Eat up Because Those Parsely Garnishes Actually Have a Lot of Benefits

Photo: Getty Images/Enrique Diaz 7cero
As a college student in the early aughts, I worked at a restaurant where there were two different garnish options for the dishes: kale and parsley. Obviously, kale has come a long way since those days, going from background actor to star ingredient in salads, grain bowls, and smoothies. But what about parsley? Its name may not be popping up on sweatshirts and in punny Instagram handles like kale, but it, too, has a ton of health benefits worth celebrating.

To get the scoop on this unsung herbal hero, I checked in with Brynn McDowell, RD, creator of The Domestic Dietitian. As it turns out, this peppery Mediterranean herb deserves to be way more than just a visual flourish on your plate.

4 parsley benefits you should know about

1. Parsley contains anti-cancer compounds: Parsley's leaves may be small, but they're packed with antioxidants that have been linked to cancer prevention. One is a flavonol called myricetin, which is also found in cranberries, tea, and fennel. "Myricetin is a naturally occurring compound found in parsley that has been linked to the prevention of certain cancers, including breast and skin cancer," says McDowell. Another study found myricetin to be effective in killing certain types of thyroid cancer cells. "Parsley also contains vitamin C, which is [another] antioxidant that has been shown to help cancer prevention," McDowell says. More research is needed to confirm how these compounds interact with the human body, but the Mayo Clinic agrees that the more antioxidant-rich foods you can incorporate into your diet, the better.

2. It might be beneficial for diabetics: Score another one for myricetin—it's also been found beneficial for diabetics. "There is increasing evidence that myricetin may improve insulin resistance and have a blood sugar reducing effect on those with diabetes," says McDowell. For instance, a Finnish study of over 10,000 men and women showed that higher dietary myricetin intake was correlated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. And it may help alleviate side effects of the condition, too. "[Myrecetin] acts as an anti-inflammatory, which can help relieve pain and complications from diabetes-related conditions," McDowell points out.

3. It's good for our blood and bones: For this parsley benefit, we've got vitamin K to thank. "Just one cup of parsley contains over 1,200 percent of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin K, which is needed for blood clotting, bone health and improvement of calcium absorption in the body," says McDowell. Yes, that's a ton of parsley to eat in one day. But even if you only manage a twelfth of that amount, or about 1.5 tablespoons, you've still managed to hit the RDI—totally do-able.

There's one caveat, says McDowell: If you're on a blood-thinning medication like Coumadin, you shouldn't suddenly start eating large amounts of parsley, as vitamin K can interfere with the drug's effectiveness.

4. It's a healthy alternative seasoning: If your doctor's ever told you to eat less salt or fat for medical reasons, McDowell says ultra-flavorful parsley could be a good stand-in. "Fresh and dried herbs, like parsley, add flavor that may help some reduce the amount of salt or high-fat sauces you add to your foods," she says. (More tips on cooking with parsley in a minute.)

Here are some more deets on the benefits of parsley: 

What's the difference between the various types of parsley?

If you've ever shopped for parsley at the grocery store or farmers market, you'll know you have a few different options—curly or flat (Italian), dried or fresh. When making your decision, the main thing you should consider is what you'll be using the parsley for.

The health benefits are more or less the same in curly parsley and flat, so it's really a matter of what your recipe calls for (or your personal preference). "While there may be slight variations in the beneficial compounds in parsley, depending on growing conditions, there isn’t much health difference between the two main varieties of the herb," McDowell says. "Some report that flat leaf parsley is less bitter than curly, but little to no health differences have been found."

However, there's more of a discrepancy between fresh and dried parsley. While both have the same antioxidant content, gram for gram dried parsley has a considerably higher concentration of antioxidants, because it doesn't contain water. And there are a few other differences between the two, McDowell adds. "Fresh parsley tends to be more robust in flavor, but the dried form stands up better to high heat during cooking." So again, consider your recipe, taste buds, and cooking methods when making your choice.

How to add parsley to your diet

Incorporating parsley into your meal prep is a cinch—you can find it pretty much anywhere, and it adds fresh flavor to all sorts of dishes. Here are a few recipe ideas to get you started.

1. Sprinkle it in your soup: You can add dried parsley to pretty much any savory soup, says McDowell: "It's a great way to pack in a lot of flavor without having to rely too much on salt." But if you want to go big, consider making the herb a central ingredient, like it is in this comforting celery-parsley soup recipe from Whole Foods. (Celery's also getting a lot of love from the wellness community right now, in case you haven't heard.)

2. Stir it into salads: "Freshly chopped parsley adds great flavor and texture to salads," McDowell says. She mixes it with kale, cilantro, and scallions in this quinoa and fresh herb salad, and recommends that you let it sit in the fridge for a few hours before serving to let the flavors mingle and marinate.

3. Use it in a dressing: Parsley plays really well with oil-based sauces, like McDowell's chimichurri recipe—she uses it on grilled chicken, steak, or fish. "This is great way to get a lot of flavor, texture, and health benefits instead of topping with a heavy, cream-based or sugar-filled sauce," she says.

4. Roast it with your veggies: You know you're roasting vegetables all the time in the winter, so why not add parsley to the mix?  "Roasting veggies with olive oil and dried parsley, garlic, and basil  is a great way to incorporate the herb in your diet and pack in some great flavor," says McDowell. Take it to the next level by throwing your roasted veg on some toast with Greek yogurt.

5. Add it to a smoothie: Grassy parsley can add an unexpected flavor dimension to smoothies both sweet and savory. This one from Bon Appetit includes kale, banana, and berries, while Martha Stewart's take features it alongside garlic, cucumber, and Greek yogurt. (If you can't sip that last one straight, you could always repurpose it into a dip...)

Why not grow your own parsley? Check out these Instagram accounts for kitchen-garden inspo, then DIY this 3-ingredient spray to keep pests away.

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