Vegetables are vital for our health and should be enjoyed with each and every meal and a Paleo Diet encourages adding seasonal produce to your repertoire. When it comes to getting the most nutritional bang for the food buck, it can be challenging to beat leafy greens! Their reputation as a health food is well earned, and their versatility makes them easy to include in our diet.
With Spring on the horizon and the celebration of all things green with St. Patrick’s Day, it has never been a better time to add more green to your plate!
Leafy greens can be defined as any plant leaves eaten as vegetables. They include over a thousand known varieties. Some popular types include
- Arugula (or rocket) - a peppery and bitter member of the Brassica family.
- Beet greens are the above-ground leaves of beetroot and have a sweet, chard-like flavor
- Chard which is actually a type of beet cultivated specifically to have flavorful, earthy, tender leaves and stems
- Collard greens also belong to the Brassica family and have a mild, earthy, slightly bitter flavor
- Dandelion greens are the bitter, leafy portion of the dandelion plant (yes, the one you might think of as a weed)
- Escarole has dark, thick leaves with a sweet and slightly bitter flavor
- Endive - a member of the chicory family that grows in small heads and has a crisp, nutty flavor
- Frisée(also referred to as curly endive), is a member of the chicory family and has lacy, ruffled leaves
- Kale, a hearty, bitter member of the Brassica family has been cultivated and enjoyed for millennia.
- Lettuces(including romaine, red leaf, green leaf, oak, iceberg, butterhead, and summercrisp) were first cultivated in Ancient Egypt for the purpose of harvesting oil from their seeds
- Mustard greens are the leaves of the mustard plant and have curly edges and a peppery, spicy taste
- Purslane is a succulent that often grows as a weed and has a slightly sour, salty taste
- Radicchio is another member of the chicory family with white and burgundy leaves and a bitter taste
- Rapini (or broccoli rabe), is a Brassica vegetable with a slightly bitter, nutty taste and small broccoli-like buds
- Sorrel has narrow spade-like leafy green with a tart, acidic flavor
- Spinach is a delicately flavored green that has also been cultivated for thousands of years
- Turnip greens are the leaves that grow on top of the turnip plant and have a slightly peppery taste
- Watercress is yet another member of the Brassica family with a spicy and slightly bitter tasting delicate leaf.
Nutrients in Leafy Greens
Nutritionally, leafy greens have diverse micronutrient and phytonutrient profiles. They all tend to be low in calories and high in fiber, folate, manganese, carotenoids, and vitamin K1 (which is involved in photosynthesis, making it particularly high in plant leaves!).
Animal products include some of the most nutrient-dense foods available. They are the best (and often only) source of vitamin A (retinol), DHA/EPA, and vitamin B12, as well as lesser-known nutrients like choline, creatine, and carnosine. Although you might have heard that animal foods provide all the micronutrients a person needs, a diet devoid of vegetables and other plants will likely be a little low in certain necessary nutrients including:
Betaine – a nutrient vital for liver support. The best source is spinach.
Potassium – an important electrolyte and regulator of blood pressure. The best sources are avocados, leafy greens, citrus fruits, and bananas. Meat does contain potassium in its juices but these are often lost in the cooking process.
Magnesium – is crucial for many physiological functions. Once again, the best sources are leafy greens like spinach and chard.
Fermentable fiber – The best sources are found in the leaves of plants.
Eating greens also provides you with
Calcium – a Paleo Diet eliminates dairy and leafy greens are your best source of Paleo friendly calcium.
Manganese – important for antioxidant functions. Unless you are eating truly nose-to-tail, including drinking blood/meat juice, and eating hoof, fur, and tail, your best source of manganese is leafy greens!
Folate - important for general health, not simply a supplement for expectant mothers. Although liver is a rich source of folate, if you shun greens you are most likely lacking this vital nutrient.
Phytonutrients - adding some leafy greens to your plate will give you healthy servings of phytonutrients, including lutein, nitrate, kaempferol, and quercetin.
Salad greens, kale and spinach also provide vitamins A, C and E and K, and broccoli, bok choy and mustard are also rich in many of the B-vitamins.
Many of the nutrients in vegetables are only absorbed if eaten along with fat. Vitamin A, D, E and K are fat soluble vitamins and if you are not eating enough fat, you are not benefitting properly from all the plants you are eating.
Read more on the benefits of fats and get our fat guide here>>>>>
Leafy Greens & Gut Health
Leafy greens also happen to be a gut health superfood! You may have heard of the importance of a healthy gut microbiome populated with diverse, beneficial and resilient flora. In order to achieve their food requirements cannot be ignored. They require fermentable fiber to survive and support your body in multiple processes, one of the most important of which is your immune system. The best way to provide that is to eat plants, especially leafy greens, rich is fermentable fiber.
Fermentable fiber encourages the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs (including acetate, butyrate and propionate) which improve intestinal barrier health by providing cells with energy. They are also passively absorbed into the body, improving cellular health throughout the body, including that of the immune system.
Quercetin, a flavonoid in leafy greens has been shown to enhance microbial diversity and sulfoquinovose, a sugar molecule they contain, can feed beneficial bacteria.
Researchers have found a hugely protective effect of leafy green consumption for cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lung, oral cavity and pharynx, endometrium, pancreas, and colon.
Adding Greens To Your Plate
A serving of leafy greens is equivalent to about 2 cups raw, or 1 cup cooked.
Studies show that one or two servings per day of leafy greens is a great target, but consuming more is not necessarily detrimental.
Pete’s Paleo meals are made weekly with seasonal produce. Order this week’s menu here >>>>>>>>>
Cooking greens results in the loss of some heat-sensitive nutrients like vitamin C, as well as partially destroys polyphenols and some enzymes. Cooking can, however, enhance nutrient bioavailability by beginning the breakdown of plant cell walls, increases antioxidant availability, and reduce levels of some anti-nutrients that normally block mineral absorption, such as oxalate.
To boost variety in your diet, try to experiment and consume different types and different preparation methods.
Egg scrambles: Add your favorite leafy green vegetables to omelets or egg scrambles.
Salads or wraps: Bulk up your salad by filling your plate with different leafy greens like arugula, spinach or romaine lettuce. You could try using heartier green leafy vegetables like kale or collards in the place of bread in sandwiches or wraps.
Smoothies: Add frozen green leafy veggies like kale, spinach, or beet greens to your green smoothie. If you or someone you know is resistant to eating greens, this is a great introduction to increasing your intake because you are not likely to taste them.
Get creative with your salads by adding different greens, tastes, textures and varieties – pick and choose from the chart below and discover some new favorites!