Do you wrinkle your nose at the thought of eating more leafy green vegetables each day? While leafy greens may be an acquired taste, they are one of the most important foods that you can consume to benefit your health. You have plenty of options to choose from—such as spinach, kale, swiss chard, romaine lettuce, arugula, and collard greens.
If you need extra motivation to stock your fridge with these nutritional powerhouses, here are four top nutrient groups available in leafy greens that can provide a plethora of health benefits.
1. Vitamins and Minerals
Leafy greens are extremely high in a variety of vitamins and minerals, including the following.
- Vitamin K: Can help prevent osteoporosis and inflammatory diseases.
- Vitamin A: Plays an important role in vision, bone growth, reproduction, cellular function, and immunity.
- Vitamin E: Is important for immune and metabolic processes. Some studies have shown the potential for vitamin E to help preserve vision and reduce risk of heart disease, but further research is needed to confirm these benefits.
- Vitamin C: Promotes healing, helps the body absorb iron, and plays an important role in the health of skin, bones, and connective tissue.
- Folate: Only 50 percent of the folate you consume is actually bioavailable, or absorbable by your body. (Note that some of the following benefits were experienced through supplementation with folic acid, which is the synthetic folate form present in supplements and fortified foods and has a higher level of bioavailability but can also cause negative reactions.) Folate can:
- Magnesium: Decreases risk of developing type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis, and can reduce frequency of migraines and lower blood pressure.
- Potassium: Plays an important role in the function of every cell in the body. Is involved with heart function and muscle contraction. May help prevent osteoporosis.
- Calcium: Is important for bone health. Could potentially protect from cardiovascular disease and cancer, although research is inconclusive.
Leafy greens are not only high in important vitamins and minerals: They can also help you reach your recommended daily intake of fiber, which is approximately 38 grams per day for men and approximately 25 grams per day for women. For reference, one cup of spinach provides 0.7 grams of fiber, and one cup of romaine lettuce provides one gram of fiber.
It’s important to consume the recommended daily amount, or more, of fiber, for a variety of benefits. Fiber may help:
- Protect against cardiovascular disease
- Prevent diabetes
- Serve as a laxative
- Control appetite
- Prevent colorectal cancer
Fiber is also critical to feeding your gut microbes. If you don’t get enough fiber, some microbes can die and others can eat the mucus lining in your stomach, as indicated through a study that was presented at a Keystone Symposia conference on the gut microbiome in 2015.
When the bacteria in your digestive tract metabolize fiber, they produce short chain fatty acids, which may help:
Phytonutrients are compounds found in leafy greens (along with other vegetables and fruits) and include carotenoids, flavonoids, and lignans. Phytonutrients are thought to provide a variety of health benefits, including:
- Lower risk of heart disease
- Decreased risk of cancer
- Lower risk of macular degeneration
Chlorophyll is the term for several green pigments that are found in plants. Chlorophyll plays a vital role in plant photosynthesis (during which plants absorb energy from light), and it also may provide the following benefits to health:
- Accelerate wound healing
- Help prevent cancer
- Detoxify the liver
- Boost the immune system
- Help treat anemia
Because the type and amount of nutrients vary within each leafy green, it’s important to consistently rotate through a variety of them to make sure you’re exposing yourself to the wide spectrum of their health benefits.
*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.