Rhubarb is a vegetable that has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. More recently, rhubarb has gained popularity for its nutritional value and potential health benefits. This article explores what rhubarb does for your body, looking at its effects on digestion, heart health, bone strength, weight loss, and more.
What is Rhubarb?
Rhubarb is a vegetable that originated in Asia over 2,000 years ago. It is often mistaken for a fruit due to its tart taste, but rhubarb is actually the stalk of a leafy green plant in the buckwheat family. There are many different cultivars or varieties of rhubarb, but most have reddish stalks with green leafy tops.
Although the leaves are toxic to humans, the stalks are edible and frequently used in baking, jams, and sauces. Rhubarb has a very tart, sour taste due to its high levels of malic and citric acid. It is often combined with sweeteners like sugar when used in recipes.
Rhubarb is low in calories but packed with nutrients. Some of the key vitamins and minerals found in 1 cup of diced rhubarb (122g) include:
Rhubarb is especially high in vitamin K, which plays a key role in bone health. It also provides fiber, vitamin C, calcium, and antioxidants like anthocyanins that give rhubarb its red color.
Effects on Digestion
One of the key benefits of rhubarb is its positive effect on digestion. Rhubarb acts as a natural laxative due to its fiber content and the compounds aloe-emodin and rhein.
Specifically, rhubarb has been shown to:
- Increase stool frequency and improve consistency
- Relieve constipation by drawing more water into the intestines
- Support regular bowel movements
- Potentially aid with hemorrhoids due to its laxative effects
The fiber in rhubarb can also help promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome is linked to improved digestion, immunity, and even weight loss.
Emerging research suggests rhubarb may also benefit heart health in several ways:
- Lower cholesterol – Rhubarb stalk fiber binds to cholesterol in the gut, preventing it from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
- Reduce inflammation – The polyphenol antioxidants in rhubarb help reduce inflammation, a key risk factor for heart disease.
- Improve blood pressure – Animal studies found rhubarb extract relaxed blood vessels and increased urine output, both of which can lower high blood pressure.
- Prevent plaque formation – Test tube research indicates rhubarb can inhibit the formation of atherosclerotic plaques that cause heart attacks and strokes.
More human research is still needed, but these preliminary findings suggest rhubarb may support cardiovascular health when paired with an overall heart-healthy lifestyle.
Maintaining strong, healthy bones requires adequate intake of vitamin K and calcium. Rhubarb is high in both of these key nutrients.
One study in postmenopausal women with low bone mineral density found that taking vitamin K supplements, including vitamin K1 from plants like rhubarb, significantly improved osteocalcin levels. Osteocalcin is a protein involved in bone formation and strength.
The calcium in rhubarb combined with its vitamin K content make it an optimal food for supporting bone health as part of a balanced diet.
Potential Weight Loss Effects
Rhubarb’s potential as a weight loss aid is linked to two key factors:
- Fiber content – The fiber in rhubarb helps promote satiety and fullness, which can decrease food intake and lead to weight loss over time.
- Laxative compounds – Rhubarb’s natural laxative effects can accelerate gut motility and increase weight loss through bowel movements.
However, human research is lacking, and the laxative and diuretic effects of rhubarb may lead to temporary water weight loss more than fat loss. Still, adding rhubarb to a balanced, healthy diet may support weight management.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells and contribute to chronic inflammation in the body. Rhubarb is packed with antioxidants, including:
- Gallic acid
- Chlorogenic acid
These antioxidants neutralize free radicals and prevent them from damaging cells. By fighting inflammation and oxidative stress, rhubarb’s antioxidants may help protect against chronic diseases.
Test tube and animal research has found that rhubarb extracts may have anticancer effects for several types of cancer, including:
- Colorectal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Skin cancer
- Breast cancer
This anticancer activity is linked to rhubarb’s antioxidants as well as compounds like emodin. However, human research is limited and more studies are needed.
Side Effects and Safety
When consumed in normal food amounts, rhubarb stalks are generally considered safe with few side effects. However, there are some considerations for rhubarb use:
- Kidney stones – People prone to kidney stones should moderate oxalate-rich foods like rhubarb.
- Drug interactions – Rhubarb may interact with diuretics, laxatives, and drugs broken down by the liver.
- Poisonous leaves – Rhubarb leaves contain poisonous compounds and should not be eaten.
Pregnant women should avoid using medicinal amounts of rhubarb due to potential uterine contractions. Always talk to your healthcare provider before using rhubarb supplements for its laxative properties.
How to Add More Rhubarb to Your Diet
Here are some simple ways to enjoy more rhubarb and its potential health benefits:
- Bake rhubarb into pies, tarts, or crumbles for a sweet dessert.
- Puree rhubarb into chutneys, relishes, or preserves.
- Roast diced rhubarb with olive oil, honey, and seasonings.
- Add raw rhubarb slices to yogurt, oatmeal, salads, or cottage cheese.
- Drink rhubarb juice or puree into smoothies for a tart flavor.
- Look for rhubarb stalks at farmers markets in spring and early summer.
Rhubarb is a tart vegetable packed with fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and antioxidants. Research indicates it may benefit digestion, heart health, bone strength, and more. Rhubarb has been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and current studies suggest it may have anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and laxative effects.
While more human research is still needed, adding rhubarb stalks to your diet can provide nutrients and diversify your vegetable intake. Try baking rhubarb into desserts, adding it to yogurt or oatmeal, or using it in savory dishes for a touch of tart flavor. Pair rhubarb with foods rich in vitamin D and calcium as part of an overall bone-healthy diet.