Dark green leafy vegetables are, calorie for calorie, probably the most concentrated source of nutrition of any food. They are a rich source of minerals (including iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium) and vitamins, including vitamins K, C, E, and many of the B vitamins. They also provide a variety of phytonutrients including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which protect our cells from damage and our eyes from age-related problems, among many other effects. Dark green leaves even contain small amounts of Omega-3 fats.
The most prominent health benefit of greens comes from its ultra high vitamin K content, which can regulate blood clotting, reduce the build up of calcium deposits in the arteries, prevents diabetes and keeps bones strong against osteoporosis.
Both turnip and mustard greens have in excess of 500% of your daily recommended value of vitamin K. Many people seek out the health benefits of greens due to the high amounts of vitamins C, A, E as well as minerals like manganese. These are all powerful antioxidants that can help reduce our risk of different types of cancer and chronic illnesses that can make fat burning difficult.
Because leafy greens have so many vitamins and minerals concentrated in such a small amount, there are many health benefits of greens that include a reduced risk of heart disease. Again the mega amounts of vitamin K are responsible for the anti-inflammatory properties of greens, which include decreasing swelling in and around the heart.
TYPES OF GREENS:
• Arugula: Arugula (also known as rucola and rocket) is a cruciferous and leafy green vegetable with a peppery taste and is often used in salads. It is a good source of potassium, a mineral involved in managing blood pressure and preventing osteoporosis. Arugula may help boost memory due to phytochemicals — antioxidants found in all cruciferous vegetables. Like other salad greens, arugula is very low in calories, which makes it a great addition to any weight-loss plan.
• Kale: This nutrition powerhouse “offers everything you want in a leafy green,” says Nussinow, who gave it her first-place ranking. It’s an excellent source of vitamins A C, and K, has a good amount of calcium for a vegetable, and also supplies folate and potassium. Kale’s ruffle-edged leaves may range in color from cream to purple to black depending on the variety.
Before cooking with kale, collards, turnips, and chard, swish the greens in a water-filled sink, draining the sink, then repeating this rinse until the leaves are dirt-free. One cooking method for these four greens is to rub the leaves in olive oil or tahini (sesame paste) and cook them for five minutes with garlic, olive oil, and broth.
• Endive: Endive is a bitter leafy vegetable that is often used in salads or eaten as a side dish. There are multiple varieties of endive, including Belgian endive, escarole, and curly endive (frisée). Like other greens, endive is very low in calories, which makes it a great addition to any weight-loss plan. Endive is a good source of potassium, a mineral involved in managing blood pressure and preventing osteoporosis. It is also a potent source of vitamin K, which may prevent bone fractures.
• Escarole: Escarole is a leafy green vegetable that can be used in salads or eaten as a side dish. Like other salad greens, escarole is very low in calories, which makes it a great addition to any weight-loss plan. Escarole is a good source of potassium, a mineral involved in managing blood pressure and preventing osteoporosis. It is also a very good source of vitamin K, which may prevent bone fractures.
• Collards: Used in Southern-style cooking, collard greens are similar in nutrition to kale. But they have a heartier and chewier texture and a stronger cabbage-like taste. They are popular with the raw food movement because the wide leaves are used as a wrapper instead of tortillas or bread. Down South, collards are typically slow cooked with either a ham hock or smoked turkey leg. A half cup has 25 calories.
• Turnip greens: Turnip leaves are another Southern favorite traditionally made with pork. More tender than other greens and needing less cooking, this sharp-flavored leaf is low in calories yet loaded with vitamins A,C, and K as well as calcium.
• Swiss chard: With red stems, stalks, and veins on its leaves, Swiss chard has a beet-like taste and soft texture that’s perfect for sauteeing. Both Swiss chard and spinach contain oxalates, which are slightly reduced by cooking and can bind to calcium, a concern for people prone to kidney stones. Chard contains 15 calories in one-half cup and is a good source of vitamins A & C.
• Spinach: This vegetable has only 20 calories per serving, plus it’s packed with vitamins A and C, as well as folate. And because heat reduces the green’s oxalate content, freeing up its dietary calcium, cooked spinach gives you more nutrition than raw. Spinach leaves can be cooked quickly in the water that remains on them after rinsing, or they can be eaten raw in salads. Bags of frozen chopped spinach are more convenient to use than block kinds, and this mild-flavored vegetable can be added to soups, pasta dishes, and casseroles.
• Mustard greens: Another Southern green with a similar nutrition profile to turnip leaves and collards, mustard greens have scalloped edges and come in red and green varieties. They have a peppery taste and give off a mustardy smell during cooking. Their spiciness can be toned down by adding an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, toward the end of cooking. Cooked mustard greens have 10 calories in one-half cup.
• Broccoli: With 25 calories a serving, broccoli is rich in vitamin C and is also a good source of vitamin A, potassium, and folate. Americans eat about 6 pounds of it a year. Its stalks and florets add both crunch and color to stir-fries. While some kids may call this veggie “trees,” they often like it best raw or steamed with a yogurt-based dip. Try mixing fresh broccoli into your favorite whole wheat/whole grain pasta during the last three minutes of cooking so both are ready at the same time.
• Red and Green Leaf and Romaine Lettuce: A familiar sight in salad bowls, these lettuces are high in vitamin A and offer some folate. Leaf lettuces have a softer texture than romaine, a crunchy variety used in Caesar salads. Fans of Iceberg lettuce may go for romaine, a crispy green that’s better for you. The darker the lettuce leaf, the more nutrition it has, making red leaf slightly healthier than green. If you don’t drown lettuce in a creamy dressing, one cup contains 10 calories.
• Cabbage: Although paler in color than other leafy greens, this cruciferous vegetable is a great source of cancer-fighting compounds and vitamin. Available in red and green varieties, cabbage can be cooked, added raw to salads or stir fries, shredded into a slaw, or made into sauerkraut. One-half cup cooked has 15 calories.
• Watercress: Watercress is a leafy green vegetable with a peppery flavor and is often added to salads or used on top of sandwiches. It is a good source of beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that may prevent and manage arthritis, cataracts, and macular degeneration, as well as maintain healthy hair and skin. Watercress is also a good source of vitamin K, which may prevent bone fractures.
QUICK TIP: As a general rule, you should aim to eat at least five servings of vegetables daily (that’s about 2 1/2 cups of cooked vegetables), and that includes leafy greens. As long as they’re prepared in a healthy way, leafy greens, like other nonstarchy vegetables, are a great addition to your diet and offer countless health benefits.
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Eric and Maleka Beal are health coaches and co-founders of BetterChoices, a health & wellness company and social community focused on educating, advocating, and promoting better health and wellness through lifestyle, nutrition, and fitness education.