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While winter meals rely mainly on nutrient-dense, shelf-stable dietary staples, spring brings out your inner hunter-gatherer. Fresh and bright fruit and vegetable options are springing up in grocery stores. One of the first available foods, and most important dietary staples, of the springtime Ayurvedic diet is leafy green vegetables.
Here are three reasons to reach for your greens this spring.
1. They Aid the Body in Natural Detoxification
Spring cleaning is important for the body as well as the home. Spring greens help cleanse your gut from byproducts of digestion following a winter diet of heavy foods. Because greens are low in calories yet high in fiber, they are the perfect tool to assist with this natural detoxification process.
Fiber: Leafy greens provide a rich source of dietary fiber. Fiber includes all parts of a plant that are non-digestible. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that women eat 25 grams of fiber per day, while men should aim to consume 38 grams. Adequate fiber intake is linked with a variety of health benefits, including more regular bowel movements, deceased blood cholesterol, and improved satiety levels and weight control.
Fiber is helps to move cellular and digestive byproducts out of the body. This is especially beneficial following the typical seasonal winter diet which is full of high-fat, lower fiber foods.
Eating about one cup of leafy greens such as turnip greens, spinach, and collards will give you 1 to 5 grams of fiber (depending upon preparation style) according to the USDA Food Composition Databases.
2. They Provide Necessary Micronutrients
Spring greens provide a myriad of beneficial micronutrients (essential elements for your body) that are often lacking in the typical American diet.
Folate: The word folate is derived from the Latin word folium, meaning “leaf.” Folate is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning it can be destroyed during cooking. Folate deficiency is associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and depression. Women who are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant are also at risk, as insufficient folic acid intake is associated with birth defects. To maximize the folate you receive from leafy greens, eat them raw (see “massaged greens” below) or only lightly steamed.
Iron: Iron is a mineral that helps your cells produce energy. Dark green, leafy vegetables are also a rich, plant-based source. For example, just one cup of cooked spinach provides 6 mg of iron—which ranges from 8 to 18 percent of the recommended daily intake for men and women, respectively.
Plant-based iron is known as non-heme iron (compared to a combination of heme and non-heme iron contained in meat products). Non-heme iron, iron that is not paired with the heme protein, is best absorbed when paired with vitamin C. Luckily, leafy greens are also a rich source of natural vitamin C. Vitamin C contained in the greens helps enhance iron absorption, ensuring that your body can use the iron you eat.
Calcium and Vitamin K: While dairy is frequently associated with calcium recommendations, it is easy to neglect the excellent bioavailability index of plant-based calcium. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, calcium absorption from vegetables is “as good or better” than calcium absorption from milk. Furthermore, a diet heavy in animal-based foods such as meat and dairy creates an acidic bodily environment that can lead to poor bone health. In contrast,, eating a more alkaline diet with plant-based sources of calcium such as leafy greens may prevent bone loss and fracture.
Dark, leafy greens are not only great sources of calcium—they also are high in vitamin K. Vitamin K acts in a complementary way to calcium, serving to help take calcium out of the blood vessels and bind it to the bone matter. This is helpful, as calcium left to accumulate in the blood vessels can lead to calcifications or “hardened” arteries. This condition is associated with heart disease and stroke. However, by consuming greens rich in both calcium and vitamin K, you can assist your body in keeping calcium in your bones while protecting your cardiovascular health.
3. They Are Rich in Phytonutrients
Plants provide nutrients and fiber essential to health. However, plants are also a rich source of other beneficial chemicals, known as phytonutrients. While these compounds require further study, the benefits of phytonutrients, including antioxidants, may be far reaching and beneficial for disease prevention and healthy aging.
Cancer Prevention: The decreased cancer risk associated with veggie intake, including leafy greens, is thought to be due to their fiber and folate as well as antioxidant content. The assumption here is that the body produces free radicals (highly reactive molecules that are associated with the cellular stress response) as a normal result of cell metabolism. It is thought that free radical oxidation is responsible for the negative effects of aging as well as cancer. However, antioxidants found in plant foods, namely carotenoids and flavonoids, may help to prevent the harmful oxidation.
The American Institute for Cancer Research has studied leafy greens and their role in cancer prevention. They reported that intake of foods containing carotenoids (including vegetables and leafy greens) likely helps to prevent cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx. Some research has also associated carotenoids in foods with a lower risk of lung cancer and there are initial studies that show some promise regarding breast, skin, and stomach cancers.
One study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry compared the ability of several different plant foods to inhibit cancer growth. This study found that of all the vegetables studied, leafy vegetables spinach and cabbage demonstrated the highest bioinhibitory effect, or ability to halt liver cancer cell growth.
How to Eat Your Greens
Convinced that you should eat your greens? Read on for tips.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends adults consume 1.5 to 2 cups of dark green, leafy vegetables weekly. However, edible greens come in several different varieties—not just lettuce and spinach. Add variety to your leafy green intake by incorporating:
- Bok choy
- Mustard greens
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
- Cabbage (Napa or traditional head cabbage)
Consuming raw greens is best for maximum folate and vitamin C preservation. However, cooked greens provide the optimum levels of cancer-preventing antioxidant capacity. Your best bet is to include both raw and cooked greens in your diet.
Raw greens, especially rough-leaf varieties such as kale and Swiss chard, have thick cell walls. These may be hard for the gut to digest, leading to an upset stomach or gas. Try the following methods to incorporate raw greens in your diet; they will help make the greens easier to digest:
1. Massaged greens
- Cut leafy green leaves into thin ribbons.
- Add a small amount of olive oil, lemon juice, or both.
- Sprinkle with a dash of salt and pepper.
- With clean hands, slowly “massage” your greens. The moisture from the olive oil and abrasion from the salt will help to break down some of the hard cell walls in the greens, enhancing their digestibility.
- Serve as a side with your meal or as the base to a main-dish salad.
2. Add to a smoothie
- Prepare your favorite smoothie using a fruit of your choice and milk (dairy or nondairy).
- Add in one to two handfuls of greens.
- Blend in a high-speed blender. The blending process will naturally break down some of the hard-to-digest cell walls, releasing the beneficial green plant components into your smoothie.
Cooking greens leads to increased antioxidant potential. One study found that “boiled and fried vegetables possessed significantly higher capacity to reduce free radicals than the raw samples.”
Suggested methods for cooking greens:
- Quick-steam with a small amount of water in a covered pot.
- Lightly sauté with small amount of water or olive oil.
- Cook in a soup. While boiling greens typically causes vitamin C and folate to leach into the water, you counteract this loss in soup by also consuming the broth in which the greens are cooked.
Eat Your Greens
Optimize your body’s ability to detox and enhance your vitality by consuming nature’s seasonal bounty. Incorporate leafy greens—both raw and lightly cooked—and enjoy the benefits of seasonal, springtime eating.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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