Leafy green vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. They’re packed with nutrients and fiber but are low in calories. Eating a diet rich in leafy greens can offer numerous health benefits including reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and mental decline.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the top benefits of leafy green vegetables and also cover some of the healthiest leafy greens.
Why Are Leafy Green Vegetables Good for You?
Leafy green vegetables offer many health benefits. Some of the best reasons to include leafy greens in your diet are:
- They contain many important vitamins and minerals
- They are a rich source of chlorophyll
- They are high in fiber
- They are low in calories
- They are low in fat
Types of Leafy Green Vegetables
There are many different types of leafy green vegetables. Typically, leafy greens refers to the leaves of plants that you commonly find used in salads, such as:
- Dandelion greens
- Bok choy
- Collard greens
And many others. Leafy greens can sometimes refer to herbs like basil or vegetables like broccoli. However, this is less common. Most often, when talking about leafy green vegetables, people are referring to the leafy greens mentioned above.
Top Benefits of Leafy Green Vegetables
Leafy Green Vegetables Have Many Important Vitamins & Nutrients
Leafy greens are a great source of important nutrients. The exact nutrients in leafy greens depends on the type of green that you are eating, but in general, most leafy greens contain vitamins A, C, K, and many of the B’s including folate (B9), plus minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and potassium, along with some protein, lots of fiber made up of complex carbohydrates, and antioxidant phytonutrients such as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. All of these nutrients are provided with very low calories and low fat.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin (meaning that it is absorbed along with fats in the diet and can be stored in the body's fatty tissue) that is naturally present in many foods. Vitamin A is important for normal vision, the immune system, and reproduction. It helps the body resist infection and allows the body to use its reserves for repairing and regenerating muscle tissue. Vitamin A also helps the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs work properly.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and plays a major role in immune system health, as well as in reducing damage to body tissue and muscle caused by physical activity. Protecting the blood from free radical damage, vitamin C stabilizes the three most potent free radicals: superoxide, hydroxyl and singlet oxygen, as well as playing an important role in cell movement.
Vitamin K refers to a group of fat-soluble vitamins that play a role in blood clotting, bone metabolism, and regulating blood calcium levels. The body needs vitamin K to produce prothrombin, a protein and clotting factor that is important in blood clotting and bone metabolism.
B Vitamins play a vital role in maintaining good health and well-being. As the building blocks of a healthy body, B vitamins have a direct impact on your energy levels, brain function, and cell metabolism. B Vitamins help prevent infections and helps support or promote cell health.
Vitamin B9 (Folate) aids in the production of DNA and RNA, the body's genetic material, and is especially important when cells and tissues are growing rapidly, such as in infancy, adolescence, and pregnancy. Folic acid also works closely with vitamin B12 to help make red blood cells and help iron work properly in the body.
Calcium repairs and strengthens your bones, plays a major role in muscle contraction, and ensures a rhythmic heartbeat.
Iron fabricates hemoglobin to facilitate red blood cell health. A well-maintained iron level ensures the body is able to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the hard-working extremities, maximizing efficacy.
Magnesium is critical for muscle function; it helps the heart beat rhythmically by allowing it to relax between beats, allowing all other muscles to relax. Magnesium also assists in calcium’s bone production.
Manganese contributes to an accelerated process of recovery, essential for those who are physically active. It is also a cofactor in energy production, metabolizing proteins and fats.
Potassium, an electrolyte, helps the body maintain fluid balance and therefore hydration. Smooth muscle contractions, nerve impulse transmission, and cell integrity are also greatly affected by potassium intake.
Proteins are large, complex molecules that play many critical roles in the body. They do most of the work in cells and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs. While not a significant source of protein, leafy green vegetables do contain small amounts of protein.
Beta Carotene is one of more than 500 carotenoids. Carotenoids function as sources of Vitamin A, with beta-carotene having the highest provitamin A activity. Besides providing vitamin A on demand to the body, beta-carotene and carotenoids do so without the toxicity, which can result from an oversupply of vitamin A. Beta-carotene provides antioxidant protection against tissue and cell (DNA) damage.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are also part of the carotenoid family of antioxidants. Interestingly, these two carotenoids are the only dietary carotenoids found in your retina, and research suggests they offer numerous benefits for eye health.
As we can see, leafy greens are a great source of many important nutrients. This is why many health experts recommend consuming leafy greens every day.
Leafy Green Vegetables Are a Rich Source of Chlorophyll
Chlorophyll is the natural compound present in green plants that gives them their color. It helps plants to absorb energy from the sun as they undergo the process of photosynthesis. This nutrient is present in green vegetables and other plant-based foods, like algae. The greener the vegetable is, the higher its chlorophyll content.
Chlorophyll is a fat-soluble compound that has strong antioxidant properties, meaning it may also decrease oxidative damage done by harmful carcinogens. Some studies show that regular intake of leafy, green vegetables helps to increase antioxidants in the bloodstream.
Chlorophyll has numerous health benefits:
- It promotes the production of red blood cells.
- It increases the production of white blood cells.
- It absorbs toxins.
- It acts as an internal deodorant helping to alleviate body odor.
- It helps to normalize digestion and elimination
- It has anti-inflammatory properties
Leafy Green Vegetables Are High in Fiber
Leafy greens are naturally high in dietary fiber, which is an essential part of a healthy diet. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. Though most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, fiber cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and instead it passes through the body undigested. Fiber helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check.
It is recommended to get between 20 and 30 grams of fiber per day for good health, but most Americans get only about 15 grams a day. There are many great sources of dietary fiber, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans and of course, leafy green vegetables.
Fiber comes in two varieties, both of which are beneficial to health:
- Soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, can help lower glucose levels as well as help lower blood cholesterol. Foods with soluble fiber include oatmeal, nuts, beans, lentils, apples and blueberries.
- Insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water, can help food move through your digestive system, promoting regularity and helping prevent constipation. Foods with insoluble fibers include wheat, whole wheat bread, whole grain couscous, brown rice, legumes, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes.
In the case of leafy greens, typically the majority of the fiber is made up of insoluble fiber.
Leafy Green Vegetables Are Low in Calories
With all the amazing nutritional benefits that leafy greens have to offer, it is impressive that they remain very low in calories. This allows you to get plenty of nutrition without consuming plenty of calories. Most leafy greens provide typically between 20 and 50 calories per cup.
Leafy Green Vegetables Are Low in Fat
Along with being low in calories, leafy green vegetables are also low in fat. Typically, they contain around .1 gram of fat per cup, whereas a fat-heavy food like coconut oil, for example, contains roughly 218 grams of fat per cup.
Since leafy green vegetables contain fat-soluble nutrients like Vitamin A, Vitamin K and chlorophyll, it is often recommended to consume them with a healthy source of fat like an olive-oil based dressing. This will help those important fat-soluble nutrients to absorb efficiently in your body.
The Healthiest Leafy Green Vegetables
While all leafy greens offer various health benefits, there are certain leafy greens that stand out as being the most nutrient-dense. These are:
Kale is an extremely nutrient-dense vegetable due to its many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Kale has many antioxidants that help to reduce cell damage caused by free radical build up. According to NutritionData one cup of raw kale has 684% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin K, 206% of the DV for vitamin A and 134% of the DV for vitamin C.
Spinach is is rich in nutrients and can easily be included in a variety of dishes, such as soups, sauces, stir fries, salads and smoothies. One cup of raw spinach provides 181% of the DV for vitamin K, 56% of the DV for vitamin A and 13% of the DV for manganese. It is also notably high in folate, which helps the body red blood cells and DNA.
3. Collard Greens
Collard greens have thick leaves, usually darker in color, and taste slightly bitter. They are a great source of calcium and vitamins A, B9 (folate), C and K. In fact, they are one of the best sources of vitamin K, with just one cup of cooked collard greens providing 1,045% of the DV for vitamin K.
Microgreens are vegetable greens harvested just after the cotyledon leaves have developed.. They are usually only a couple inches in size, but despite their small appearance, they’re packed with nutrients and flavor. In fact, studies on microgreens have found that they contain up to 40 times more nutrients compared to their mature counterparts.
5. Romaine Lettuce
Romaine lettuce is a common type of lettuce that has thick dark leaves and a firm center rib. It is the most nutrient dense variety of lettuce, and has a nice crunchy texture. It is a great source of vitamins A and K, as well as many important minerals.
Leafy green vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. They’re packed with nutrients and fiber but are low in calories and fat. Some of the best reasons to include leafy greens in your diet are:
- They have many important vitamins and minerals
- They are a rich source of chlorophyll
- They are high in fiber
- They are low in calories
- They are low in fat
Many leafy green vegetables can provide the daily value of important nutrients like vitamins A and K in as little as one or two cups. All the more reason to eat a big salad every day! Eating a diet rich in leafy greens can offer numerous health benefits including reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and mental decline.