Being bombarded with information about food and how food affects the body makes it hard to differentiate between the good and the bad when it comes to both your waistline and your health. The flip-flop phenomenon (when a food goes from a superfood to the devil) makes the right dietary decisions seem complicated. There are, however, plenty of foods that are rarely ensnared in these types of food debates. There is no disputing that dark leafy greens are both the food most missing in our modern diet and, calorie for calorie, the most concentrated source of nutrition in any food. In fact, in my food pyramid, dark leafy greens are their own food group!
Dark leafy greens, a subgroup of the vegetable category, are identified by shared nutritional characteristics rather than botanical classification or culinary use. As a group, dark leafy greens are a rich source of essential minerals, vitamins, and disease-fighting phytonutrients, and are one of the primary foods to add to your daily diet that categorically improve health. With all these impressive characteristics, it is impossible to ignore the need to fill your diet with dark leafy greens.
Potential ways to incorporate dark leafy greens into your diet are endless. An easy addition to meals, dark leafy greens can be eaten as a side, as part of a main dish, or even as part of a juice; with a quick cook time, they’re convenient, too! Start by understanding the nutritional value of dark leafy greens and how to easily prepare them to incorporate into your diet.
Of the four primary vitamins (K, C, E, and B) the star in leafy greens is arguably vitamin K. Vitamin K regulates blood clotting, protects the bones from osteoporosis, regulates inflammation, and prevents diabetes. Luckily, a cup of most cooked greens provides nine times the minimum recommended intake of vitamin K.
Calcium, potassium, and magnesium—dominant minerals in dark leafy greens—are used by nearly every organ in the body.
Dark leafy greens contain fiber (a great digestive aid) and small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, crucial players in optimal brain function.
The phytonutrients in dark leafy greens—beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin—protect our cells from damage and our eyes from age-related problems. The power of all these minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients amounts to protection against chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer; strengthens cognitive health; and fights inflammation and anything that threatens your immune system.
Dark leafy lettuce greens include arugula, butterhead, green leaf, and romaine. Make these nutrient-dense leaves the base of any raw salad.
Cruciferous Leafy Greens
Bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, napa, and green cabbage are cruciferous dark leafy greens. Eat raw, steam separately, sauté along with other vegetables, or add them to soups or casseroles.
Spinach and Swiss Chard
Spinach and Swiss chard belong to a family of leaves called Amaranthaceae. Similar in taste and nutritional value, these leaves can be included in your raw salads, or steam and sauté them with your favorite spice blend.
Edible Green Leaves
Dandelion, red clover, plantain, watercress, and chickweed are edible dark green leaves. Add these greens to raw salads, stir-fries, or soups.
- Increase your daily green consumption. Aim to incorporate two to three servings of dark leafy greens into your diet. Start by measuring about 3 cups of leafy greens each day or use your own hands as a way to measure your leafy green consumption. Tightly close your hands into fists and bring them together. The size of your two fists together is approximately the amount of greens you need to eat each day.
- Be creative. Salads are not the only way to add greens to your life. Try adding a handful of greens to a fruit smoothie, an omelet, a soup, or a stir-fry. With a barely there change in taste, you are adding a whole lot of health.
- Prioritize your greens. While all dark leafy greens have health benefits, start with a focus on the power greens: kale, collards, Swiss chard, turnip greens, and spinach.