Spinach, carrots, broccoli, red cabbage, kale…your daily meals might be filled with a wide variety of vegetables. But there might be one leafy green you’re overlooking: kelp! This vegetable of the sea contains plenty of nutrients, so much so that it’s available as kelp supplements. But what exactly is it and should you be loading up on it?
Sea Kelp Basics
Sea kelp is a brown algae seaweed that grows in coastal waters. It typically has flat, leaf-life structures that grow really fast—as much as half a meter a day—creating kelp forests. It’s long been a mainstay in East Asian diets (its seaweed cousin is used to wrap your favorite sushi). It’s components are used in soap and glass production, as well as for thickening products like yogurt, ice cream, and toothpaste. Owing to its nutritional content, it’s now sold in powder and supplement form, and even as beauty products.
As it grows in seawater, kelp has some nutrients that make it unique from land vegetables. It contains Vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D, and E and is a rich source of magnesium, iodine, iron, potassium, and antioxidants. Amazingly, it contains 10 times more calcium than milk! It also has an element called fucoidan, which gives kelp its possible cancer-fighting properties. (More on that later.)
Given this unique set of nutrients, kelp has a number of health benefits:
It may aid in weight loss. Scientists have looked into the use of kelp for weight loss. Based on preliminary findings of a study at the University of Newcastle, kelp contains alginates that block fat absorption by as much as 75%. Additionally, kelp is a good source of fiber, which keeps you feeling full for longer, delaying hunger and potentially help keep the pounds off.
It may reduce blood sugar levels. A study of 60 Japanese patients showed that those who took fucoxanthin, a compound found in kelp, had lower blood sugar levels than those who took a placebo. This shows a lot of promise for diabetes patients, who suffer from an imbalance in their blood sugar level.
It may help regulate your thyroid. Our bodies don’t naturally produce iodine, which is important for thyroid regulation, so you should be getting it from food sources. Do take note that you’re likely already getting enough iodine from a modern-day diet so you shouldn’t be overdosing on kelp—too much iodine can also be problematic, leading to health problems like hyperthyroidism. If you do suspect that you’re deficient in the mineral, talk to your doctor about the best treatment.
It may fight cancer. As mentioned earlier, kelp contains fucoidan, which may kill off cancerous cells. It’s also high in lignan, a plant substance that essentially blocks chemical estrogens that may lead to breast cancer. A 2013 study suggests that kelp might be a factor in the lower rates of breast cancer in Japan. More studies need to be conducted but it’s a promising area in cancer research.
It may have anti-aging properties. Its free radical-fighting properties means that it can slow down aging. While kelp face masks aren’t as sexy or as Instagrammable as those trendy gold face masks, their nutrient content can leave your skin looking bright and feeling smooth and dewy.
It may give you healthier hair. There are plenty of anecdotes saying sea kelp is great for hair growth, but no studies support this so far. However, kelp does contain nutrients that help strengthen hair, so perhaps a sea kelp shampoo can help prevent hair loss due to breakage and damage.
You can eat kelp as a salad or toss it into a soup or stew. You can also sprinkle dried kelp over your food. Just keep in mind that it’s best to eat kelp as part of a balanced diet with other vegetables and nutrient-dense whole foods.
What kelp has going for it is also the reason you should have it in moderation: Its high concentrations of certain nutrients. While iodine, for example, is good for you, too much of it can lead to health problems. Some kelp may also be grown in and harvested from polluted waters, which means they may absorb toxic heavy metals. As such, kelp isn’t recommended for children, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or those with liver or kidney problems. Should you be taking a kelp supplement, consult with your doctor and make sure your supplement comes from a trusted source.