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.
Why We Need Leafy Greens
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 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.
Nutrients in Leafy Greens
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.
|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 and decrease cancer risk
- Lutein – protects the eyes from oxidation and may reduce the risk of certain cancers (colon, breast, lung, and skin)
- Nitrates – lower blood pressure; prevent heart disease, stroke, and pulmonary hypertension, and potentially alleviate gastric ulcers
- Organosulfuric compounds – may fight cancer cell growth and 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 leafy green 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!
Aune D, Giovannucci E, Boffetta P, Fadnes LT, Keum N, Norat T, Greenwood DC, Riboli E, Vatten LJ, Tonstad S. Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality-a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Int J Epidemiol. 2017 Jun 1;46(3):1029-1056. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyw319. PMID: 28338764; PMCID: PMC5837313.
Chen AY, Chen YC. A review of the dietary flavonoid, kaempferol on human health and cancer chemoprevention. Food Chem. 2013 Jun 15;138(4):2099-107. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2012.11.139. Epub 2012 Dec 28. PMID: 23497863; PMCID: PMC3601579.
Di Noia J. Defining powerhouse fruits and vegetables: a nutrient density approach. Prev Chronic Dis. 2014 Jun 5;11:E95. doi: 10.5888/pcd11.130390. PMID: 24901795; PMCID: PMC4049200.
Freeman AM, Morris PB, Barnard N, Esselstyn CB, Ros E, Agatston A, Devries S, O’Keefe J, Miller M, Ornish D, Williams K, Kris-Etherton P. Trending cardiovascular nutrition controversies. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017 Mar 7;69(9):1172-1187. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2016.10.086. Erratum in: J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017 Apr 18;69(15):1997. PMID: 28254181.
LaChance LR, Ramsey D. Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World J Psychiatry. 2018 Sep 20;8(3):97-104. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v8.i3.97. PMID: 30254980; PMCID: PMC6147775.
Ma L, Hu L, Feng X, Wang S. Nitrate and nitrite in health and disease. Aging Dis. 2018 Oct 1;9(5):938-945. doi: 10.14336/AD.2017.1207. PMID: 30271668; PMCID: PMC6147587.
Mares J. Lutein and zeaxanthin isomers in eye health and disease. Annu Rev Nutr. 2016 Jul 17;36:571-602. doi: 10.1146/annurev-nutr-071715-051110. PMID: 27431371; PMCID: PMC5611842.
Morris MC, Wang Y, Barnes LL, Bennett DA, Dawson-Hughes B, Booth SL. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study. Neurology. 2018 Jan 16;90(3):e214-e222. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815. Epub 2017 Dec 20. PMID: 29263222; PMCID: PMC5772164.