Artichokes have been enjoyed as far back as ancient Rome and Greece, even making an appearance in Greek mythology. Legend has it that Zeus spotted a beautiful girl named Cynara bathing on a beach. He instantly fell in love with her, made her a goddess and took her home with him to Mount Olympus.
But Cynara grew lonely and missed her mother, so she snuck out of Olympus to visit her family. In a fit of rage, Zeus threw Cynara from the heavens and turned her into an artichoke. The scientific name for the artichoke, Cynara scolymus, actually derives from this Greek myth.
Artichokes are one of the attractive vegetables in the produce section with thick green leaves surrounding tender hearts. Although most Americans discard the leaves and only eat the hearts, it’s the leaves that offer many of the health-boosting nutrients.
Let’s take a closer look at this nutrient-dense vegetable and explore its many health benefits in honor of National Artichoke Hearts Day on March 16.
Fights free radicals. Artichokes boast some of the highest levels of antioxidants of any vegetable, according to a 2004 study. Antioxidants fight off free radicals, which can damage cells, proteins and DNA by altering their structure and lead to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's. Quercetin and rutin, which carry protective benefits, are two of the most potent antioxidants in artichokes.
Promotes digestive health. One medium artichoke contains nearly 7 grams of fiber. That’s about a quarter of the daily recommended amount and more than a cup of prunes. Fiber helps support digestive health by keeping you regular and easing constipation. As an added benefit, fiber makes you feel full longer and reduces the urge to overeat, thus supporting a healthy weight.
Artichokes also contain cynarin, a compound that stimulates the production of bile. Bile breaks down fat from your food. You can experience digestive discomfort, such constipation and gas, when bile production is not optimal to break down fat properly.
Supports healthy cholesterol levels. Numerous studies have found that compounds in artichoke leaves help keep cholesterol levels healthy. In one double-blind study, participants were given either 1,800 mg of a dry artichoke extract or a placebo daily for six weeks. Those who had taken the extract experienced lower LDL cholesterol and an improved LDL/HDL ratio compared to the placebo. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein and is considered the bad kind of cholesterol, while HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein and is favored as the good kind. Another double-blind study found that taking 250 mg of an artichoke leaf extract twice daily helped raise HDL by an average of 10 percent after eight weeks.
Helps maintain steady blood sugar levels. The glycemic index measures and ranks foods on how they affect your blood glucose levels during the two to three hours after eating. A food with a low glycemic index value of 55 or less takes longer to digest and absorb. As a result, nutrients are absorbed gradually, which keeps blood sugar and energy levels more stable. Artichokes’ glycemic index value is only 15, making it a great option for those with blood sugar concerns.
Helps detoxify the liver. Your liver relies on bile to sweep out toxins and other invaders from the body. This is where cynarin comes in again because it increases bile production.
You can eat artichokes raw or cooked — boiled, steamed, baked and even grilled. They go great on salads or pizza. As an appetizer, they’re often dipped in a bowl of melted butter. For a healthier option, pair artichokes with a mustard or low-fat yogurt dip.
 Wu X, et al. Lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidant capacities of common foods in the United States. J Agric Food Chem. 2004 Jun 16;52(12):4026-37.
 United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. USDA Nutrient Database.
 Englisch W, et al. Efficacy of Artichoke dry extract in patients with hyperlipoproteinemia. Arzneimittelforschung. 2000 Mar;50(3):260-5.
 Rondanelli M, et al. Beneficial effects of artichoke leaf extract supplementation on increasing HDL-cholesterol in subjects with primary mild hypercholesterolaemia: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2013 Feb;64(1):7-15.