Pretty much anyone who’s ever read a book about nutrition has come across the term “leafy green vegetables.” You might even be tired of hearing the term so much, but there’s many good reasons for why it comes up in almost every conversation about nutrition and health. Here’s a quick rundown of what a leafy green vegetable is, why it matters, and how to add more to your menu.
Leafy greens are an essential part of a healthy diet, not only because they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber but also because they contain many phytochemicals vital to good health. The nutrients and other chemical substances found in plants reduce the risk of a myriad of health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and the vision and cognitive problems associated with aging. A diet rich in plants may also decrease the risk of certain cancers. If you still need another reason to dig into some of these vegetables, consider that they have a very high Antidepressant Food Score, a nutrient profiling system created to inform dietary recommendations concerning mental health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), powerhouse fruits and vegetables are most strongly associated with reduced chronic disease risk. These foods provide, on average, 10% or more of 17 qualifying nutrients (potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K). Powerhouse fruits and vegetables include green leafy vegetables, yellow/orange vegetables and fruits, citrus fruits, and cruciferous vegetables. Leafy green vegetables that are designated as powerhouses include (in order of nutrient density scores from highest to lowest): watercress, Chinese cabbage, chard, beet greens, spinach, chicory, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, endive, kale, dandelion greens, arugula, and cabbage.
What nutrients are abundant in leafy green vegetables?
|Folate (vitamin B9)||Synthesis and repair of DNA|
Formation of red and white blood cells in bone marrow
|Iron||Red blood cell function|
Activity of myoglobin (oxygen reservoir within muscle)
Blood and respiratory transport of oxygen and carbon dioxide
Cellular respiration and energy production
|Magnesium||Cofactor for more than 300 enzymes involved in the metabolism of food, synthesis of fatty acids and proteins, and other essential metabolic functions|
Associated with higher bone density
Learning and memory
Neuromuscular transmission and activity (working with calcium)
|Manganese||Formation of connective and skeletal tissues|
Growth and reproduction
Proper metabolism of amino acids, proteins, and lipids
Catalyzes detoxification of free radicals
May protect against some types of cancer
|Potassium||Maintenance of normal water balance and acid-base balance|
Regulation of neuromuscular activity
Promotes cellular growth
|Vitamin A||Normal cell differentiation|
Growth and development
|Vitamin C||Antioxidant – protecting the body against oxidative stress|
Deficiency leads to immune issues
Proper lung function, especially in asthma
Synthesis of collagen and carnitine
Improves iron absorption
|Vitamin E||Antioxidant – protecting the body against oxidative stress|
|Vitamin K||Bone health|
Prevention of heart disease
Regulation of inflammation
What other beneficial compounds are in leafy green vegetables?
- Kaempferol – may slow cognitive decline with aging and decrease cancer risk
- Lutein – protects the eyes from oxidation and may reduce the risk of certain cancers (colon, breast, lung, and skin)
- Nitrates – lowers blood pressure; prevent heart disease, stroke, and pulmonary hypertension, and potentially alleviate gastric ulcers
- Organosulfuric compounds – may fight cancer cell growth and might help treat arthritic joints
- Prebiotics – improves gastrointestinal health and immune function
I’m sick of the same old salads. How else can I add these vegetables to my meals?
- Grilled Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches (with arugula)
- Halibut with Roasted Beets, Beet Greens, and Orange Gremolata
- Chinese Style Stove-Top Pot Roast with Noodles (with bok choy)
- Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
- Mac and Cheese with Collards
- Sauteed Endive with Balsamic Butter
- Kale Pesto with Whole Wheat Pasta
- Simple Southern Mustard Greens with Bacon
- Chickpea Meatballs with Crunchy Romaine Salad
- Spinach Burritos
- Lentil Smothered Greens on Fried Bread (with spinach, Swiss chard, or kale)
- Skillet Chicken Breast with Beans and Greens (with turnip greens)
- Mushroom, Parmesan, and Watercress Omelet
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, children and adults on a 2,000 calorie diet should consume 1 ½ cups of dark green leafy vegetables each week. Only 20% of people over the age of one meet the dietary goal for dark green vegetables. Some good advice stands the test of time – eat your vegetables!
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