Watercress: The 'Most Nutritious' Vegetable, Lowers Chronic Disease Risks, Strengthens Bones, Improves Gut Health

With a perfect “nutrient density score,” watercress can bring you myriad health benefits.
Watercress: The 'Most Nutritious' Vegetable, Lowers Chronic Disease Risks, Strengthens Bones, Improves Gut Health
With its peppery flavor, vibrant green color, and therapeutic effects, watercress has long been cherished as far more than just another salad green. This unassuming vegetable contains an astonishing concentration of vital nutrients for which it has been praised since ancient times, including as a cure for scurvy (pdf) among sailors at sea.
Modern science is now revealing the secrets behind this superfood—and how it can help fight disease, strengthen the body, and add years to your life.

Why Is Watercress Considered the Most Nutritious?

Watercress is packed with nutrients with a perfect nutrient density score of 100, meaning that it provides maximum nutrients for minimal calories. The score ranks watercress first among 41 common fruits and vegetables, outperforming even nutrient-dense greens such as spinach, kale, and broccoli. In other words, ounce for ounce, watercress delivers more essential vitamins and minerals than any other plant food.
In just 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of watercress, you get 95 grams of water, 2.3 grams of protein, 1.3 grams of carbohydrate, and 0.5 grams of dietary fiber. But it also contains a wealth of vitamins and antioxidants.
Watercress is high in vitamin C, with 100 grams (about three cups) containing 43 milligrams of vitamin C, about half the daily recommended dietary allowance for adults.
The leafy green contains even more vitamin A than mango, which is known for being high in this nutrient. Specifically, 100 grams of watercress provides 160 micrograms of vitamin A, meeting 18 percent of the daily value.
With 330 milligrams of potassium per 100 grams, watercress exceeds lettuce as a source of this essential mineral. This amount provides about 10 percent of the recommended daily potassium intake for adult men.
Watercress is exceptionally rich in vitamin K. A 100-gram serving contains 250 micrograms, more than twice the recommended daily intake for adults. This vitamin is key for blood clotting and bone health.

Why You Should Eat More Watercress

Adding watercress to your meals can provide numerous health benefits.

Watercress has a list of noteworthy benefits, Emma Laing, director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told The Epoch Times.

The antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds in leafy greens such as watercress have been shown to improve cardiovascular, gut, brain, eye, and bone health, according to Ms. Laing.

They may also help to prevent certain cancers, diabetes, and immune disorders, she said.

1. Lowers Risk of Chronic Diseases, Including Cancer

Watercress contains a wealth of antioxidants that work to counteract free radicals in cells, shielding against or lessening the harm caused by oxidation by curbing inflammation in the body. All of this can lower the risk of certain chronic diseases, including heart disease and many types of cancer.
Specifically, research has found that cruciferous veggies such as watercress may decrease the risk of cardiovascular mortality. They can also potentially be used for heart protection.
Studies show that watercress extracts can lower cancer risk by reducing DNA damage and inhibiting tumor initiation, growth, and metastasis.
The antioxidant sulforaphane—abundant in watercress—can halt cancer cell growth and prompt cell death. It may confer protection by blocking carcinogen activation and regulating cell cycles.
Glucosinolates, sulfur-based compounds that give watercress its distinct aroma and zesty taste, are also associated with lowering the chance of cancer, according to Ms. Laing.

2. Manages the ‘3 Highs’

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar are nicknamed the "three highs" because they often coexist with central obesity, together forming what's known as metabolic syndrome.
  • Blood sugar level: Researchers found that watercress extracts can improve blood sugar and lipid levels in diabetic rats, suggesting potential benefits for managing hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and dyslipidemia (unhealthy fats) in humans. The fiber in watercress may also help to control blood sugar, as fiber can't be broken down as with other carbs, preventing spikes.
  • Cholesterol: The same study on diabetic rats suggested that watercress extracts could significantly lower total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol after four weeks, as compared with control subjects. This reduction in lipids could decrease coronary disease risk. Another study in rats found that just 10 days of watercress extract supplementation reduced total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels by 34.2 percent and 52.9 percent, respectively.
  • Blood pressure: Watercress has been used in traditional medicine to treat hypertension (high blood pressure). The potassium, magnesium, and calcium contained in watercress may lower blood pressure in patients with hypertension. In addition, “the presence of dietary nitrates (in watercress) can enhance cardiovascular health by improving blood pressure and arterial stiffness,” according to Krutika Nanavati, a New Zealand-based registered nutritionist and dietitian. Watercress also contains isoflavones that can lower high blood pressure by relaxing and widening blood vessels.

3. Strengthens Bones

Watercress's abundant vitamin K, calcium, and isoflavones may help to maintain bone health.
Vitamin K helps in producing osteocalcin, a protein that strengthens bones. Studies link higher vitamin K intake to fewer hip fractures and improved bone density.
Calcium is also crucial for building strong bones. Isoflavones may stimulate osteoblasts (bone-building cells) and inhibit osteoclasts (bone-breaking cells), a meta-analysis of more than 700 studies found. Some studies have found increased bone mineral density with isoflavone intake.

4. Improves Gut Health and Enhances the Immune System

Watercress contains cruciferous vegetable derivative phenylethyl isothiocyanate, a potent antioxidant with anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-cancer effects. It may improve gut health by disrupting cell membranes and enzymes and causing cell death in harmful gut bacteria.
The dietary fiber in watercress can also increase bacterial diversity and maintain a healthy gut microbiome, which benefits the immune system.
With its abundance of immune-boosting vitamins A and C and antioxidants, eating watercress can support overall immune function.

5. Nourishes Skin and Hair

The many vitamins and antioxidants in watercress may promote healthy skin and hair.

“Its abundant vitamin A helps create healthy skin cells, decreasing problems like acne, dry skin, and early aging,” Ms. Nanavati said.

“Additionally, watercress’s iron, zinc, and biotin can aid hair health by strengthening hair follicles and encouraging hair growth."

6. Hydrates the Body

With a 95 percent water content, watercress provides hydration almost like drinking water. As a natural diuretic, it can also help the body to flush out excess fluid and salt, reducing bloating, lowering blood pressure, and improving conditions such as hypertension.

Potential Adverse Effects of Watercress

A sudden surge in vitamin K intake can lead to blood clotting, and a sudden drop in its consumption may pose a risk of bleeding. Therefore, people on blood-thinning medication such as warfarin should exercise caution when consuming watercress. Ideally, they should maintain a consistent daily intake of this vegetable.
Watercress contains high levels of nitrates that bacteria can convert to nitrites. Research links high or moderate nitrite intake to an increased stomach cancer risk, while nitrates may decrease risk.

How to Best Eat Watercress

The peppery, slightly bitter taste of watercress makes it a versatile ingredient.

“Adding it to milder-tasting foods, such as eggs, cheese, rice, pasta, or stir-fry, pureed in a soup, or blending it into a pesto or a smoothie will improve its palatability,” Ms. Laing said.

You can also use watercress as a garnish for meats or fish, according to Ms. Nanavati.

When incorporating watercress into your diet, enjoy it in moderation as part of an overall balanced diet, she said.