Ok, I am going to ask you a question and I want you to be honest with yourself: when was the last time you ate a cup of non-processed leafy greens? By greens, I am referring to healthy greens such as kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, beet stems, spinach, etc.
I ask this because, according to a study CDC, only 1 in 10 American adults meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations (1½ to 2 cups per day of fruit and 2 to 3 cups per day of vegetables), which is pretty disheartening considering the health benefits that accompany a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Yet, in 2015 the CDC reported that just 9 percent of adults met the intake recommendations for vegetables. 1 Results showed that consumption was lower among men, young adults, and adults living in poverty. In fact, approximately 23 million people, more than half of them low-income, live in food deserts.
What are food deserts?
According to USDA, food deserts are defined as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. 2
I share this information with you not to make you feel bad but rather to help raise awareness around this very real problem. Being able to easily access and buy the food we want/when we want it is a privilege, one we shouldn’t take for granted. (Note: I’ll be doing a separate post on the topic of food deserts and challenges individuals in low-income communities face when it comes to eating a healthier diet, etc.)
But, I digress. Wait, what was I talking about again? Oh, yes, leafy greens and why you should be adding them to your diet.
First of all, dark leafy greens will work wonders for your overall health. It doesn’t matter if you’re vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, meat-eater…everyone should be adding leafy greens to their diet…and here’s why.
5 Healthy Greens
I think when most of us hear “leafy greens” we immediately start thinking about kale. And, you’d be correct to do so. Kale is definitely one of the more impressive of the leafy greens on the market today.
Kale has a higher amount of Vitamin C than most vegetables. In fact, there is more vitamin C in a cup of chopped kale than an orange. Kale is also packed with Vitamin K — a single raw cup of kale contains almost 7 times the recommended daily amount of Vitamin K. 3
What is Vitamin K?
There are two forms of Vitamin K — K1 and K2. K1, which is the vitamin you get from eating leafy greens, is important for the regulation of blood clotting 4, bone metabolism, and regulating blood calcium levels 5. Without Vitamin K, “the body cannot produce prothrombin, a clotting factor that is necessary for blood clotting and bone metabolism.”6
Vitamin K2, found in most animal and fermented foods, helps activate proteins and is more important for bone health and for preventing cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. (You can read more about K2 here if you’re interested).
Kale is also a great source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid that’s essential for brain health, reduces Type 2 diabetes risk, and boosts heart health as well. It’s also loaded with calcium, magnesium, and contains quite a bit of potassium. 7
- Vitamin A: 206% of the Daily Value (DV) (from beta-carotene)
- Vitamin K: 684% of the DV
- Vitamin C: 134% of the DV
- Vitamin B6: 9% of the DV
- Manganese: 26% of the DV
- Calcium: 9% of the DV
- Copper: 10% of the DV
- Potassium: 9% of the DV
- Magnesium: 6% of the DV
- It also contains 3% or more of the DV for vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), iron, and phosphorus
How To Wash Greens
It’s important to note here, that according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Kale is considered one of the “dirty” greens, meaning, kale is one of the most likely crops to have residual pesticides.
“Nearly 60 percent of kale samples sold in the U.S. were contaminated with residues of a pesticide the Environmental Protection Agency considers a possible human carcinogen, according to EWG’s analysis of 2017 Department of Agriculture test data.” 8
To help mitigate your exposure to these pesticides, EWG recommends buying organic kale whenever possible. If not possible to purchase organic greens, make sure to wash the leaves extensively.
A simple way to effectively wash your product, according to a new study from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is by soaking them in a solution of baking soda and water.
Here’s a quick and easy way to wash veggies using baking soda from Food Revolution: 9
- Fill a salad spinner with greens, then fill with water.
- Add a teaspoon of baking soda and mix well.
- Soak your greens for a minute, swish, dump, then rinse, and spin dry.
- If you don’t have a salad spinner, you can add the greens, water, and baking soda to a bowl, let them soak, drain in a strainer, rinse, then pat leaves dry with a clean lint-free kitchen towel or paper towels.
I love Swiss chard. I will often just sauté the leaves/stems with a bit of olive oil and garlic and add a dash of salt and pepper. Super simple and tasty!
Similar to kale, one cup of Swiss chard will help fulfill your daily intake of Vitamin K and A. It has a bit less Vitamin C than kale but overall this is another leafy green you should be adding to your diet.
This leafy green is also high in fiber and antioxidants, which may improve blood sugar control and lower your risk of diabetes. Plus, as most of the leafy greens on this list, it’s a good source of calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc, and vitamin E. 10
- Calories: 35
- Protein: 3.3 grams
- Carbs: 7 grams
- Fiber: 3.7 grams (about 15% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI))
- Vitamin A: 214% of the RDI
- Vitamin C: 53% of the RDI
- Vitamin E: 17% of the RDI
- Vitamin K: 716% of the RDI
- Calcium: 10% of the RDI
- Copper: 14% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 38% of the RDI
- Manganese: 29% of the RDI
- Iron: 22% of the RDI
- Potassium: 27% of the RDI
Tip: Leafy greens such as Swiss chard, collard greens, and spinach contain high levels of oxalate, a mineral which decreases the body’s absorption of calcium and can lead to kidney stones.11 So, if you’re prone to kidney stones, according to the Cleveland Clinic, you might want to limit foods with high levels of oxalate, such as spinach, collard greens, beets, etc. You can get more info here and, if this something you’re concerned with, please make sure to talk to your doctor about it.
Collard greens have never been a part of my regular diet for me. Not because I don’t like them, just because I’ve never really cooked with them before. But after reading about the health benefits of collard greens, well you can bet I’ll be adding these plants to my diet!
Collard greens are a great source of calcium and vitamins A, B9 (folate) and C. Similar to kale, these greens are packed with Vitamin K, one cup (190 grams) of cooked collard greens packs 1,045% of the DV for vitamin K. 12
Collard greens are a cruciferous vegetable (same as kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and turnips). These vegetables, according to the National Cancer Institute, contain a group of substances known as glucosinolates, which are sulfur-containing chemicals. 13
“During food preparation, chewing, and digestion, the glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables are broken down to form biologically active compounds such as indoles, nitriles, thiocyanates, and isothiocyanates (1). Indole-3-carbinol (an indole) and sulforaphane (an isothiocyanate) have been most frequently examined for their anticancer effects.” 14 You can read more about it here.
- Protein: 4 grams
- Carbs: 9.3 grams
- Fiber: 5.3 grams
- Vitamin A: 308% of the RDI
- Vitamin C: 58% of the RDI
- Vitamin E: 8% of the RDI
- Vitamin K: 1045% of the RDI
- Folate: 44% of the RDI
- Iron: 12% of RDI
- Calcium: 27% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 10% of the RDI
- Manganese: 41% of the RDI
- Potassium: 6% of the RDI
Spinach is probably the most popular and commonly eaten leafy green of the bunch. That being said, this is definitely not a green you want to ignore.
Spinach is packed with folate, Vitamin K and A, and magnesium, which is “necessary for energy metabolism, maintaining muscle and nerve function, regular heart rhythm, a healthy immune system, and maintaining blood pressure.” 15
Let’s talk about folate for a minute.
Also, known as B9, folate, according to the National Institute of Health, is needed to “make DNA and other genetic material. Your body also needs folate for your cells to divide.” You might be familiar with this vitamin if you’re thinking about getting pregnant/are pregnant as this vitamin plays an essential role in pregnancy helping to prevent certain birth defects. 16
Folate vs. Folic Acid?
When folate comes directly from a food source, such as leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, etc., it is known as folate. Folic acid refers to the oxidized synthetic compound used in dietary supplements and food fortification. 17(You can read more about it here).
- Protein: 5.3 grams
- Carbs: 24.4 grams
- Fiber: 4.3 grams
- Vitamin A: 377% of the RDI
- Vitamin C: 29% of the RDI
- Vitamin E: 19% of the RDI
- Vitamin K: 1111% of the RDI
- Folate: 66% of the RDI
- Iron: 36% of RDI
- Calcium: 24% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 39% of the RDI
- Manganese: 84% of the RDI
- Potassium: 24% of the RDI
1) Due to its high levels of oxalate, which as I mentioned above, minimizes iron absorption, you might want to consider cooking/wilting spinach as this will make it easier for your body to absorb more iron.
2) To further help absorb iron, you might want to consider pairing it with Vitamin C-rich foods such as kale, red bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, etc. Vitamin C enhances non-heme iron absorption, helping your body absorb a little more. 18
I think I’ve regarded dandelions as annoying weeds for as long as I can remember. But here’s the thing, dandelions are actually highly nutritious. These “weeds” are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Just a fair warning, dandelion greens can taste quite bitter. This is in part due to the chemical compounds, glucosinolates (aka the “anti-cancer” fighting compound that I mentioned above) but also why you should consider adding these greens to your diet.
Similar to the other greens listed here, dandelions are high in Vitamin K, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and plant-based calcium.
And, if that’s not enough to convince you, dandelions contain a high level of antioxidants.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are molecules that help neutralize or prevent the negative effects of free radicals in your body. 20Free radicals are substances that attack healthy cells, 21 they can be either man-made or naturally occurring (e.g. environmental toxins like tobacco, alcohol, and pollution as well as substances found in processed food, etc.) 22
“When healthy cells are weakened by free-radicals, they are more susceptible to cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancers. Antioxidants — such as vitamins C and E and carotenoids, which include beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, help protect healthy cells from damage caused by free radicals.” 23Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics/efn_note]
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, it has been found that foods high in antioxidants may be “effective in helping prevent certain cancers and may help decrease your risk of macular degeneration.” Dandelions are a rich source of beta-carotene and polyphenolic compounds, both of which are known to have strong antioxidant capabilities that can prevent aging and certain diseases.
- Protein: 1.5 grams
- Fiber: 1.9 grams
- Vitamin A: 112% of the RDI
- Vitamin C: 32% of the RDI
- Vitamin B6: 7% of RDI
- Vitamin K: 535% of the RDI
- Folate: 4% of the RDI
- Iron: 9% of the RDI
- Calcium: 10% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 5% of the RDI
- Manganese: 9% of the RDI
- Potassium: 6% of the RDI
All in all, while there is obviously no magic pill against aging or sickness (some things are just out of our control, what can I say?) adding leafy greens to your diet can only be beneficial to your health and overall well being.
Add variety of healthy greens to your diet
The best way to get the most benefits out of these leafy greens is to mix and match. Don’t just eat kale week after week, like I used to. Get adventurous! Add dandelion and micro-greens to your salads, throw in a handful of kale and spinach to your morning smoothies, try cooking with seaweed or if you’re not sure where to start, just steam your greens. I’ll keep sharing some of my favorite “leafy green” recipes with you but in the meantime, here’s a list of 10 additional leafy greens you might consider adding to your diet.
Where can I find these healthy greens?
I’ve been able to find the more common greens (kale, spinach, cabbage, arugula, etc.) at the following:
And, while you might have to look a bit harder for some of the more “unique” greens such as dandelions, mustard greens, mache, etc. they’re not impossible to find.
A few stores that usually carry these greens:
- Whole Foods
- Trader Joe’s
- Local Food Co-Ops:
- Mom’s Organic
Other posts you might enjoy:
- Center for Nutrition Studies
- National Cancer Institute
- National Cancer Institute
- Medical News Today
- National Institute of Health
- Chris Kresser
- The role of Vitamin C in Iron absorption
- Food Facts powered by Mercola
- Health Line
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics