Food and Nutrition

5 Benefits of Watercress, One of the Most Nutrient-Dense Leafy Greens

Photo: Stocksy / Helen Rushbrook
Watercress is known for a peppery kick. Love it or hate it, it's loaded with vitamins and minerals. But you don't need to go eating it by the handful to reap the benefits of watercress.

"Watercress definitely has a bite, but I like the peppery flavor. It’s similar to arugula," says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, author of Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen ($19). "You can’t remove or change the flavor, but you can pair it with other mild-tasting foods, like cheese, rice, pasta, or eggs to balance out the mustardy flavor."

Watercress is one of the most nutritious leafy greens out there," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes ($25). "Watercress is a nutrient-dense vegetable that provides a big bang in terms of nutrients for a relatively low-calorie impact."

5 watercress benefits that make it one of the most nutrient-dense greens

1. Promotes bone health

The high vitamin K content of watercress paired with its calcium levels can help promote healthy bones, says Sheth. It's recommended that adults have one microgram (µg) of vitamin K per kilogram of body weight per day. So someone who weighs 150 pounds needs about 68 µg of vitamin K daily—one cup of chopped watercress contains 250 µg. One cup of chopped watercress (34 g) contains 41 mg of calcium (about 1/6 of the amount of calcium in a cup of milk).

2. Supports cardiovascular health

"[Watercress] provides a wide array of antioxidants that may help decrease our risk for heart disease," explains Sheth. "Because of its mineral content—calcium, potassium, magnesium—and nitrates, watercress may help with blood pressure." One cup of chopped watercress (34 g) contains 112 mg of potassium (1/3 of the amount of potassium in a banana), 7 mg of magnesium, and about 37 mg of nitrates.

The high vitamin K content of watercress also means that anyone taking blood thinners should consult their doctors before adding watercress to their diet. "Vitamin K plays an important role in blood clotting and any drastic changes in vitamin K intake through diet can affect the medication’s effect," says Sheth.

3. Decreases the chance of developing cancer

"Watercress contains isothiocyanates, which may help prevent cancer by aiding the body in getting rid of potential carcinogens," says Largreman-Roth. Isothiocyanates are small molecules that reduce the activation of and increase the detoxification of carcinogens.

4. Helps manage diabetes symptoms

Watercress contains alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant that can lower blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance.

5. Promotes eye health

"Watercress can also help with eye health because of its carotenoids and vitamin C content," says Sheth. One cup of chopped watercress contains 15 mg of vitamin C (about 1/5 of the vitamin C in an orange). While there is no specific recommended daily allowance for carotenoids, like beta-carotene or alpha-carotene, a cup of chopped watercress contains 649 µg of beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body, helping to prevent vision loss.

How to cook with watercress and enjoy the benefits

"Watercress is best enjoyed raw," says Largeman-Roth. "Gently wash and dry it before using in recipes. You can also use it in cooking but keep the cooking time brief."

To enjoy watercress raw, Sheth recommends adding it to a smoothie or blending it into a pesto. "You can add watercress to other greens, like kale or baby spinach, for a salad," adds Largeman-Roth, "or pop some watercress into your next sandwich, wrap, or grain bowl." Cooked or raw, you can add watercress to any pasta or stir fry dish, says Sheth. You can also sauté watercress "with some garlic and extra virgin olive oil for a quick side dish." Largeman-Roth adds that you can incorporate watercress "toward the end of making soup or tossed into an egg dish."

Add watercress to this harvest grain bowl:

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