For thousands of years, bok choy, a sweet and crisp leafy green with a touch of mustardy bite, has been revered in Asian cultures for its outstanding nutrient density and wide range of health benefits. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it’s been used for centuries for treating fevers, sore throat, inflammation, and infections, and is still considered a kitchen staple for longevity and wellness. A member of the Brassicaceae plant family (along with broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collards, etc.), bok choy is a nutritional powerhouse. It’s loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols that can not only help ward off chronic disease, but also elevate overall health and performance, both at work and in the gym.
Bok choy is a bona fide ancestral superfood. Below I list 11 of its key nutrients, along with an explanation of their healing superpowers, as motivation for you to add this incredible leafy green to your nutritional arsenal.
Glucobrassicin is a compound naturally found in cruciferous veggies like bok choy; after digestion, it is broken down by the body’s enzymes into a compound called indole-3-carbinol (I3C). A powerful antioxidant, I3C protects the cells in your body from free-radical damage, as well as supporting critical detoxification pathways (i.e. Phases I and II) in your liver that accelerate the removal of carcinogens from your body.1 I3C also exerts a powerful effect on cancer cells, interrupting the cellular cycle that leads to development of breast and prostate cancers, as well as promoting healthy estrogen metabolism.2,3 It effectively diverts endogenous estrogen toward “good” 2-hydroxyestrone (2OHE1) production rather than “bad” 16α-hydroxyestrone (16OHE1) estrogen; the latter is highly estrogenic and shown to stimulate the growth of several estrogen-sensitive cancer cell lines.4 Finally, I3C even plays a key role in digestive health, supporting a healthy balance of gut bacteria via the activation of specific receptors on immune cells located in the gut.5
Glucoraphanin, like glucobrassicin above, is also naturally found in cruciferous vegetables and metabolized into a class of organic sulfur compounds called sulforaphanes. Sulforaphanes have an impressive list of health-promoting benefits, including powerful inhibition of inflammation and oxidative stress in the body (vital for those who are active and exercising, or regularly stressed from long, busy work days). They activate a specific protein called Nrf2 that protects your cells from damage, which is important for fighting off cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions.6 Sulforaphanes also exert a potent anti-microbial effect that can help defend you against viruses throughout the winter months. While broccoli sprouts contain the highest concentration of sulforaphanes, bok choy is also a good choice to get your daily dose.
Anthocyanins are flavonoid compounds found in blueberries, grapes, and cherries that give these fruits their deep blue and red hues. Bok choy also contains anthocyanins that provide an abundance of health-promoting benefits, such as protecting your DNA from damage, quieting inflammation, regulating your immune response, strengthening cell membranes, and maintaining the integrity of your tiniest blood vessels (capillaries).7,8 Anthocyanins also help to protect against cardiovascular disease and many cancers – more great reasons to make sure you eat your greens.
#4 Lutein & Zeaxanthin
Like anthocyanins, lutein and zeaxanthin are flavonoids, but they instead express yellow, orange, and red pigments in foods (such as in mangoes, carrots, and tomatoes). When these flavonoids are present in very high concentrations, the plant’s color tends toward a darker green like that in leafy vegetables like bok choy, kale, and collards. Lutein and zeaxanthin are essential for healthy eyes, protecting against cataracts and macular degeneration. A Harvard University study found that 6 mg per day of lutein resulted in a 43% lower risk for macular degeneration.9 While this dose would be almost impossible to achieve with food alone, the regular intake of lutein and zeaxanthin in your diet will still go a long way toward supporting healthy eyes.
If you don’t eat dairy products, you’ve likely had a curious friend or colleague ask you, “Where do you get your calcium?” While it’s commonly known that dairy products contain a great deal of calcium, it seems to be a well-kept secret that leafy greens like bok choy are also a great source. The Harvard School of Public Health recently stated that leafy greens are likely a better source of calcium than dairy products, highlighting the importance of their regular consumption.10 One-and-a-half cups of shredded, uncooked bok choy provides 250 mg of calcium – about the same as one cup of milk.
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is essential to your health in myriad of ways. Folate is critical for the normal development of a fetus in pregnant women, crucial for maintaining a healthy heart, and helps lower homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is a pro-inflammatory compound strongly linked to atherosclerosis (a narrowing of the arteries) as well as increased risk of cardiovascular disease.11
Getting enough folate in your diet may also reduce your risk of colon cancer and age-related macular degeneration, improve your neurological health, and reduce your risk of stroke. While conventional dietary recommendations typically include artificially “enriched” folic acid (the precursor to folate) in foods like milk, breads, and cereals, nature provides a healthier form of folate in leafy green veggies like bok choy.
#7 B Vitamins
The B vitamins work best in synergy, and bok choy provides a nice dose of vitamins B1, B5, and B6. B vitamins are crucial for converting your food into energy; leafy greens like bok choy are a great way to get your daily intake of these catalysts, especially if you’re following a low-carb diet with minimal complex carbs.
#8 Vitamin C
Most people think of eating oranges to obtain a good dose of vitamin C, yet leafy greens provide a much bigger bang for your buck than citrus fruits. The health benefits of vitamin C are wide-ranging: boosting immunity by increasing white blood cells, supporting healthy connective tissue via collagen formation, acting as a powerful antioxidant, protecting against many cancers, supporting a healthy heart, and the list goes on and on! Bok choy provides about 35 mg of vitamin C per cup, or half of your recommended daily allowance.
Fiber is critically important for the health of your gut microbiota. Bok choy contains both insoluble fiber, which helps promote a healthy transit time (keeping you “regular”), and soluble fiber, which soothes your GI tract and feeds the “good” bacteria in your gut. It’s a good rule of thumb to eat leafy greens every day; however, I would go a step further and try to include a little in every meal of the day, to really supercharge your health.
#10 Vitamin K
Naturally occurring vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) is found in abundance in leafy greens like bok choy; this compound prevents blood-clotting and helps to cool inflammation. Vitamin K1 gets converted to vitamin K2 (menaquinone) in the body, and has recently come into favor in the research community for its myriad of health benefits: reducing risk of osteoporosis, preventing arterial calcification (by diverting calcium toward the bones instead), and protecting against colon- and lung cancers.12,13,14
Your gut bacteria play a key role in the fermentation process that creates vitamin K2 as a by-product. The healthy fibers found in bok choy help to create this environment. Vitamin K2 is primarily found in the fat of grass-fed and pasture-raised animals, a dietary staple in Paleo diets. A recent study found that high vitamin-K intake was strongly associated with lower mortality risk – another great reason to get more bok choy on your plate.15
#11 Trace minerals
The ultimate, unsung heroes of overall health, trace minerals like phosphorus, manganese, chromium, and selenium are essential for strong bones, healthy blood-sugar balance, and proper thyroid function (among many other functions). Bok choy provides these micronutrients, along with decent quantities of calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, some of the minerals most commonly deficient in the average American diet.
There you have it: eleven great reasons why you should add bok choy to your grocery list today. This ancestral superfood is not just fantastic for your health; it’s also extremely versatile in the kitchen. Before cooking, be sure to separate the stalks from the leaves, as the former take longer to cook. You can incorporate bok choy into many of your dishes; stir-fry it with mushrooms and oyster sauce for a classic Asian dish, toss into a soup to give a colorful and nutrient-dense splash, add the crunchy, raw stalks to a salad for great texture, or try your hand at Paleo dumplings with pork and minced bok choy for a sweet-and-savory supper.
Bok choy is an ancestral staple and should be a mainstay in your kitchen. It’s been consumed for centuries for its notable plethora of health benefits, so if you want to fend off fatigue, support a healthy heart, protect against cancer, bolster your low-carb nutrition, or improve your professional- or athletic performance, this leafy green is a great place to start.
- Nho CW, Jeffery E. “The synergistic upregulation of phase II detoxification enzymes by glucosinolate breakdown products in cruciferous vegetables.” Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 174.2 (2001):146-152.
- Chinni S et al. “Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) induced cell growth inhibition, G1 cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in prostate cancer cells.” Oncogene 20.23 (2001): 2927-2936.
- Cover C et al. “Indole-3-carbinol inhibits the expression of cyclin-dependent kinase-6 and induces a G1 cell cycle arrest of human breast cancer cells independent of estrogen receptor signaling.” J Biol Chem 273.7 (1998): 3838-3847.
- Yuan F, Chen DZ, Liu K, Sepkovic DW, Bradlow HL, Auborn K. “Anti-estrogenic activities of indole-3-carbinol in cervical cells: implication for prevention of cervical cancer.” Anticancer Res 19.3A (1999): 1673-1680.
- Berstad et al. “Tryptophan: ‘essential’ for the pathogenesis of irritable bowel syndrome?” Scand J Gastroenterol 49.12 (2014): 1493-1498.
- Yang B et al. “Sulforaphane Protects against Cardiovascular Disease via Nrf2 Activation.” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2015 (2015): Article ID 407580
- Acquaviva R et al. “Cyanidin and cyanidin 3-O-beta-D -glucoside as DNA cleavage protectors and antioxidants.” Cell Biol Toxicol 19.4 (2003): 243-52.
- Rossi A et al. “Protective effects of anthocyanins from blackberry in a rat model of acute lung inflammation.” Free Radic Res 37.8 (2003): 891-900.
- Seddon J. “Multivitamin-multimineral supplements and eye disease: age-related macular degeneration and cataract.” Am J Clin Nutr 85.1 (2007): 304S-307S.
- Ludwig D, Willett W. “Three Daily Servings of Reduced-Fat Milk: An Evidence-Based Recommendation?” JAMA Pediatr 167.9 (2013): 788-89.
- Ganguly P, Fatima-Alam S. “Role of homocysteine in the development of cardiovascular disease.” Nutr J 14 (2015): 6.
- Maresz K. “Proper Calcium Use: Vitamin K2 as a Promoter of Bone and Cardiovascular Health.” Integr Med 14.1 (2015): 34-9.
- Gast G et al. “A high menaquinone intake reduces the incidence of coronary heart disease.” Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis 19.7 (2009): 504-10.
- Nimptsch K et al. “Dietary intake of vitamin K and risk of prostate cancer in the Heidelberg cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Heidelberg).” Am J Clin Nutr 87.4 (2008): 985-92.
- Juanola-Falgarona M. “Dietary intake of vitamin K is inversely associated with mortality risk.” J Nutr 144.5 (2014): 743-50.