In the fall it’s easy being green! And because leafy greens are highly available in the fall, it’s easy to enjoy lots of healthy and delicious leafy greens in our meals. Dark green vegetables include bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, dandelion greens, kale, all lettuces (romaine, arugula, mesclun, baby spinach, etc.), mustard greens, spinach, radish greens, watercress, turnip greens, Swiss chard, and many other vegetables.
Dark green vegetables are low in calories and high in fiber. High-fiber foods promote the feeling of fullness and help lower cholesterol by binding it in the gastrointestinal tract and “escorting” it out with bowel movements. They also help promote bowel movement regularity and help manage constipation. Also, high-fiber foods help control blood sugar by slowing the absorption of their naturally occurring sugars into the bloodstream.
Dark green vegetables are good sources of vitamins A, C, K and the B-vitamin folate, as well as the minerals iron and calcium. Consuming a small amount of healthy fat — such as olive oil or avocado — with dark green vegetables helps the body absorb these nutrients. Vitamin A helps maintain eye and skin health and protects against infections. Vitamin C is important for skin health, especially for healing cuts and wounds, and dental health. Consuming it with iron-rich foods helps with iron absorption. Vitamin K plays a role in blood clotting. Folate (folic acid) is needed to form new blood cells. Adequate folic acid is especially important for women who are of childbearing age because healthful diets with adequate folic acid may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with brain or spinal cord birth defects. Iron is needed to help red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. Iron-deficiency anemia is common in women of childbearing age, which is why a diet rich in dark green vegetables may be helpful in reducing the risk of iron-deficiency anemia. Calcium is needed to build strong teeth and bones, and is also important for normal blood clotting and muscle function. Growing a baby demands a large amount of calcium. If a pregnant woman is not getting enough from her diet, her body will take calcium from her bones, putting her at risk for osteoporosis later in life. Potassium helps maintain healthy blood pressure.
So how much dark greens should you eat?
Half of what we eat (in general) should be a variety of vegetables and fruit. If you are substituting dark green vegetables for high-calorie foods, especially processed foods, more dark greens is even better. In general, 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables or vegetable juice, or 2 cups of raw leafy greens can be considered as 1 cup. Yes, if you are an avid salad eater you need to double the amount. Leafy greens just aren’t as dense as things like green beans or broccoli. The current USDA guidelines recommend eating approximately 13-17 cups of vegetables and 14 cups of fruit over the course of a week. Now you understand why most people don’t eat enough fruits and veggies. Ever.
Here is an example of one day’s worth of veggies: 1 cup of spinach stirred into your morning eggs, 2 cups arugula salad topped with ½ cup of tomatoes and carrots at lunch plus ½ cup cooked corn at dinner. Notice there is an emphasis on dark greens but other colors mixed in.
What can you do to get more greens?
Every time you eat, make half of your plate vegetables and fruit. Consume dark green vegetables with a small amount of healthy fat to improve nutrient absorption. Purchase dark green vegetables fresh or frozen. Enjoy a variety of dark green vegetables using a range of preparations, raw or cooked. Don’t throw away your vegetable tops! Did you know you can reduce your food waste and get the health benefits of dark green vegetables by using the tops of carrots, radishes, beets and other root vegetables? You can sauté them, add them to soups or chop them into salads and green juices.
Try these ideas for simple ways to add dark green vegetables into your daily diet:
• Eat them in a salad or slaw.
• Sauté them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Cook some chopped garlic and red pepper flakes in the hot oil before adding the greens, or finish them with a squeeze of citrus juice or vinegar for extra flavor. Sautéed dark green vegetables can be added to pasta, lasagna, omelets or frittatas, grain bowls, casseroles and meatballs. Or use them to top pizza.
• Add them to soup during the last few minutes of cooking. A large handful will melt down to nearly nothing. Broccoli is also a nice addition.
• Use dark leafy greens as wraps instead of tortillas or pita bread. Try filling a nice green leaf with hummus, shredded carrots, cucumber, tomato, olives and feta cheese and roll it like a burrito for a filling and nutrient-packed lunch.
• Blend them into smoothies. You can add a cup or two of mild leafy greens such as spinach or kale to your smoothie. Keep in mind that our digestive function is adapted to foods rather than liquid calories, which is why we don’t feel as full from consuming calories in liquid form. That’s why smoothies are best as an occasional treat.
• Make a pesto sauce. Basil pesto is the most well-known variety, but a pesto can be made with any dark green vegetable. Using a food processor or blender, blend 4 cups of greens of your choice with garlic and ½ cup pine nuts until finely chopped. Next, stream in olive oil while continuing to process the pesto until it is the consistency you like. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add parmesan cheese if you’d like, or skip the cheese to make it vegan.
Sarah Patino is the Certified Nutrition Educator for Food Sense at the USU Extension – Tooele County office, which is located inside the Tooele County Health Department Building, 151 N. Main, Tooele. She can be reached at 435-277-2408 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.