How does the iceberg lettuce in your salad measure up nutrition-wise? As a matter of fact, its nutritional value wilts next to dark leafy greens. Spinach, watercress, collards, kale and most other dark greens outshine their pale salad relatives when it comes to health protection.
Some dark greens belong to the cruciferous family of vegetables broccoli’s family. But even when they aren’t broccoli relatives, most dark greens possess an impressive phytochemical resume.
For starters, dark greens are brimming with beta-carotene, an antioxidant that may help keep your cells in good repair as you age. Studies say carotenoids like beta-carotene may inhibit the growth of certain types of breast cancer, skin cancer, lung cancer and stomach cancer.
Greens also provide the phytochemicals lutein (loo-teen) and zeaxanthin (ZEE-ax-an-thin). These compounds are also found in the retina of the eye itself, and both may protect against the eye disease macular degeneration.
Many dark leafy greens also contain omega-3 fatty acids that protect your heart. Vitamins A, C and K abound in dark greens. In case you’ve never heard of it, vitamin K, plays a role in bone health, vein health and blood coagulation.
This chart allows you to compare the health perks of greens. (For a more complete chart, listing more varieties of dark greens and their healthy compounds, click here.)
Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/)
Dark greens range from mild-tasting varieties, like spinach and kale, to sharper-tasting beet, mustard, chicory, endive, chard and watercress. If you’re shy of stronger tasting greens, look for milder young and tender “baby” leaves.
Refrigerate greens and use them within 3 days to avoid toughening and bitterness. You also can cook greens to make them taste milder. Watercress is usually eaten raw in salads, but here’s a delectable recipe for Watercress Soup with Shrimp.
To prepare delicious greens, avoid boiling or steaming them for a long time, which makes them mushy. Instead, try this easy braising method used for garlicky greens: Mince 2 large garlic cloves and set aside. Thoroughly rinse and de-stem 1 pound of greens, then pat dry with paper towels. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the greens and sauté, stirring to mix in garlic, until wilted about 4-5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup reduced-sodium, fat-free broth or plain water and cook uncovered over low heat until liquid evaporates. Divide onto 4 plates. If desired, sprinkle each serving with 1 tablespoon of crumbled feta cheese. Garlic’s phytochemicals make your greens even healthier.
Chopped nuts can add crunch and flavor to greens. For each 1/2-cup serving of cooked greens (or 1 cup of raw greens), sprinkle a scant handful of chopped nuts such as almonds, pine nuts or walnuts. For extra flavor, toast chopped nuts first in a dry, nonstick skillet over medium heat for 3-5 minutes until they are golden and fragrant.
Beans and greens are a natural pair. Beans themselves supply fiber, cancer-fighting folate and protein. White beans like cannellini blend with spinach, collards or kale in soups made with reduced-sodium, low-fat broth. Black beans and cooked greens can be wrapped up with tomato salsa in a whole-wheat tortilla for a nutritious lunch or snack. Or sneak dark greens like Swiss chard into red bean chili for a phytochemical bonus. Try AICR’s recipe for Braised Kale with Black Beans and Tomatoes.
Other vegetables that go well with greens are chopped red peppers, sweet corn, fresh grated carrots or chunks of steamed sweet potato. Greens also taste good with Asian flavors like sesame oil, soy sauce, anise and ginger.
Canola oil spray
3/4 cup chopped onions
1 fennel bulb, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 Tbsp. canola oil
1-3 cloves garlic (or to taste), finely chopped
3/4 cup thin slices of red, orange and/or yellow bell pepper (about 1 medium)
1 cup pearl barley
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried marjoram
4-5 cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup spinach leaves, torn into pieces
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. finely-chopped fresh basil
Generously coat large, heavy pot with spray oil and place over medium-high heat. Add onions and fennel and sauté until tender, 5 to10 minutes. Add oil and heat until hot. Add garlic and bell peppers and sauté lightly for 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in barley, thyme, marjoram and broth. Bring to boil, immediate reduce heat to low and simmer until liquid is almost absorbed, stirring occasionally, 40 to 50 minutes or until barley is tender. Midway through cooking process, add salt and pepper to taste.
When barley is cooked, add spinach, cheese and basil. Stir to blend and adjust seasonings.
Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 172 calories, 3 g. total fat (less than 1 g. saturated fat), 32 g. carbohydrate, 7 g. protein, 7 g. dietary fiber, 464 mg. sodium.
3 Tbsp. dried cherries*
1/2 lb. fresh Swiss chard, washed well and dried**
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. pine nuts
Salt and pepper, to taste
In small pan, place cherries with water to cover. Bring to boil, remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Cut chard leaves away from stems and central rib. Cut leaves into 1/4 inch slices crosswise. In large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add chard leaves and garlic. Sauté, stirring frequently, 6-8 minutes or until chard is tender. Drain cherries and add with pine nuts to chard. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 91 calories, 6 g. total fat (<1 g saturated fat), 8 g. carbohydrates, 2 g. protein, 3 g. dietary fiber, 121 mg. sodium.
*Dried cranberries may be substituted for dried cherries.
**One package (9 oz.) of pre-washed baby spinach leaves may be substituted for chard.