Plus, expert prep tips to actually enjoy them, too.
If there's one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to healthy eating, it's this: Eat plenty of leafy green vegetables. You know the ones - kale, spinach, and arugula are some of the most popular choices in this large food family.
The trouble is that leafy greens, even with their all-star health benefits, can be a tough sell. Yep, they don't exactly have a reputation for deliciousness.
"In decades past, greens have been mistreated, overcooked, served soggy, and unseasoned," says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D.N. She's an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson and chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida. "So if it's been a while since you've tasted leafy greens, give them a fresh shot with a new recipe and an open mind."
There are many reasons to learn to love leafy greens. For one, it could help your heart. A large-scale study out of Denmark found that eating one cup a day lowered the risk of heart disease. Other recent research, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that a cup a day may help increase and maintain muscle strength.
"For older adults, leafy greens are especially important because they're packed with nutrients that help prevent common deficiencies," says Edith Yang, R.D. She's the owner of Healthy Mission Dietitian in the greater Los Angeles area. For example, they have the most vitamin K of any other food, which is essential for bone health and blood clotting.
To maximize your benefits, aim for a wide variety of these greens in your diet. Here are some standouts to try - with ideas for how to enjoy them.
Leafy Green Standout #1: Kale
Kale's reputation as a nutritional powerhouse is well earned. That said, it's not automatically superior to other nutrient-dense leafy greens. "It has a good amount of vitamins A, K, and C, but it's not quite as high in calcium or potassium as spinach, for example," says Wright.
What it does have going for it: versatility in the kitchen. “Kale can be eaten in so many interesting ways, both raw and cooked,” says Yang. Toss a handful into a soup, mix them in smoothies, bake crispy kale chips, or toss them in a salad. “If you’re eating kale raw, just give the leaves a good massage to make them more tender,” adds Yang.
Leafy Green Standout #2: Spinach
This common green is actually Yang's favorite. "It's high in iron, which is important for older adults, who are at risk for anemia," she points out. She recommends always keeping frozen spinach on hand for those inevitable times fresh veggies run out between trips to the store. "I love fresh or frozen spinach on top of a homemade pizza," she says.
Leafy Green Standout #3: Collard Greens
Collard greens are particularly rich in calcium, which supports bone health, says Wright. Though it’s just as healthy as other leafy greens, it’s often overlooked because of the way it’s traditionally prepared in the U.S., namely with pork products that are sky-high in saturated fat.
"Collard greens are just as delicious made with a low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock," Wright says. Add a pinch of smoked paprika for a layer of flavor you'd otherwise get from the pork.
Leafy Green Standout #4: Mustard Greens
They may show up less in the supermarket than many other greens, but mustard greens are worth seeking out at a farmers market or Asian market. "They are chock full of flavonoids and beta carotenoids, which help protect heart health," says Yang. She likes them best stir-fried with garlic and ginger.
Leafy Green Standout #5: Watercress
This is another green you may need to seek out at a well-stocked or specialty grocery store. Like mustard greens, there's good reason to find it at a farmers' market or plant some in your garden.
"Watercress is rich in beta carotene, which can help with night vision," says Wright. She suggests using it as a flavorful garnish for sandwiches. Its slightly spicy flavor makes it a wonderful addition to mixed greens salads as well.
Leafy Green Standout #6: Chard
"Chard is a rockstar when it comes to calcium, potassium, and iron," says Wright. It's a hearty green that most people prefer cooked instead of raw. If you spot brightly colored rainbow chard, pick up a bunch.
"The range of bright colors reflects a more diverse nutrient profile than standard chard," says Yang, who loves to fold chopped chard leaves into casseroles and pasta bakes. "It can really stand up to time in the oven," she says.
Leafy Green Standout #7: Arugula
Arugula contains compounds called glucosinolates, which may help fight cancer, according to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. It’s also very high in fiber and other antioxidants, notes Yang.
"Arugula has a bold, spicy flavor that some people absolutely love - but might be a little overwhelming on its own for others," says Wright. Yang suggests mixing it into a salad with several other more mild-tasting greens. Or use it as a pizza topping - it pairs nicely with roasted mushrooms.
Leafy Green Standout #8: Beet Greens
When beets are sold with their lush greens still attached, many people toss them into the compost or the trash. Don't do it. "People don't think about eating them but they are delicious. Plus, they're high in fiber, vitamins, magnesium, and potassium," says Yang.
They can be enjoyed raw in a salad or cooked in a variety of easy ways. "Try them in soups or pasta dishes," says Yang.
Leafy Green Standout #9: Cabbage
Cabbage is an overlooked source of vitamin C, says Yang. "Like kale, cabbage is very versatile. It's wonderful raw in slaws and salads, but it's equally good in cooked dishes, such as stuffed cabbage. You can also easily ferment it to make your own sauerkraut," she says.
Fermented foods help maintain a healthy gut microbiome. In fact, two tablespoons of sauerkraut contains many of the same probiotics as a bowl of yogurt, according to researchers at Nicholls State University.
Leafy Green Standout #10: Romaine Lettuce
Both Wright and Yang say that, as a general rule, darker colored leafy greens are more nutrient-dense than vegetables with paler leaves. Romaine, popular for its crisp texture and mild flavor, offers fewer health benefits than most others on this list. "I would give it a C-, as leafy greens go," says Wright.
Where it shines: As an inexpensive base salad green to add your other, more flavorful, greens to. It's also an easy filling for wraps and sandwiches.
Leafy Green Standout #11: Iceberg Lettuce
There's hardly a more pale green than iceberg lettuce. Yet, it isn't without merit. "It's still a good source of vitamin K," says Yang, "and its high water content can help with hydration."
Its greatest benefit is its ability to replace other, less healthy foods. For example, you can cut the leaves into triangles to use with dips instead of fried chips. "Use an iceberg lettuce leaf like a taco shell instead of a tortilla or in lieu of a hamburger bun," says Yang, a move that can help reduce calories and fat.
Greens don't have to be bland, boiled-to-death heaps on your plate. Go ahead and experiment with different types, flavors, and serving styles. Your health will certainly thank you.
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