The humble vegetable side dishes often get overlooked among all the showier Thanksgiving staples, such as gravy-soaked mashed potatoes and sausage-studded stuffing. But the real star of the holiday meal should be the nonstarchy vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables.
These often unpopular vegetables not only can be served up in enticing ways, but they can have the added punch of helping to fight cancer.
The cruciferous are veggies that belong to the cabbage family: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and bok choy. Some greens fall into this category, such as kale, collard greens, arugula and watercress. Even some root vegetables are classified as cruciferous: turnips, rutabagas and parsnips.
These vegetables get their "crucifer" name because they all have flowers with four petals that form the shape of a cross.
So why should you make room for cruciferous vegetables on your already overstuffed Thanksgiving table? These vegetables are truly like no other.
Cruciferous vegetables are unique because they contain several natural substances called glucosinolates that may help lower your risk of getting cancer. These disease-fighting phytonutrients are the same sulfur-containing compounds that give cruciferous vegetables their pungent aromas -- and, you might say, bitter taste.
Glucosinolates break down in the body to form indoles, isothiocyanates and other compounds that appear to fight off cancer in several ways.
For starters, they regulate a complex system of enzymes in our bodies that defend against cancer. These cruciferous compounds seem to slow down certain enzymes that activate carcinogenic substances and speed up other enzymes that help detoxify and eliminate carcinogens before they can do damage.
Additionally, some studies suggest these compounds have the ability to stop the development of cancer by turning on tumor suppressor genes. Other research indicates that these protective compounds may change the metabolism and activity of estrogens in the body -- potentially decreasing the risk of hormone-related cancer, such as breast or prostate cancer.
The protective effect of cruciferous vegetables appears to be the strongest for cancers of the lung and digestive tract (such as colon cancer), but studies have also linked these veggies to a lower risk of breast, ovarian, uterine, cervix, liver and prostate cancer.
In a study funded by the National Cancer Institute, men who ate three or more half-cup servings of cruciferous vegetables per week had a 41 percent decreased risk for prostate cancer, compared to men who ate fewer than one serving per week.
A University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute study found that cruciferous vegetables appear to not only stop human prostate cancer cells from growing in mice but also may cut off the formation of blood vessels that "feed" tumors.
Maybe memories of mushy, smelly and bitter Brussels sprouts or other cruciferous vegetables have kept them off your shopping list. But most likely it's your preparation method that needs updating.
It's critical not to overcook cruciferous vegetables. That's a double whammy of a mistake. Overcooking brings out the strong sulfur odor, and you'll have the entire family turning up their noses when you pass the veggies.