12 Fresh Vegetables to Support Metabolic Health, from a Dietitian

Your metabolic health is influenced by your lifestyle and your diet. Incorporating a variety of vegetables is important to maintain good health overall, but certain vegetables can promote metabolic health more than others - learn which ones!

cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower

Metabolic health refers to energy metabolism and how well your body can stabilize blood sugar and maintain balanced cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and a healthy waist circumference. 

Are There Really Foods that Slow Metabolism?

There are not any specific foods (based on studies) that we know to be responsible for slowing down metabolism. But, we do know the factors that affect metabolic health include1:

  • Weight gain.
  • How often and how much you eat.
  • Genetics. 
  • How active you are. 

So, no single food will directly slow your metabolism but the habitual eating behaviors you engage in can have a significant impact. Eating too few calories is one of the most common reasons why metabolism may slow down.2

Vegetables that Support Metabolic Health

Vegetables are filled with essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which support healthy blood sugars, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and weight.

1. Kale

Leafy kale is high in iron and glucosinolates, which both support metabolic function.3Glucosinolates have been shown to neutralize harmful free radicals and carcinogens in the body, and help reduce the risk of disease. 

Kale is best eaten cooked because the nutrients are more bioavailable, meaning they are easier to absorb. 

If you love having kale in your salad, try this hack to increase the bioavailability of nutrients: wash and microwave your kale leaves for thirty seconds. This will soften the tough fibers and you will increase the chances of absorbing more minerals.   

2. Broccoli 

Broccoli is high in fiber and is also rich in glucosinolates. These naturally occurring compounds have been linked to having anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, and anti-obesity effects.3

Cooked broccoli can be easier to digest for people who are susceptible to excess gas after eating cruciferous vegetables. You can boil, steam, or roast broccoli florets on a sheet pan with your favorite herbs for a delicious addition to your meal. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/high-fiber-low-carb-foods">the best high-fiber foods for blood sugar control</a>.</p>

3. Spinach

Spinach has a similar nutrition profile to kale, but the leaves are more delicate and the taste is more earthy. Pair spinach with foods rich in vitamin C (like tomatoes) to increase iron absorption. Studies have shown that people who are low in iron have a more difficult time losing weight and their metabolic health is decreased until the deficiency is corrected.4

Fresh or frozen spinach leaves are a great addition to smoothies or can be cooked with eggs for a nutrient-rich breakfast. 

4. Kohlrabi 

Similar to broccoli, kohlrabi is high in fiber, resistant starch (which may help lower blood glucose levels), and glucosinolates.3,5Raw kohlrabi has a sweet and peppery taste with a bit of a kick. Once cooked, the flavor transforms into a sweet and starchy textured root vegetable. 

The entire kohlrabi (including the stems) can be added to cooked soups, stir-fries, or roasted in the oven. Try experimenting with different cooking methods until you find a recipe you love.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/resistant-starches-weight-loss">resistant starch and weight loss</a>.</p>

5. Artichokes

The heart of an artichoke is the edible part of the vegetable. Artichoke hearts are rich in manganese, an essential mineral that is actively involved in the metabolism of glucose and dietary fats.6

You can peel artichokes at home and cook the hearts on a grill, or you can buy canned artichoke hearts that are prepped and ready to eat. They make for a great addition to salads or smoothies. You can elevate canned hearts by gently sautée them in garlic and olive oil for a few minutes on the stovetop.

artichoke hearts with herbs in a dish
Artichoke hearts are also very high in fiber including inulin, a  special kind of fiber called a prebiotic.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/prebiotic-foods-list">the best prebiotic foods for gut health</a>.</p>

6. Cabbage

All cabbage varieties contain vitamin C and glucosinolates.3 Both of these organic compounds help support a healthy metabolism. Cabbages are also naturally high in fiber, which aids with satiety and blood sugar control. 

Popular types of cabbage include:

  • Green cabbage
  • Napa cabbage 
  • Bok Choy 
  • Savoy cabbage 
  • Red cabbage 

Cooked cabbage is easier on your digestive system. Add it to soups, stir-fries, or try a traditional cabbage roll casserole if you want an easy dinner option that is lean and tasty. 

7. Cauliflower

Closely related to kale, cabbage, broccoli and kohlrabi, this textured white vegetable is mild in taste but quite high in nutritional value. Cauliflower is rich in antioxidants, glucosinolates, fiber, and choline. 

Choline plays an essential role in fat metabolization. It breaks down fat molecules which are converted into usable energy.7,8 The efficient breakdown of fat is believed to prevent the accumulation of lipids in the blood and the liver. Choline also helps support a healthy brain.9

Cauliflower is a great addition to salads or soups. If you really want to up your game, try roasting cauliflower in the oven or on the barbecue. You can even cut cauliflower heads into steak-like slices to get even more crunch and flavor from every bite. 

8. Chili Peppers 

Chili peppers contain capsaicin, a naturally occurring compound proven to increase metabolic rate.10Capsaicin increases the energy expenditure in your body, and fat oxidation, which results in more calories burned (even at rest). 

Many people take an encapsulated version of capsaicin because eating a mouthful of hot peppers isn’t accessible to everyone (and it probably doesn’t taste too good, either). The great news is that even in capsule form capsaicin is still effective. 

A study found that people who took 6mg capsules of capsaicin had a weight loss of 0.5-0.9kg and decreased abdominal fat loss. A follow-up study found similar results in people who consume 10mg capsules, and their resting metabolic rate burned higher than those in the placebo group without any capsaicin.

a variety of chili peppers on a wood table
Chili peppers also have capsaicin, an active organic compound which can suppress appetite.

9. Tomato Paste 

Tomato paste comes in a can and is made from a large volume of cooked and puréed tomatoes. Tomato paste is high in vitamin C and iron. Studies have shown that people who rectify an iron deficiency have more success losing weight.4 Tomato paste is also a good source of lycopene, an antioxidant with many potential health benefits.

Tomato paste can be used in any recipe that calls for cooked tomatoes. It will enhance and deepen flavor without adding too much bulk or liquid to your dish. Add tomato paste to stews, chili, soups, casseroles, and pasta dishes. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/fruits-vegetables-colors">eating colorful produce for optimal health</a>.</p>

10. Beet Greens 

The leafy top parts of the beet plant are edible and can be incorporated into many dishes. Beet leaves have an earthy taste that decreases in intensity with cooking. 

Beet greens are rich in several nutrients and minerals including magnesium. Magnesium is actively involved in hundreds of metabolic processes in the body and is a key player in energy expenditure.11

A small study completed in 2013 showed that people who had a higher intake of dietary magnesium had less insulin resistance compared to people who ate low levels of magnesium11. If your insulin hormones can’t properly clear sugar from your bloodstream your blood glucose levels can rise, and increase your risk of diabetes. 

11. Cooked Yellow Beans 

Similar to beet greens, cooked yellow beans are high in magnesium, which plays a key role in protein synthesis and energy expenditure.11 Yellow beans can be added to bean salads, green salads, casseroles, or soup. You can also freeze yellow beans to extend their shelf life. 

12. Butternut Squash

Like most orange fruits and vegetables, butternut squash is high in vitamin C and beta carotene,  both support metabolic systems in your body (including your immune function and protein synthesis). 

All squashes should have a minimal impact on your blood sugar. Although butternut squash is starchy, it’s also moderately high in fiber and contains some water, which helps slow down digestion. The most popular way to eat butternut squash is roasted in the oven or in a soup. 

Final Takeaways

Including a variety of vegetables can help restore your metabolic health as part of a healthy lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to try new foods! There are hundreds of recipes and free tutorials online that can show you exactly how to cook them. 

Challenge yourself to include one new item from this list in your weekly dinners. Make notes and keep track of which ones were a hit. They’ll come in handy the next time you want to add different flavors, textures, or extra nutrition to your meals. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/signos-metabolic-experiments">using Signos for your own metabolic experiments</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Lotta, L. A., Abbasi, A., Sharp, S. J., Sahlqvist, A. S., Waterworth, D., Brosnan, J. M., Scott, R. A., Langenberg, C., & Wareham, N. J. (2015). Definitions of Metabolic Health and Risk of Future Type 2 Diabetes in BMI Categories: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-analysis. Diabetes Care, 38(11), 2177–2187. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc15-1218
  2. Smith, R. L., Soeters, M. R., Wüst, R. C. I., & Houtkooper, R. H. (2018). Metabolic Flexibility as an Adaptation to Energy Resources and Requirements in Health and Disease. Endocrine Reviews, 39(4), 489–517. https://doi.org/10.1210/er.2017-00211 
  3. Sikorska-Zimny, K., & Beneduce, L. (2021). The Metabolism of Glucosinolates by Gut Microbiota. Nutrients, 13(8), 2750. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13082750 
  4. Aktas, G., Alcelik, A., Yalcin, A., Karacay, S., Kurt, S., Akduman, M., & Savli, H. (2014). Treatment of iron deficiency anemia induces weight loss and improves metabolic parameters. La Clinica terapeutica, 165(2), e87–e89. https://doi.org/10.7471/CT.2014.1688 
  5. Wang, Y., Chen, J., Song, Y. H., Zhao, R., Xia, L., Chen, Y., Cui, Y. P., Rao, Z. Y., Zhou, Y., Zhuang, W., & Wu, X. T. (2019). Effects of the resistant starch on glucose, insulin, insulin resistance, and lipid parameters in overweight or obese adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition & Diabetes, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41387-019-0086-9 
  6. Li, L., & Yang, X. (2018). The Essential Element Manganese, Oxidative Stress, and Metabolic Diseases: Links and Interactions. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2018, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/7580707 
  7. Zeisel, S. H., & da Costa, K. A. (2009). Choline: an essential nutrient for public health. Nutrition reviews, 67(11), 615–623. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00246.x 
  8. Elsawy, G., Abdelrahman, O., & Hamza, A. (2014). Effect of choline supplementation on rapid weight loss and biochemical variables among female taekwondo and judo athletes. Journal of human kinetics, 40, 77–82. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2014-0009 
  9. Zeisel, S. H., & da Costa, K. A. (2009). Choline: an essential nutrient for public health. Nutrition Reviews, 67(11), 615–623. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00246.x 
  10. Zheng, J., Zheng, S., Feng, Q., Zhang, Q., & Xiao, X. (2017). Dietary capsaicin and its anti-obesity potency: from mechanism to clinical implications. Bioscience reports, 37(3), BSR20170286. https://doi.org/10.1042/BSR20170286 
  11. Cahill, F., Shahidi, M., Shea, J., Wadden, D., Gulliver, W., Randell, E., Vasdev, S., & Sun, G. (2013). High dietary magnesium intake is associated with low insulin resistance in the Newfoundland population. PloS one, 8(3), e58278. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0058278

About the Author

Julia Zakrzewski Headshot
Julia Zakrzewski is a Registered Dietitian and nutrition writer. She has a background in primary care, clinical nutrition, and nutrition education. She has been practicing dietetics for four years.
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