Popeye was onto something… ‘strong to the finish’ is an understatement when it comes to what leafy greens can do for your health, vitality, longevity and preventative health. They offer a powerhouse of nutritional benefits including heart health, brain health, bone health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention as well as strong antioxidant capacity.
Leafy greens have been eaten since ancient times and our smart ancestors intuitively knew from there health improvement experiences how important it was to grow, harvest and eat leafy green vegetables. Julius Caesar reportedly would eat collard greens to prevent indigestion after royal banquets, probably as he listened to his body and reasoned through his own experience that these amazing greens had powerful detoxifying effect on his digestive system before the feast. The benefits of eating leafy greens are vast and the variety of ways that you can prepare them make them not only interesting but tasty and versatile as well.
Benefits of Leafy Greens:
Leafy green vegetables include all kinds of salad greens, kale, spinach arugula collard greens, bok choy, mustard greens, endive, escarole, chicory, broccoli rabe, watercress and more. Rich in vitamins A, C, E and K as well as many B vitamins, folate and are loaded with fiber. They also contain minerals like iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium and they offer powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Cancer Protective: Remember, antioxidants clean up the free radical damage in our body and free radical damage is linked to cancer. Green leafy greens are loaded with antioxidants and boost your protection against many cancers. The contain folate, carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin and other similar antioxidants and are high in fiber. These antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin, are like powerful little scavengers inside our bodies and they ‘clean up’ the damage that free radicals cause to the cells. Because of the folate, fiber and antioxidant levels, eating leafy greens can inhibit certain types of breast cancer cells, lung cancer cells, stomach, cervical and skin cancer cells. Increasing folate helps lower the risk of colon cancer by 30-40%.
- Heart Healthy: Leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, cabbage, parsley and broccoli contain high levels of Vitamin K. New research demonstrates that Vitamin K may affect the developing structure of the heart in early adulthood and teenage years and lack of Vitamin K can lead to an enlarged heart both in early adulthood and in later life and be a gateway to heart disease. ( A word of caution, however. If you are on any kind of blood thinner medication, speak to your doctor before eating a large amount of Vitamin K rich foods as it may affect medications.)
- Brain Health: Would you like your brain to function 11 years younger than your age? Who wouldn’t? People who eat about 1 ½ servings of leafy greens ( that’s about 3 handfuls raw or 1 ½ cups cooked) compared to those who ate less than a cup suffered less cognitive decline and were in fact tested to be ‘younger’ in cognitive ability by 11 years. The nutrients responsible for this robust brain boosting are Vitamin K, lutein, folate, nitrate, beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol and kaempferol.
- Diabetes Prevention: Because of their exceptionally high fiber content and low calorie and carbohydrate content leafy greens help you manage your weight and regulate your digestive system. They are very low on the glycemic index; a measure which indicates how a food is going to make your blood sugar rise or not. One study found that eating 1 ½ cups of leafy greens a day reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 14 %.
Some Top Favorites:
- Kale: Kale has become a popular superfood that is full of antioxidants including lutein and zeaxanthin and Vitamin C and beta-carotene which support healthy eyes, hair and skin. It has minerals including calcium and magnesium to support strong bones and teeth and quercetin which is an anti-inflammatory. It is very rich in Vitamin K which helps prevent bone fractures. It is wonderful (and delivers the most nutrients) raw in salads, and it can be added to soups, sautéed or even oven roasted as chips for a great take-along on the road.
- Lettuces: Pump up on any kind of lettuce leaf you like and reap the benefits. Whether it is romaine, bib, red leaf, spring mix you are going to get tons of antioxidants which help prevent arthritis, support eye health by lowering the risk of macular degeneration and great skin and nail health. These wonderful salad choices also contain potassium which helps lower blood pressure and are also a good source of Vitamin K* which prevents osteoporosis and supports strong bone health.
- Spinach: Popeyes favorite for a good reason. Spinach is one of natures most nutrient dense foods. It is high in fiber as well so it helps with weight management and the prevention of type 2 diabetes. Loaded with potassium, it can help regulate blood pressure and is also a great source of antioxidants to help support eye and brain health as well as prevent cancers. Spinach also is a good source of iron and folate which makes for strong muscles (like Popeye) because it helps to transport oxygen to muscles for growth and strength. B Vitamins support your energy system- making you “strong to the finish” just like our pal Popeye.
- Collard Greens: Detoxifying and delicious this tasty and versatile cruciferous veggie is derived from the cabbage family and because of its strong anti-inflammatory properties helps to prevent and manage arthritis and has antioxidants that support eye health and prevent macular degeneration and cataract keeping your eyes keen and health. They are one of the best sources of Vitamin K* which is known to help with blood clotting as well as known for bone health and preventing osteoporosis.*
- Cabbage: Cabbage is a leafy green and is cancer protective (lung and esophageal). Many people enjoy cabbage as sauerkraut, a fermented version of the vegetable. Sauerkraut improves digestive and gut health- improving your immune function, mood, and brain health by way of keeping your gut functioning well.
- Arugula: A popular salad green, this cruciferous veggie helps you manage your blood pressure due to its high magnesium levels. It is also high in nitrates which opens up your blood vessels and is a bone and brain booster as well.
Tips of getting more greens in your diet:
- Eat a salad: Of course, leafy greens in their ‘raw’ version help deliver the freshest and highest nutrient content. Remember to add some olive oil! Because Vitamins A,D, E and K are ‘fat soluble’ vitamins they need to be eaten with a little healthy fat in order for your body to assimilate them. Skip the NO FAT notion and add a bit of olive oil or some avocado in with your salad and reap the benefits of the nutrition.
- Soups: Soups are an easy make ahead meal and some of the greens with tough leaves (such as collard greens, mustard greens, or kale) are great to add and easier to eat when cooked in a soup.
- Skip Bread: Make a “Greens Wrap” instead by using fresh romaine topped with fresh chicken or turkey or tuna and sliced hard boiled eggs. Throw extra baby greens (or some roasted peppers) for an even healthier version of the standard sandwich.
- Stir-fry: Stir-fry is a fun way to try new greens. Add some fresh chicken and you’ve got a meal in a minute. Add herbs, ginger and garlic for extra anti-inflammatory boosts.
- Sautéed or Steamed: Cooking down some of the tougher and thicker leaves can make them easier to eat and digest. Choose heart- healthy olive oil and some fresh herbs and garlic.
- Greens for Breakfast: Add those steamed or sautéed greens to your eggs in the form of an omelet. Adding veggies to breakfast gives you a jump start on getting those 7 plus servings per day of veggies that help lower your risk of death (from any cause) as well as the risk of dying from a heart attack or cancer.
Popeye and Julius Caesar had it right- adding extra vegetables throughout the day lowers your risk of disease and gives you energy, strength and vitality. Get 7 -10 servings of vegetables per day to reap the benefits and make at least 1 ½ of them leafy greens.
(* If you are on any kind of blood thinner medication, speak to your doctor before eating a large amount of Vitamin K rich foods as it may adversely affect your medications.)
By: Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach