There's been a lot of talk about making cities, buildings and cars more "green." But how about making your diet greener by enjoying a heaping helping of leafy green vegetables?
Leafy greens include arugula, romaine lettuce, mesclun mix (or "spring mix"), spinach, kale, collard, turnip and mustard greens, watrecress, chard, broccoli rabe and Chinese broccoli.
With so many options, it's easy to make these healthful and tasty veggies a more prominent part of your plate.
"Green, leafy vegetables are a must-have since they give you a bigger 'bang for your buck': They are nutrient-dense but not energy-dense (higher in calories), so you get all the benefits of vitamins, minerals and fiber without all the calories," says Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, a dietitian and lifestyle program director for the Rush University Prevention Center.
How nutritious are they? For starters, they're high in antioxidants such as vitamin A and vitamin C, and rich in vitamin K, potassium and iron. They also serve as a great source of fiber.
"These nutrients provide many benefits, such as boosting the immune system during those cold winter months and keeping the heart healthy," Ventrelle says. "They may even work toward cancer prevention."
An added bonus: The natural fiber in leafy greens can help you feel satisfied longer because the nutrients remain in the stomach longer with the fiber. That satisfied feeling can also lead to decreased overall caloric consumption and, potentially, weight loss.
And a study by researchers at Rush suggests that leafy greens may feed your brain as well.
According to the study, which was published online in the December 2017 issue of Neurology, eating one serving of leafy green vegetables a day may aid in preserving memory and thinking skills as a person grows older.
"Adding a daily serving of green leafy vegetables to your diet may be a simple way to help promote brain health," says study author Martha Clare Morris, ScD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush. "There continues to be sharp increases in the percentage of people with dementia as the oldest age groups continue to grow in number. Effective strategies to prevent dementia are critically needed."
The study results suggest that people who ate one serving of green, leafy vegetables had a slower rate of decline on tests of memory and thinking skills than people who rarely or never ate them. The study results also suggest that older adults who ate at least one serving of leafy green vegetables showed an equivalent of being 11 years younger cognitively.
"The study results do not prove that eating green, leafy vegetables slows brain aging, but it does show an association," says Morris. "The study cannot rule out other possible reasons for the link."
The results must be confirmed by other investigators in different populations and through randomized trials to establish that cause-and-effect relationship. But in the meantime, the other proven health benefits of leafy greens make them an essential part of any healthy diet.
Ideally, vegetables should make up the majority of your plate. A good rule of thumb is for half of the plate to be vegetables, with the other half left for equal parts protein and healthy carbohydrates (such as whole grains).
Make half your serving of vegetables leafy greens, such as spinach or a simple salad, and half other types of vegetables, such as grilled peppers, asparagus, peas, green beans or squash. It's also a good idea to start your meal by eating vegetables so you'll have less of an appetite for rich, sugary foods.
But be careful how you prepare those veggies, Ventrelle warns. "One thing to be aware of when boiling vegetables is that the vitamins can leach out into the water," she says. "So whenever possible, eat vegetables raw or lightly steamed rather than cooking them immersed in water."
Other advice for healthier preparations:
Green, leafy vegetables give you a bigger 'bang for your buck': They are nutrient-dense but not energy-dense (higher in calories).
Here are some ideas for incorporating leafy greens into your daily menu:
Leafy greens are also great for jazzing up your leftovers. Try topping your sandwiches with a handful of fresh spinach or arugula, mix your favorite greens into a casserole, or use broccoli rabe or Chinese broccoli to create a flavorful stir-fry.
The possibilities — and recipes — are endless.
"If you aren't already eating a lot of leafy green vegetables, it's never too late to start," says Ventrelle. "You may be so surprised by how satisfied you feel; you won't have as much room to over-indulge on those not-so-great-for-you rich, sugary foods."
Sign up now for free health tips and medical news.