A surprisingly large segment of the debate that preceded the Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare last summer centered on whether forcing citizens to buy health insurance would be the same as mandating that unsuspecting Americans pack their vegetable drawers with broccoli. In fact, the word “broccoli” was mentioned 12 times in the court’s final ruling.
Justice Antonin Scalia was particularly concerned: He made the point that if people were forced to participate in one legally defined marketplace, healthcare, what would stop the legislative snowball from rolling into our grocery stores, where healthy foods could literally be forced down our throats. (And don’t forget the inevitable emergence of government goon squads, dispensed from the nanny state, door knocking — door pounding, even — to determine whether we were actually eating our broccoli.)
Listening to the news coverage, I couldn’t help but think that, yes, there should be government agents going door to door pushing broccoli. And when they do, they should tell people it’s delicious oven-roasted; or long-cooked, with garlic and fresh lemon juice, in the style of Alice Waters; or pan-seared with pine nuts and raisins; or braised with Korean cheonggukjang soybean sauce. Aw, heck. Pick me, pick me! I want to be on a government goon squad!
I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in my fervor. But alas, the broccoli squads never materialized, and we broccoli enthusiasts were left to brood moodily over the fact that, since 1981, the country has had five presidents — and none of them, including Barack Obama, who is a proud fan of Five Guys burgers and fries, has endorsed the green stuff. Ronald Reagan (who appointed Scalia) had his jellybeans. Bill Clinton was routinely spotted at McDonald’s. George W. Bush was, and shall forever be, the pretzel president. And Dubya’s father, George H. W. Bush, talked openly about hating broccoli.
Now, just to be clear, I haven’t always been obsessed with broccoli (or the other members of the Brassica plant family, including Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale and cabbage). As a child, it was the one food on which I drew the line, no matter how my poor mother made it. And she made it a lot. Not because she thought it tasted good, but because it was my kid brother’s favorite — a fact that filled me with loathing. Now I have a 6-year-old son who, in a fitting bit of karmic revenge, would sooner eat furniture legs. But I also have a 4-year-old daughter who loves the stuff. So much so, that her favorite activity at the grocery store is wrestling a head out of its tightly packed display. Amazed when the sea of evenly green tops comes apart to reveal bundled stems below, she always asks, “Can we get two?”
This is how I often end up with tightly packed quart-bags of raw broccoli florets and chips, cut from the stems, which I eat at my desk in the afternoon, like pretzels. This routinely prompts a coworker of the non-broccoli persuasion to stand over my desk, shaking his head in horror. “Do the other restaurant critics know about this culinary abomination? Do you taste Champagne with the same mouth you use to chaw on those hideous florets?” Oh, sure I do. Then I follow him back to his cube, a broccoli-squad of one.
“Friend,” I begin. “Let’s talk about your colon.”
OK, OK. I don’t really say that. But I could. Because in midlife one develops unexpected hobbies. You buy a kitschy glass owl at a yard sale at age 20, as a joke, and the next thing you know you’re an owl-themed old lady living alone in North Chicago. Or you happen on a dramatic scene on the beach one morning, and the next thing you know you’re spending your weekends dumping pails of water on beached whales while waiting for the rescue boats. Luckily, I live far from the beach, and I do not own an owl-shaped soap dish. But I do enjoy chatting about digestive health, and sister, let me tell you a thing or two about the emerging science of vegetables and your gastrointestinal tract.
Wait, wait, don’t leave! It’s fascinating.
For starters, consider one of the many miraculous things that occur when a baby is breast-fed. Breast milk contains more than 200 oligosaccharides, different forms of food, some of which are made for only one remarkable purpose: to act as a decoy molecule to attract infectious, dangerous bacteria. Once the dangerous bacteria are attracted, they are locked down and ushered out and into (hopefully) a diaper. That’s sort of amazing, and so is the fact that adults also have decoy molecules to attract bad-guy cells and usher them away. We get them from food.
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and legumes such as chickpeas and beans all contain oligosaccharides, which, like antioxidants, protect cells from free radicals that can lead to cancer and help flush them out of our system. More good news: A study in the journal Carcinogenesis in 2001 concluded that diets high in oligosaccharides prevent tumor formation.
There is one little catch, though. In order to get the benefits of broccoli and Brussels sprouts, you have to eat them. If you don’t eat crunchy plants, but instead a lot of processed flour, sugar, trans fats and a typically junk-rich Western diet, a couple of bad things happen. You skip the benefit of natural oligosaccharides. And your whole microbiome, composed of the several trillion good bacteria that live inside of you, will shift from a population of mainly Bacteroidetes, which convert plant matter to food, to a population of mainly Firmicutes, which love sugar and flour.
A gastrointestinal tract populated mainly by Firmicutes is associated with quicker weight gain and also makes it harder to get the weight off. Research is ongoing to determine why exactly the Firmicutes are associated with obesity, but it’s a matter of fact that lean people have gastrointestinal tracts that are mainly full of Bacteroidetes, and obese people have gastrointestinal tracts that are mainly full of Firmicutes.
If you feel a rising sense of dread, don’t despair. It’s also been determined that if you start eating crunchy high-fiber vegetables today, your gut inhabitants will start to repopulate in a direction favoring Bacteroidetes in as little as 24 hours.
Scientists are also looking into how our gut bacteria either cause or prevent inflammation in general, which has been linked to everything from autoimmune diseases to cardiovascular problems. And guess what? Almost all the evidence is pro-broccoli.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking at this point: I do not want to eat broccoli, but I get that the stuff is high in fiber, so maybe I’ll just cut to the chase and I’ll throw some fiber powder in my Frappuccino.
Don’t think like that. Our little friends inside, about whom we really know so little, didn’t evolve to thrive on a monoculture of psyllium husks, so there’s no reason to think that this will be optimal for them — or for you.
Personally, I find it sort of mind flipping that the old saw You are what you eat turns out to be true on multiple levels. What you eat creates, quite quickly, the ecosystem inside you, which in turn influences your health. It’s a circular feedback loop, which starts with the next snack choice you make, whether it’s Cheetos or something with a more natural crunch. Like, say, broccoli.
Once you make that choice, you’ll start changing from the inside out. That’s a fact. And broccoli is not as bad as some people would insist — my former 10-year-old self included. Of course, when it comes to some people, nothing I say is going to sway them in broccoli’s direction. For those folks, sugar-snap peas, green beans, cucumber slices and Belgian endive leaves are all great ways to work crunchy greens into your diet.
If you’re already a broccoli fan, and are ready to join my fledgling goon squad — superb. Meet me on the corner near that place at dusk; I’ll bring the aioli.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.