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We all know to eat our fruits and vegetables, but when it comes to which ones, it’s a good idea to find out a little more.
Crisp, leafy greens are not everyone’s favorite, but if you happen to be a lover of these super healthy veggies, then you are in luck. The power of greens is severely underrated, and their preparation is often left to the standard salad. There is so much more to this hearty collection of plants!
Let’s start with how many servings we should be trying to get in our day. Though there aren’t significant studies on just greens,
the USDA recommends we eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
There are a few studies on simple vegetables that can help put this in perspective. First, it’s a good rule of thumb to consider a serving to mean ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw. Out of those fruits and vegetables, it’s recommended that 3 servings be all veg each day. This is for the predominantly sedentary office worker. If you require a higher caloric intake, it’s wise to bump that amount up according to your dietary needs.
The USDA doesn’t give a specific daily greens suggestion, but they do offer a relative idea. Out of those 21 cups of vegetables each week, at least 2 cups should be of the leafy variety. These are just basic guidelines, but if you are really eating for your health, it’s better to take the wisdom from the Imperial College London who recommend eating ten servings a day, essentially doubling your veg. They found a significant increase in the reduction of heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature deaths. Those are great reasons to curb the calories from animal foods, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes and add in the extra fruits and vegetables.
With a general idea of portion size and suggested quantities, it’s time to see why not all vegetables are created equal. There is no wholly bad choice, but if you only ate potatoes, corn, eggplant or plant food from cans, you’re not doing your body any favors. Tracking the nutritional profile of your daily veggies is just as important as counting up your other food. This includes your healthy greens.
Choosing the right vegetables is an important part of this process. It’s not just about eating for satiation; it’s eating for high quality nutrients as well. Let’s break down some of the best plants to have on your plate and take a look at keeping their flavors interesting as well.
The diet world has preached the benefits of spinach and kale for years, and the hype isn’t going away. That’s because those two powerhouse leaves still pack a vitamin and mineral punch that is hard to rival, but there are many more options as well. You could eat 2-3 servings every day and never get bored if you acquaint yourself with the incredible variety of greens.
As you peruse the produce aisle, remember the darker the green, the better!
Take a look at swiss chard. This not only comes in green, but it also can be found in red, orange, pink, yellow and even white. If you don’t recognize all the leafy veggies at the market, look for names like romaine, spinach, arugula, collards, kale, mesclun greens, bok choy, endive, broccoli and broccolini, turnip, beet, collard and mustard greens or watercress. No matter the choice, you’ll be getting some incredible health benefits.
Raw or lightly cooked greens are known for being a food you can eat a lot of while taking in very few calories. This is a perk in any dietary regime. They are incredibly rich in vitamin K, folate and their claim to fame, phytonutrients. They also provide a good amount of vitamins A, C, E and many of the B complex vitamins. Top that with minerals like calcium and an excellent fiber source, making any leafy plant a true superfood.
Phytonutrients may be a new term for some. These are the natural compounds in plants that keep them healthy from disease, insects and help them repair damages, essentially the immune system of the plant. These functions are transferred to our own immune system when ingested and have been shown to have a positive healing effect on cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes, as well as helping to reverse cell damage and high cholesterol.
Most of us have heard of folate, but outside of pregnancy, we may not know how it helps our bodies. It is one of the B vitamins, also called folic acid. We need it to produce DNA and RNA, make red and white blood cells and for the active individual, it is extremely important as it converts carbohydrates into energy.
There are many other minerals such as magnesium, which controls blood pressure and healthy DNA, glucose levels, building of proteins, and supports nerve and muscle function, manganese, to form bones, connective tissues, and process fats and carbohydrates and potassium to help with muscle energy, physical alertness, a regular heartbeat, communicating between muscles and nerves, controlling high sodium levels and shuffling nutrients and waste to and from cells.
Top all of that with an abundance of antioxidants to defend our systems from chronic illness, and the reasons for not eating greens every day begin to look pretty weak.
Let’s take a look at a huge reason we don’t eat enough leafy plants. We only put them in salads!
That makes for a very boring meal plan. With all the amazing options of microgreens, sprouts and full leaves and their varied flavor profiles from sweet, to bitter to spicy, just mixing up a salad is not taking advantage of their full potential. The simplest additions would be to a smoothie, an omelet or whipping up a green juice. To really amp up your vitamin and mineral content, work with herbs like parsley, mint, basil, cilantro, oregano and dandelion for supercharged greens with abundant aromas and tastes.
Large leaves make great wraps and buns. Any green can be stacked onto a sandwich. Sauces, spreads, soups and even baked for chips, like kale or cabbage. Greens can be effortlessly added to any meal. The real secret is having a large variety readily available in your fridge.
Voila! Two servings of greens down for the day. How many more can you fit into your next meal?
Laura Manning, MPH, RDN, CDN The Low FODMAP diet is getting some well-deserved attention these days.