In addition to increasing physical activity and reducing calorie consumption, the new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans makes recommendations for foods and nutrients that should be increased. It should come as no surprise that fruits & vegetables topped that list. In particular, the USDA notes that Americans should consume more dark leafy green vegetables. With all things green in the month of March, there’s no better time to take a look at the health-promoting effects of these nutrition all-stars.
Dark Greens are Nutritious & Filling
Like most vegetables, leafy greens are a fat-free, cholesterol free addition to your plate. They are also very low in carbohydrates and calories, with most varieties accounting for less than 25 calories per serving. More importantly, each serving of greens is loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are excellent sources of vitamins A, C, E and K, calcium, potassium, iron, folate and fiber.
Dark Greens are Carotenoid Powerhouses
Leaf vegetables are also rich in pro-vitamin carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. According to the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), the antioxidant activity of these particular carotenoids can protect against cancers of the mouth and throat. Additionally, these same carotenoids have been shown to inhibit the growth of breast, skin, stomach and lung cancer cells.
Aside from the anti-cancer properties, the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin are particularly important for eye health. The risk for developing age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and blindness can be greatly reduced by consuming a diet rich in dark, leafy greens. In fact, according to a study performed by researchers at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, individuals who ate the most leaf vegetables had a 46 percent lower risk of developing macular degeneration than those who ate the least amount.
Dark Greens Support Women’s Health
Consuming adequate quantities of leafy greens is especially important for women. Most varieties are an excellent source of folate, meaning that they provide at least 10% of the Daily Value (or 40 mcg). This important B-vitamin is essential for cell reproduction and protects against birth defects like spina bifida and anencephaly.
Women should also note that greens are a good source of the nutrients that provide bone support. Greens are a good source of vitamin K, the building block for the protein osteocalcin and a regulator of bone demineralization. Along with vitamin K, greens provide ample amounts of calcium, magnesium and potassium. Young women can improve bone density and middle-aged women can decrease their risk of hip fracture by 45 percent just by consuming one or more servings of leaf vegetables per day.
Adding Dark Greens to Your Diet
If you’re not accustomed to eating dark green vegetables every day, you don’t have to go to extremes. The benefits of these antioxidant powerhouses can be observed even with minimal intake. Studies have shown that consuming just one additional serving of greens per day can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 11 percent. Similarly, the same incremental increase of daily greens can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 9 percent – a benefit that can be attributed to a low glycemic index and high magnesium content.
When selecting greens for everyday meals, consider purchasing organic. Since leaves are sprayed directly with pesticides, it can be difficult or impossible to effectively remove toxic residue. Either way, to clean your greens, remove any tough stems and submerge leaves in a bowl of clean, cold water 2 to 3 times, or until all debris is removed. Use a clean, dry towel to pat dry. For salads, tear leaves into palm size pieces or chop into 1-2” strips for sautéing or stir-frying. And since one serving size is only a mere half cup cooked, or one cup raw, including a full serving at every meal is easy.
7 Dark Greens to Add this Week
With all the health benefits associated with dark greens, it makes sense to start adding them to your diet today. Here's a list of the top seven dark green veggies that you can easily incorporate into soups, stews and salads. Along with identifying the key vitamins and minerals each provides, we've provided a few recipes to help you get started.
Arugula - Arugula is member of the cruciferous vegetable family, meaning that it offers the same anti-cancer benefits as broccoli, collards, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Arugula is most nutritious when served raw, although most of the nutrients can be preserved when lightly cooked. Arugula is describes as having a peppery or spicy flavor and is best when used as a salad green. With only 4 calories per cup, arugula can be added liberally to every meal. Arugula is an excellent source of vitamin K.
Recipe Ideas: Our Arugula Salad with Strawberries pairs the spicy flavor of the greens with the sweetness of the fruit. Orange Salad with Arugula and Oil-Cured Olives is another arugula-fruit combination but no need to add the extra kosher salt in the dressing or salad. Pan-Seared Shrimp and Arugula Risotto is a nice combination however use olive oil instead of butter and low-sodium chicken stock. Arugula Salad with Chicken and Apricots makes a nice main dish.
Chard - A type of beet, chard is harvested not only for its leaves but also for the fleshy stalk, also called the ribs. While the leaves are dark green, the leafstalk may be brightly colored. The more popular Swiss chard has a white leafstalk while other varieties, like Red and Rainbow, come in a range of yellows, pinks and reds. Chard has a sweet and slightly bitter taste that mellows with cooking, although young leaves can be added to salads. Interestingly, the leafstalks can be cut and cooked in the same way as asparagus or celery. Chard can easily be added to soups. Kale and chard are often substituted in recipes. Chard is an excellent source of the carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin,vitamin C and vitamin K.
Recipe Ideas: Experiment with our White Bean Kale Soup using chard instead of kale. As a side-dish, serve Swiss Chard with Chickpeas and Couscous. When you want to splurge a bit, try the Rainbow Chard with Pine Nuts and Feta.
Collard Greens - A cruciferous vegetable, collard greens belong to the same family as kale, broccoli and cabbage. Although these greens are notorious for being the sidekick to more unhealthy southern fare, collard greens can offer a surprising nutrient boost to any meal. In fact, steamed collards have more cholesterol-fighting compounds than any other leafy green and contain compounds that can reduce the risk of cancer by providing antioxidants, helping to detoxify the body and providing anti-inflammatory benefits. Collards have a mild flavor but can become bitter and emit an odor of sulfur if cooked too long. Collards are an excellent source of the carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin C and vitamin K. This dark green veggie is a good source of folate.
Recipe Ideas: Most collard green recipes are loaded with bacon and other ingredients that negate any health benefit from this vegetable. Cajun Black Eyed Peas and Greens is a great combination that keeps things a bit more healthy.
Kale - A descendant of cabbage, kale’s signature curly leaves come in a wide variety of colors (from white to deep blue-green and purple) and are best served cooked. Whether you choose Curly, Ornamental, or Dinosaur, kale leaves have a mellow peppery flavor that take a bit longer to cook than most other greens, making it ideal for soups and pastas. Aside from being one of the most nutritious vegetables available (on a fresh weight basis), kale also contains quercetin, a natural anti-inflammatory compound. Kale is an excellent source of the carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin C, vitamin K and manganese. This dark green veggie is a good source of calcium, potassium and copper.
Recipe Ideas: Boost the nutritional content of a salad by using kale. Just blanch (blanching removes any bitter taste) by adding cleaned kale leaves to boiling water, cook for 2 minutes then dunk into bowl with ice cold water (stops the cooking process) and cut into shreds. Toss with other lettuces or create a Tuscan Salad using kale, fennel, radish and serve with our Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing.
Mustard Greens - Mustard greens, the leaves of the mustard plant, have a strong peppery flavor with leaves ranging in color from bright green to deep purple. Like other members of the cruciferous family, mustard greens contain cholesterol-lowering, anti-cancer, detoxifying and anti-inflammatory properties. Mustard greens are also an excellent source of folate, making this green especially important for women. When shopping for mustard greens, keep your eye out for Mizuna, as this is a common variety of mustard greens found in grocery stores. Mustard greens are an excellent source of the carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin,vitamin C, vitamin K and folate. This dark green veggie is a good source of manganese.
Recipe Ideas: Balsamic Glazed Chickpeas with Mustard Greens is a great combination that provides plenty of protein, fiber and potassium with virtually no fat. Just be sure to take it easy on the soy sauce and use a low-sodium version of this condiment along with the vegetable broth. Vidalia Mustard Greens slow cooks the sweet onion with the strong peppery flavor of the mustard greens.
Romaine Lettuce - This well-known salad green is one of the most heart-friendly of the dark leafy greens. An excellent source of vitamin C, beta-carotene, fiber and folate, romaine lettuce only contains 8 calories per cup. Best when served raw, romaine is generally used as a salad green or sandwich topper and is one of the most available lettuces in the market. Romaine lettuce is an excellent source of the carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin C, vitamin K and folate.
Recipe Ideas: For a refreshing salad, try Cilantro-Lime Romaine Salad.
Spinach - As one of the most popular dark leafy vegetables, spinach can be consumed raw or cooked. However, some of the nutrients – like calcium, iron, beta-carotene and lutein – are better absorbed in the body when lightly steamed or blanched. Because of its mild flavor, spinach is a great substitute for iceberg lettuce in salads and sandwiches and is easy to add to many other recipes. Spinach is an excellent source of the carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin and vitamin K. This dark green veggie is a good source of vitamin C, folic acid and manganese.
Recipe Ideas: Try our simple Sautéed Spinach that is prepared with garlic, lemon and olive oil that takes just minutes to cook. Or try Spinach Grape Chopped Salad which is a nice combination lightly dusted with feta cheese.