Probably like most of you, I grew up being nagged to eat my greens. No reason given other than “they’re good for you,” and when you’re a kid, that’s all the more reason not to eat them. Fortunately, we grow up, learn a few things, and start to take food more seriously. In time we come to understand that good food matters, and if we want to live a long and healthy life, wholesome foods – as in, no processed or sugar-packed crap – are a non-negotiable. Problem is, when life/work/kids/travel etc. get in the way, eating well can sometimes take a backseat.
But the good news is that it’s easy to radically upgrade your diet almost instantly, with almost no extra effort. The secret is leafy greens and lots of them, preferably organic or fresh from the farmers’ market. Why prioritize leafy greens? Because they’re nature’s vibrant health elixir and I urge everyone to indulge. Here’s where to start:
Leafy Greens are a nutritional no-brainer.
A plate without loads of leafys on it is a missed opportunity – and you’re missing out on these wonderful plants that deliver more nutrients than just about any other food on the planet. Instead, don’t be afraid to pile your plate high. Packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, leafy greens give your body the artillery it needs to fight off potential killers like heart disease and cancer. They’re also loaded with prebiotic fiber, antioxidants and digestive enzymes – all of which help your organ systems thrive.
Leafy Greens keep your gut microbiome healthy.
Leafys also play a vital role in keeping your gut microbiome happy. All that prebiotic fiber feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut the stuff they crave, helping to maintain your gut’s bacterial balance. Why does that matter? Because a healthier gut, aided by its bacterial allies, is going to digest food better, keep immunity strong, energy levels up and brain fog down. Not to mention, lots of leafys in your day will help keep gastrointestinal downers like bloating, constipation, leaky gut and IBS at bay. Any wonder why we recommend diets loaded with leafy greens so often?
Leafy Greens have mad skills.
Every leafy green has its nutritional sweet spot. So eating several varieties at one meal broadens the variety of nutrients in each forkful, upping your nutrient payload. In other words, don’t just hit the kale hard and call it a day — mix it up! A few leafy fistfuls of mixed greenery added to every meal will supply a hearty dose of good stuff like vitamin A, C, K, folate, potassium and calcium, to name a few, plus the fiber that nourishes the gut bacteria and keeps your immunity strong.
Many leafy greens also contain glucosinolates which may protect against certain types of cancers, while others are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, which may protect against cataracts and macular degeneration. What else do leafy greens do for you? A lot! They help:
- …support brain function and can help put the brakes on age-related cognitive decline
- …support healthy skin and a youthful glow, thanks in part to leafys’ skin-protective beta-carotene as well as their ability to help preserve telomere length
- …support healthy blood sugar levels and reduce diabetes risk, according to a University of Leicester study which showed that one and one half servings of green leafy vegetables per day helped reduce risk of type 2 diabetes by 14%.
- …support a healthy immune response, which helps keep you healthy day-to-day, while also taming risk of developing an autoimmune disease in the long-term
Leafy Greens you should love up every day.
While it’s hard to find a leafy that doesn’t come packed with nutritional goodies, I do have a few favorites leading the nutritional and flavor charge, among them the classics, like arugula, collard greens, dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach, Swiss chard and watercress.
If you’re a bit more creative in the kitchen, you might also try working bok choy, endive, turnip greens and seaweed into your leafy green rotation. And don’t forget the often overlooked powerhouse green known as purslane, which has the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids of all edible plants, plus upwards of 15 times more of the anti-oxidant melatonin than any other veggie.
No matter what combo you chose though, give them a good rinse and a ride in the salad spinner – and they’re ready for tossing into your salad bowl, soups, stews, smoothies, omelets or under your favorite slab of protein.
Love a good salad? Nothing wrong with adding some butter lettuce, Romaine or iceberg for color and crunch, but keep in mind they don’t rank as nearly as high on the nutritional payload list as most of the darker leafy greens do.
Buy clean greens.
And by that we mean not drenched in toxins. When buying leafys, always opt for organic, or fresh from the farmers market. Leafys from these sources tend to be grown in healthier, more nutrient rich soil – netting you’re a more nutritious product—raised without chemical pesticides, delivering fewer toxins into your system. Remember, the mission is to buy freshest, most nutritious greens possible, so closer to the vine local farmers market produce and organic options should be your go-to. Skip conventionally grown leafys, and in particular, conventional spinach, kale collard and mustard greens, which, according to the Environmental Working Group, are among the most heavily pesticided crops out there. To keep costs in check you can also go with frozen organic leafys, which despite the lower price are comparable to fresh when it comes to their nutritional benefits.
Treat your leafys right.
Once you’ve gotten your leafys home from the market, eat them as soon as possible. As they sit in the crisper, they start to loose some of their nutrients, so don’t let them hang around for weeks at a time – think turnover. For fresh baby spinach and ‘spring mix’ boxed leafys – which often start wilting in the fridge within days, try tucking a paper towel inside the box or storage container. This will help extend freshness by a day or two by absorbing the extra moisture that can speed the decaying process.
Know you won’t be able to eat your leafys within a few days? To minimized nutrient loss, as soon as possible, lightly steam, blanche or sauté your leafys, then freeze and store in an air-tight container.
If you missed the freshness boat and your leafys have gotten slimy, that’s your cue to toss them. It’s nature’s way of showing you that the cell membranes are breaking down, are no longer viable for you and could make you sick. Instead, deposit them in your composting bin, and do better next time!
Pack your day with leafys.
So, let’s say you’re not a salad lover, but you know you need to better. How to get more leafys into your day? Add them to every meal and every dish – greens go with just about everything but dessert (and go easy on the sweet stuff, please). Toss fistfuls of spinach or mixed greens into soups and smoothies; drop in finely chopped greens into stews and tomato sauce; load up omelets with wilted greens; chop, add extra virgin olive oil to make a pesto; and serve fish, chicken and grass-fed meats atop a generous pile of greens.
Take your greens to go.
Frequently on-the-go? No time to chop and prep? Then add a daily dose of powdered greens to your day. A serving of powdered greens will, like their un-powdered cousins, deliver a comparable payload of good-for-you antioxidants, micro-algae and digestive enzymes to keep your systems on track; provide a nutritional boost for the immune system; feed the good bacteria in your gut; aid digestion and support energy and brain function. How to do greens right:
- The classic greens powder drink is easy to make: just combine a scoop of powder – about 9 grams should do the trick – with water in a glass or sealable container. Stir or shake well and enjoy.
- Cool water is fine, but if you’re just getting into green drinks, make yours with super cold water and plenty of ice will make it more palatable.
- Green drinks newbies may also wish to add can a dash of lemon juice, plus a touch of stevia to the mix.
- Greens powder not fully dissolving? Whisk them with a coffee foamer for a few seconds.
- Greens are great, but drink yours earlier in the day so they don’t interfere with your ability to fall asleep when it’s time to turn in for the night
- Always make your own and skip the pre-made, commercially bottled brews. Virtually all of them are sugar bombs hiding behind health-washed labeling.
- Got grass allergies? Check with your doc first to make sure greens powders are OK with any prescription meds you may be on, or if there are any contraindications to keep in mind.