Eating more leafy greens is a fantastic, admirable goal. But before we dive into how to actually do that, there needs to be a why. Why eat greens at all? We know they’re “good for us,” but how, exactly?
There are a million reasons why you should eat more greens. Well, maybe not a million – you don’t have time to read a million. How about four? You can handle that.
I don't know about you, but when I learn something new that affects my life, I can't just ignore it. I feel compelled to act. Kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens, spinach, arugula, and other leafy greens are powerful, healthy foods. By learning just a dab of the science behind what makes these greens so healthy, it's my hope that you, too, will feel that it's within your power to change your habits for the better.
Learning time! (Disclaimer, I know I live in Canada, but a lot of the research is from the US, because it is just easier to find, but it still has meaning to all of us, no matter where we live.)
1. Greens: Better than a Multivitamin
The Western world’s standard diet is woefully lacking in vitamins. More than 40 percent of adults are lacking in four important vitamins (A, C, K, and E).
When we miss out on these vitamins, we miss out on the all the benefits they provide. Deficiencies in any of these categories can lead to health problems. Let’s break them down.
Vitamin A is important for:
- Immune functions
- Cell growth
- Maintenance of organs including the heart and kidneys
Spinach, turnip greens, Swiss chard, and kale all carry this vitamin.
Vitamin C is important for:
- Skin health
- Immune functions
- Iron absorption
You'll find Vitamin C in leafy greens such as cabbage, kale, and spinach.
Vitamin K is important for:
- Blood clotting
- Heart health
- Healthy bones
Find this vitamin in lettuces, kale, and spinach. K? K.
Vitamin E is important for:
- Immune system function
- Blood vessel health
- Cell interactions
Vitamin E is found in many leafy greens including spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, and mustard greens.
Packing your diet with healthy greens means you’ll be getting bigger doses of the vitamins your body needs for peak performance.
2. Leafy Greens Are Packed with Minerals
Similar to your morning coffee, your body needs minerals to perform its daily functions (and keep you healthy).
There are trace minerals, which your body just needs a small amount of, like selenium, iodine, and copper. Then there are macro minerals (including calcium, magnesium, and potassium), which are needed in much larger quantities. Like vitamins, low quantities of these minerals can leave you sick and tired. Leafy greens are an excellent source of several macro minerals.
Calcium is the most prevalent mineral in the body, and we need a lot in our diet to maintain that level. Just drink milk, right? While it's is a good source of calcium, many people have problems digesting dairy products. Then there are concerns about animal treatment related to hormones, antibiotics, and food sources.
But that is a post for another day. :-)
Boost your calcium without worrying about any of that by adding more leafy greens to your diet. Kale, turnip greens, bok choy, and spinach contain a good amount of calcium.
Calcium is not just for bone health. It helps keep a whole slew of things working including blood vessels, hormones, and muscles. Long-term deficiency can lead to osteoporosis and an increased risk of bone fractures.
Many of us have heard that calcium is important, but magnesium deficiency is a silent epidemic that's affecting millions. Some estimates show that at least half of Americans aren't getting enough magnesium.
Magnesium is needed for hundreds of chemical reactions in the body. It controls blood pressure and glucose, builds proteins, and helps muscle and nerve function. We need it for healthy DNA, bone structure, and energy production. I could go on, but let's just say this mineral is pretty important.
Without enough magnesium you might lose your appetite, have nausea, or feel tired. Later stages of deficiency can produce seizures and abnormal heart rhythms. There's even some evidence that magnesium deficiency could play a role in migraines and insulin resistance (a diabetes precursor).
Magnesium may become an even bigger issue in the future as the mineral level in the soil is depleted as the result of modern agriculture. If you live in an area with less magnesium in the soil, you may need to focus on magnesium-rich foods in your diet.
The good news is one cup of spinach can get you 40 percent of the magnesium you need for the day. Swiss chard is a close second at 38 percent.
You might immediately think of bananas when you think of potassium, but leafy greens are some of the richest sources of the mineral in the diet.
Potassium helps muscles and nerves communicate, moves nutrients and waste in and out of cells, and helps offset the high level of sodium in most American diets. Low levels can trigger muscle weakness, fatigue, heart palpitations, and constipation.
Cooked beet greens, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, watercress, and endive have large amounts of potassium.
This trace mineral helps you form bones, connective tissues, and sex hormones. Though just present in small levels, your metabolism needs it to process fats and carbohydrates.
Deficiencies can lead to infertility, seizures, and weakness. Around 37 percent of Americans are not getting enough of this mineral.
Spinach is the leader for manganese-rich leafy greens with 1 cup containing 1.1 mg of the mineral.
Yes, minerals and vitamins are both available as supplements, but vegetables contain them in well-balanced, healthy proportions. You’d have to eat a lot of kale to even get close to overdosing on any of these nutrients. In supplement form, mineral and vitamin overdosing can be an issue. Then there’s the complications of when to take supplements, what to take them with, what kind to buy, and whether they’re even being absorbed. Simplify your nutrient intake with a few good helpings of leafy greens, rather than a complicated array of pills.
3. Fiber the Natural Way
Adding more leafy greens to your diet can give you a good amount of dietary fiber, which is helpful for regulating digestion, aiding bowel health, and managing weight.
Fiber is the part of the plant that your body can't digest or absorb. It tends to stick around in your digestive system longer, keeping you fuller and less likely to overeat. It can also slow the absorption of sugar, improving blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and reducing the risk of developing the disease. So drop the powdered fiber drink mix and get your fiber a more natural way.
4. Benefits Without Calories
Did I just type that? Yes it is true.
These vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in greens all come in a low-calorie package. How convenient! You can eat a spinach salad and get fantastic nutrients without impacting your waistline.
Research shows that having a dense salad with a meal reduces the overall amount of calories eaten during the meal. If you're looking to lose weight, adding a leafy green salad to your daily routine can supercharge your progress.
Five Greens to Start Eating Today
There are many more reasons to eat leafy greens that we’ll go into during the course of this blog, along with just how to go about adding more of them to your life. If you can’t wait and want to get started eating these gems right away, let’s look at five greens backed by science.
This hardy green packs dense nutrients in its curly leaves with high levels of Vitamin A, K, C, B6 and minerals including manganese, calcium, copper, potassium, and magnesium. For a food with such low calories, the benefits of kale are impressive.
Plus you can make them into chips, and healthy food is much more fun to eat in chip form.
Who doesn't love chips during the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
2. Collard greens
This traditional Southern green contains vitamin A, K, B complex, calcium, copper, and many more trace nutrients. Cooking it tempers some of the strong flavor, but don't leave it cooking too long as you'll lose some of those benefits.
3. Turnip greens
Often overlooked in favor of its root, turnip greens don't need as much cooking as some harder vegetable tops. They are a great source for vitamin K, and also carry good amounts of vitamins A and C. The greens of the turnip have more nutrients than any other tuber greens.
4. Swiss chard
A vegetable closely related to beets, Swiss chard has a bitter leaf that mellows when cooked. Vitamins A, C, E, K are found in good levels here, along with a high amount of magnesium. It comes in many forms including rainbow chard where the stems are bright pink, orange, and yellow.
Look out kale, swiss chard is hot on your heels and just might be the next big superfood.
This more familiar green is a rich source of vitamins A, C, K, and B-complex. It's one of the easiest greens to add to your diet because of its mild taste – plus it’s packed with nutrition in both raw and cooked form.
BONUS - Arugula
Known to be one of the most nitrate rich foods in the whole planet. Increasing nitric oxide levels is extremely beneficial for cardiovascular health, and the fact that your blood flow improves all over your body if your nitric oxide levels increase, means that pretty much everything in your body will operate more easily. Arugula is the most nitrate dense food on this list.
Remember that movie where the star learns he has secret powers that can be unlocked by training with the wise, old master and then the star says, “No, I’m good. I’d rather keep sitting on the couch.” You don’t because that movie would be awful. You have to act when presented the chance to better yourself. This is one of those chances.
These greens really are multivitamins in food form. Eating more dark leafy greens will add powerful nutrition to your diet.
Stay tuned to this blog for inspiration and recipes as I share more great ways to eat greens every day.
What is your favourite leafy green?