Most of us have heard the phrase “leafy greens” before and we know that this type of vegetable is good for us. But you may be confused about what exactly constitutes leafy greens and whether one type is better than another. There are plenty of ways to eat more of these vegetables even if you don’t like them. And if you’re feeling a little lost when it comes to navigating this food group, we’re here to help.
Leafy greens are essentially plant leaves that we eat as vegetables, either raw or cooked. Not only are leafy greens low in calories, but they’re also high in a number of important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In particular, they tend to be rich in fiber, folate, manganese, and vitamins C, A, and K.
“Most leafy greens have very similar nutritional profiles,” says Mascha Davis, M.P.H., R.D. “You don’t need to eat kale if you hate it. Spinach will have almost the same nutrients, and if you only like arugula, that’s fine, too. Just find what works for you. All leafy greens will be beneficial for your health and can be part of a balanced diet.”
Because these nutrients can affect your workouts, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of them, and leafy greens can help ensure you increase your intake. Now that you know why leafy greens are crucial to eat, you’ll want to know the differences among the options. Below are all the types of leafy greens, along with their nutritional value and how to incorporate them into your diet.
Like most leafy greens, arugula contains folate and vitamins A, C, and K. “It contains 14 percent of your daily vitamin K recommendations and a phytonutrient called lutein, an antioxidant that helps maintain healthy eyes, skin, and heart,” says Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D. “Arugula can be eaten cold or hot. You can add it to salads or mixed greens as well as soups, quiches, pizza, or pasta.”
“Spinach is low in calories and provides antioxidant vitamins A and C, folate, and magnesium,” Amidor says. “It’s also a good source of iron, and eating it with a food containing vitamin C (like citrus fruit or strawberries) can help with absorption.” Amidor suggests adding spinach to smoothies or salads or eating it in hot dishes such as frittatas, soups, or pasta.
Like arugula, kale is a great source of lutein. It contains vitamin K, which supports cardiovascular, bone, and blood health. It’s also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Along with most leafy greens, kale tastes good in smoothies, salads, or cooked with other vegetables. “Kale also goes well in soups and casseroles,” Davis says. “Cooked kale is easier to eat if you’re not a big fan. There are also plenty of kale-based snacks available like kale chips.”
These greens are high in vitamins A, C, and K and provide fiber, calcium, and choline. “Collard greens can have a very intense taste, which many people can perceive as unpleasant,” Davis says. “Cooking with them is generally better. They are great in soups or stir-fry. If you don’t mind the intense taste, you can use them as a wrap or in smoothies.”
“Cabbage is a great source of fiber, and some of the more intensely colored varieties contain potent polyphenolic compounds that help our bodies to detoxify and prevent inflammation,” says Rachel Kreider, R.D. “It is delicious as part of a sauté, in a light and tangy coleslaw, or tossed into a soup.”
“Broccoli is a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, and it has been shown to help protect against cancer,” Amidor says. “One cup of chopped raw broccoli contains 2.4 grams of fiber and over 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamins C and K. It’s also a good source of manganese, folate, and vitamin A.” You can use broccoli in a slaw or dip it into hummus. You can also add it to omelets, pasta, and rice dishes or simply steam it as a side.
Swiss chard is high in plant-based iron and even higher in magnesium and copper. A cup of Swiss chard also contains 300 percent of your daily vitamin K requirement. “Swiss chard comes in many colorful varieties, and with color come bioactive compounds like betalains and beta-carotene,” Kreider says. “Betalains are great for supporting anti-inflammatory processes in the body.”
“Romaine lettuce packs lots of fiber, vitamin A, and folate,” Kreider says. It also contains moderate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, copper, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and calcium. “It’s great in a salad, of course, but the heartier leaves can make great ‘chips’ for dip,” she adds. “It’s also awesome drizzled with olive oil and grilled.”
Beet Greens/Mustard Greens/Dandelion Greens
Like all other leafy greens, these are low in calories but high in plant-based protein and fiber. They also contain high levels of vitamin K and calcium. Add them to a stir-fry, frittata, soup, or casserole.
No matter which you choose, incorporating more leafy greens into your diet can benefit your health in many ways.