By Rebecca Taggart
Chances are you already know that dark, leafy greens are good for you, but are you eating enough of them? With report after report detailing their exceptional health benefits, there is good reason to eat greens every day: cancer prevention, cholesterol reduction, cardiovascular health, anti-inflammatory benefits, antioxidant properties, nutrient richness, and more. And all this is packed into low-calorie, high-fiber packages that taste great.
So what are we talking about, exactly, when we say greens? There are roughly a thousand plant species with edible leaves, but the greens referred to here come mostly from two groups: the cruciferous family and the chenopod family. Cruciferous greens include kale, collard and mustard greens, arugula, bok choy, watercress, rapini, and mizuna, among others, and share or exceed the benefits of their widely consumed brethren, broccoli and cabbage. The chenopod family includes chard, spinach, beets and beet greens, and quinoa. Lettuces, which are often referred to as salad greens and almost always eaten raw, are from the aster or sunflower family, and while some lettuces share similar nutrient profiles to leafy greens, they are not our focus here.
Each leafy green has a unique nutrient profile, but all greens share some general characteristics. Leaf vegetables are typically low in calories, low in fat, high in protein per calorie, high in dietary fiber, relatively high in iron and calcium, and very high in phytochemicals (nutrients only produced by plants) such as vitamin C, carotenoids, lutein, and folate, plus magnesium and especially vitamin K. In fact, kale has the highest amount of vitamin K, which is essential for blood clotting and an important anti-inflammatory nutrient, of any leafy green, although all greens have significant quantities, as leaves manufacture it for photosynthesis.
Leafy greens’ cancer prevention benefits are especially pronounced. For example, consuming collard greens and kale has been linked to lower rates of bladder, breast, colon, prostate, and ovarian cancer; eating collards has also been linked to reductions in lung cancer. Spinach consumption is strongly linked to reductions in prostate cancer. Extensive research is ongoing into the mechanisms by which nutrients in leafy greens reduce the occurrence of so many cancers, but it’s already clear that quite a number of phytonutrients contribute to the phenomenon. Each type of green has its own unique mix, so while eating collards every day may be good for you, varying your greens is even better, to take advantage of the rich variety of beneficial nutrients.
Greens’ ability to lower cholesterol has also been researched extensively. The fiber in steamed greens is especially good at binding with bile acids, thereby lowering cholesterol in the blood. One study showed that steamed collard greens were more effective at lowering cholesterol than the prescription drug cholestyramine.
What are some ways to increase your consumption of these super-healthy vegetables? Greens are delicious as a side dish and easy to cook, steamed or sautéed and served with a slice of lemon, but they can be integrated into meals in many other ways as well. Fresh raw kale is delicious in salads, as are other chopped greens. They make great additions to soups, and work well mixed into rice dishes such as pilaf or risotto. Steamed greens are a healthy topping for baked potatoes. Bake greens with a little olive oil and salt to make yummy chips; kale may be best known for this, but beet and other greens work just as well. Toss greens into stir-fries or use them as a bed for poached eggs. The possibilities are endless.
So eat up your greens and make your grandmother proud. Your body will thank you.
Wash right before use. For greens with bigger, tougher stems, cut leaf away from spine—keep “bones” for stock.
Wrap loosely in plastic bag in crisper section of fridge. Use within three days.
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco-based writer, teacher, and yoga instructor.