function, plus iron and vitamin K. Lis explains that kelp is a tasty way to add new flavor and texture to your next meal, and it makes a great alternative to salt, with only 186 milligrams of sodium per full cup. Vegetarians and vegans missing fishy or umami flavors can mix it into salads and stir-fries, and it even makes a mean imitation tuna salad.
This cute radish is a crowd-pleaser. Slice it and you’ll discover a bright-green outer ring and a hot-pink filling—it resembles a tiny watermelon. A satisfying crunch and crisp, slightly peppery flavor make it a fantastic raw vegetable to munch on, while scoring vitamin C, phosphorus, folate, and potassium in the process, all of which contribute to good cellular health (among many other benefits). Use it as a salad topper, in a vegetable tray, or for easy at-home pickling.
While you’ve probably encountered red cabbage as a garnish for your fish tacos or house salad, you should consider making it a bigger part of your diet. A single serving contains 85 percent of your daily dose of vitamin K plus 54 percent of your daily vitamin C. It’s also richer in antioxidants than regular cabbage: it contains 36 different anthocyanin antioxidants, which have been linked to cancer protection, improved brain function, and better heart health. “Typically, the more colorful, the higher the nutrient density,” Lis explains. Red cabbage also makes a crunchier, more colorful coleslaw than its pasty-white counterpart.
If you’re eating a plant-based diet, dulse should be on your radar: its robust nutrient profile covers vitamins like B12 that are hard to find when you’re not eating animal products. Dulse is a type of seaweed that can be bought in flakes (don’t be dismayed by its similarity to fish food), which makes it great for seasoning dishes without increasing sodium. It’s rich in vitamins B6, E, and A, contains the same bioactive peptides as milk—which are great for heart health and more—and has similar amino-acid levels to most beans or legumes.
You may already be on the beet bandwagon, but don’t throw away the leafy tops. Beet greens cook down into a tasty sauté with a bit of butter or olive oil, says Lis, and the sturdy leaves are packed with vitamins A and K, copper, iron, calcium, and manganese—all of which the brain and nervous system rely on to function properly. And a bunch of beets offers more bang for your buck in the veggie aisle, because you get nitrate-rich beetroot as well as the fiber-packed leafy-green tops.
Small but mighty microgreens have exploded in popularity in recent years and for good reason: studies have shown that they contain more micronutrients than many of their fully grown versions. Broccoli microgreens are some of the easiest to cultivate at home but are also now available at most grocery stores. They’re packed with twice as much vitamin C as a serving of spinach, as well as vitamin A, antioxidants, and key amino acids. Their crunchy texture holds up equally well in salads and stir-fries.
Yugoslavian Red Lettuce
If you love crisp, sweet lettuces like romaine and iceberg but are looking for something more nutrient-dense, try Yugoslavian red. It’s higher in vitamin A and K, antioxidants, and iron than romaine but maintains the same sweet flavor and crunch. Those antioxidants help your body efficiently process free radicals—the potentially harmful chemical by-products of metabolism. Yugoslavian red lettuce is easy to grow at home, so if you’re looking for cheap, simple options to add to your garden, it’s a good choice.
Fiddleheads, the bright-green curled tips of young ferns, are easy to identify and make a great entry-level foraging food. They’re only in season for a few weeks each spring, when you can also find them at specialty grocery stores or farmers’ markets. The curlicued spirals taste a bit like asparagus but are packed with more micronutrients, including vitamin K, iron, and potassium, as well as 5.6 grams of protein per one-cup serving. However, fiddleheads need to be cooked well to release a toxin that can cause symptoms of food poisoning, so make sure to steam or sauté them for at least ten minutes.
This vegetable is similar to broccoli in terms of its nutrition profile, with vitamins C and K as well as antioxidants, but it’s a dinner-party showstopper thanks to its neat whirling patterns. A single-cup serving packs in four grams of protein and two grams of fiber, making it a good option if you’re hoping to cut down on your meat consumption. It tastes a bit nuttier than broccoli or cauliflower and adds a bit of depth to a roasted-vegetable medley.
Kohlrabi is shaped and sized like a turnip, but this root vegetable is more similar to brussels sprouts in flavor. It’s extremely low calorie—just 37 per cup—and contains a whopping five grams of fiber per serving in addition to calcium, iron, potassium, and 139 percent of your daily recommended vitamin C. It can be eaten raw or cooked and makes a great cabbage substitute. Keep the stems and use them in a sauté for bonus fiber, iron, and antioxidants.