Most Americans dont eat enough if any dark, leafy greens except for lettuce (iceberg doesnt count) and spinach.
But leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses full of vitamins A, C and K, folate, magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron and fiber. Dark, leafy greens are also rich in the phytochemical family of carotenoids containing beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. Their high fiber content helps the body eliminate toxins and possible carcinogens, and the phytochemical quercetin has anti-cancer and antioxidant properties.
People who eat higher amounts of leafy greens tend to have a lower risk of diabetes, stroke, colon cancer, cataracts, bone loss and memory loss. The high nutrient and fiber content of leafy greens is thought to protect against chronic diseases, and the phytochemicals may support the immune system and prevent disease initiation. A 2006 study in the journal Neurology showed that people who ate two or more servings of vegetables daily especially leafy greens had the mental focus of people five years their junior.
The family of dark, leafy greens includes kale, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, bok choy, broccoli (florets, stems and leaves), arugula, Swiss chard, dark-leaf lettuce and spinach.
Because many of the nutrients in dark, leafy greens are fat-soluble (they only break down in the presence of fat so your body can absorb them), it is important to always eat greens with a fat source this means salad dressing, cooking oil (monounsaturated is best, like olive or canola oils) or small amounts of butter, cheese or nuts. However, only a small amount is needed to unlock the nutrients, so a teaspoon of fat is enough. Also, keep in mind the darker the green, the healthier the vegetable, because a richer color translates into a higher phytochemical and nutrient content.
Leafy greens are easy to grow yourself, and can also be found in supermarkets and farmers markets, especially in the late summer, fall and winter, their prime growing season. If you havent cooked them before, start with kale, which is a mild-tasting green (some, like mustard and turnip greens, have a spicy, strong taste).
One of the main reasons most people dont eat dark, leafy greens is because they may not know how to prepare and cook them. One pound of greens will cook down to about one cup, so it may seem like you have too much to start with, but they loose volume with cooking and wilt into a much smaller amount. Remove and discard any tough stems and the center ribs, wash the leaves thoroughly and chop.
Dark, green leafy vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked.
Blend a variety in salads, sauté in olive oil, add to soups, omelets and casseroles.
Make them a part of your daily diet, and pass on the good advice: Go green and eat your dark, leafy greens.
Jeanine Justice has 20 years of experience in nutrition. She is currently the coordinator for Healthy Lifestyle La Plata Coalition. Reach her at jeanine@swcommunity foundation.org.