All veggies are nutrition powerhouses, but some stand above the rest. There’s a good reason us nutrition folk keep nagging you to eat your greens. Have you heard the concept of nutrient density? It may sound complicated, but it simply means how much nutrition is packed into one calorie (or energy unit) of a specific food. A scale called the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) is used to measure nutrient density and green leafy vegetables dominate this scale. In fact, the top 10 most nutrient dense foods are all green leafy vegetables.
There’s a reason green leafy vegetables are packed with so much nutrition. Think back to Biology 101. Remember what the leaf of a plant is used for? Bonus points for those who said photosynthesis. The leaf synthesizes energy from sunlight. Thousands of enzymes, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals are needed for these energy harnessing reactions to occur.
So, green leafy vegetables are low in calories and fat, high in fiber and blah blah blah. That’s great and all, but there’s much more to these vegetables than a nutrition label could ever communicate. Many green leafy vegetables are a rich source of calcium – in fact 1 serving a day of green leafy vegetable can decrease the risk of hip fracture in middle-aged women by almost 50%! Because the calcium in green leafy vegetables is accompanied by so many other bone-building nutrients, they may be more beneficial than dairy for bone health.
Green leafies seem to have a particular benefit for chronic disease prevention. Studies have indicated each additional 1/2 cup serving per day can decrease the risk of both heart disease and diabetes by about 10%. Green leafy vegetables also contain many powerful phytochemicals known to protect against cancer, especially cancer of the breast and lung. Most people wouldn’t think of green leafy vegetables as a source of omega 3s, but they do contain small amounts that can add up to a significant amount if consumed daily.
Greens are simple to prepare, so it is easy to make them a regular part of your diet. For breakfast, try adding a mild flavored green, like spinach, to your morning smoothie or fold sauteed arugula into a veggie omelet. Use thinly sliced kale for your lunchtime salad – it’s a hearty green so you can dress it in the morning and it won’t get soggy. Dinner brings a world of possibility for greens. Simply sauteed with onion, garlic and olive oil, they make an easy side dish. I keep frozen spinach on hand for those days I need an easy vegetable with dinner. Try adding greens to a tomato and bean based soup like minestrone or make a main dish frittata with greens and feta cheese. Pasta is my favorite weeknight meal – often it’s tossed in some assortment of green leafy vegetables. It’s an endlessly adaptable template. Add nuts to keep it vegan or use a little bit of spicy sausage, which plays perfectly with the bitterness of greens.
Kale is the epitome of what health food is supposed to be. It has over 100% your daily needs of vitamin A, C and K. It is rich in minerals including phosphorus, calcium, iron and manganese. Many of it’s health benefits stem from kale’s high concentration of antioxidants. For those of you cutting back on (or eliminating) meat, kale is a rich source of iron. Per calorie, it contains more iron than red meat. Eat it with a sqeeze of lemon juice, as vitamin C helps your body more efficiently absorb iron. It also contains many sulfur rich compounds that are thought to aid in liver detox, which is why kale is a common ingredient in juice cleanses.
My personal favorite. Arugula has a peppery flavor that works perfectly in pesto, a sandwich or snuggled under a perfectly poached egg. Tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, it makes a simple, but elegant side salad. Oh yeah, it’s super healthy too! It’s rich in vitamin A, C and K. Arugula is especially rich in glucosinolates, a potent cancer fighter.
I’ll skip the cliche Popeye’s joke. But really, he may have been on to something. Green leafy vegetables are all known for their cancer fighting ability, but one study found spinach is particularly protective against aggressive forms of prostate cancer. Spinach is the green highest in two carotenoids called neoxanthin and violaxanthin, which seem to have especially potent anti-cancer benefits.
- ¾ lb 100% whole grain spaghetti
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 bunches of leafy green vegetables of your choice, thick stems removed, leaves cut into ½-in thick ribbons
- ⅓ cup toasted hazelnuts, chopped
- 2 ounces gorgonzola, or other blue cheese
- Optional garnishes:
- truffle salt
- flavored olive oil (we used wild mushroom and sage)
- Cook the pasta according to package directions in a large pot of boiling water.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds. Add the greens in batches, using the thicker greens first, then adding more delicate greens as it cooks down. Cook until tender, about 2-8 minutes depending on what type of greens you are using.
- Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 cup of the starchy cooking liquid. Toss the pasta into the greens. Add enough cooking water to make it a little saucy.
- Divide into bowls. Sprinkle with crumbled gorgonzola and hazelnuts and garnish as desired.