Nutrient-Rich Goodness: Exploring Leafy Green Vegetables

  • Ayesha Bibi Bibi Doctor of Pharmacy - Pharm-D, The University of Faisalabad, Pakistan

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Overview

Leafy green vegetables are an essential component of your healthy diet as they contain minerals, vitamins, and fibres. The vegetable part of your yummy steaks that you are reluctant to take in is actually full of vitamins and other important nutrients that improve your physical as well as mental health.

Are you curious about the nutrient content of leafy greens and how these nutrients can be beneficial for you? Do you want to know delicious ways of adding leafy greens into your diet so that you and your child can have adequate nutrition and a healthy lifestyle? Then read the following article to find out.

What are leafy green vegetables?

Leafy green vegetables are those vegetables that have green leaves and include (other than spinach!) kale, cabbage, collard greens, asparagus, broccoli, and lettuce among many others. They are required in a balanced diet to meet your daily nutrient requirements. You can include them in your diet either as a salad or in cooked/processed form, however you like it. 

As leafy greens have low-calorie content, you can incorporate them into your weight loss diet. They also reduce your chances of developing heart diseases and cancer.1

Why are leafy greens called a superfood?

Leafy green vegetables are a superfood for the following reasons:

  • Leafy greens, especially dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, salad greens) have high nutritious value. They are loaded with vitamins A, C, E, and K. Mustard greens and bok choy are rich in B vitamins, minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium) and antioxidants
  • Leafy green vegetables have a small amount of calories but are high in fibre content
  • You can benefit from them by either growing them in your gardens or buying them from local farmer markets or grocery stores where they are available throughout the year
  • Due to their nutritious content, leafy greens, if utilized in your daily diet, can help prevent a number of diseases (cardiovascular diseases to name a few).
  • You can incorporate them in your daily diet in the form of salads, stir-fries, soups etc

What are the common varieties of Leafy Green Vegetables?

Following are the leafy green vegetables, their nutrient content and health benefits:

Spinach

You must be aware of the many health benefits of spinach because of Popeye the Sailor. Spinach is the most common leafy green vegetable that is used in our daily diet and contains many essential nutrients.

Spinach is rich in vitamins A, C, D, and K. Research shows that vitamins A, D, and K help in strengthening your bones while vitamin C is helpful in wound healing.2 Spinach also contains folate (folic acid), a vitamin that is crucial in pregnancy and prevents birth defects in your baby.2

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the nutrients found in three cups of spinach are:3

NutrientAmount
Calories20.4
Fiber 2 g
Sodium64.6 mg
Carbohydrates3 g
Vitamin C24 mg
Vitamin K410 mcg
Protein2 g
Folate174.6 mcg
Potassium470 mg
Magnesium71.1 mg
Iron2.4 mg
Beta-carotene5063.4 mcg

Kale

Kale is commonly found in salads and contains a variety of minerals and vitamins. It is advised to eat it without cooking; i.e. in raw form, as cooking decreases the nutritious value of this leafy green vegetable. 

Kale is loaded with vitamins A, K, C and antioxidants such as lutein and beta-carotene. These antioxidants are helpful in preventing diseases that are caused due to oxidative stress. A single cup of raw kale contains only 20 calories. Due to this nutritious value, you can use kale for regulation of blood pressure, supporting your immune system, and reducing your risk of developing cancer.4 

Following are the nutrients found in a single cup of raw kale according to the information given by the USDA:5

Nutrient Amount
Calories7.2
Fiber0.8 g
Fat0.3 g
Sodium 10.9 mg
Carbohydrates0.9 g
Protein0.6 g
Vitamin A49.6 mcg
Vitamin C19.2 mg
Vitamin K80.3 mcg
Calcium52.3 mg
Potassium71.7 mg

Collard greens

Have you ever come across loose leafy greens that are slightly bitter in taste and have thick leaves? Then that’s most probably collard greens.

Collard greens are very rich in vitamin K which is helpful in in improving bone health (resulting in reduced risk of bone fracture) and blood clotting. It also lowers high blood pressure. Other nutrients found in these leafy greens are vitamins A and C, folate (folic acid), beta-carotene as well as other carotenoids (such as lutein and zeaxanthin). 

Collard greens also contain fibre which have an important role in improving your heart health by reducing blood pressure and lowering bad cholesterol. Although studies are still underway, this leafy green is also helpful in lowering the risk of cancer such as breast, prostate, and lung cancer.6

A single cup of raw collard greens have following nutrients according to the USDA:6

NutrientAmount
Calories11.5
Fat0.22 g
Fiber1.4 g
Carbohydrates2 g
Protein1 g
Sodium6 mg
Calcium83.5 mg

Swiss chard

Swiss chard is a nutrient-rich leafy green vegetable and has reduced amounts of calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Swiss chard is enriched with several types of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin K and E, potassium, magnesium, and iron. As these leafy greens are full of antioxidants, you can consume them for slowing down the progression of certain diseases. They also reduce the chances of you developing a cardiovascular disease.7 

The USDA tells us that one cup of raw swiss chards provides the following nutritions:7

NutrientsAmount
Calories6.8
Fiber0.1 g
Fat0.6 g
Sodium77 mg
Carbohydrates1.4 g
Protein0.7 g
Vitamin K299 mcg
Iron0.6 mg

How to add leafy green vegetables to your diet?

Leafy greens can be utilized to provide a number of flavours for any meal. Following are a few ways to add leafy greens to your daily diet:8

Prepare a kale salad

Break off pieces of kale from their stem, and add vinegar, oil, and spices to your taste. Then toss and let this mixture sit for a while so that it softens. Voila! You have a delicious salad packed with high nutritive value!

Cooked leafy greens

Although cooking reduces the amount of nutrients in leafy greens, it becomes necessary if the vegetable is bitter such as collard greens. Leafy greens and leafy herbs are both loaded with nutrients such as vitamins and antioxidants. Using leafy herbs adds flavour as well as nutrition to your dishes.

For instance, parsley carries vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene (antioxidant); basil is loaded with vitamin A and beta-carotene; oregano has both vitamin A and C; and cilantro is found to have vitamin A, C, and beta-carotene.

Leafy greens in breakfast

Spinach is the most common leafy green that can be easily added to your breakfast. Wilt the leafy green in a pan and add it to omelette, quiche, or scrambled eggs. Make sure to squeeze out any liquid after the spinach is cooked to avoid watery spinach.

Make them into soups

Leafy green vegetables are a great nutritious addition to vegetable soups. For instance, spinach can be added to minestrone soup, and cabbage is excellent for use in Asian soup recipes.

Baked leafy greens

Kale chips are a fairly delicious and nutritious treat. Cut kale into small thin pieces and place them on a baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil and then sprinkle some black pepper. Bake at 350oF for about 10 to 15 minutes until they look nice and crispy.

Add to regular dishes

Leafy greens can substitute other green vegetables in your regular dishes. Shredded cabbage is most commonly utilized in regular dishes. For example, you can add shredded cabbage instead of lettuce in tacos. This gives the tacos crunch as well as nutrition. Replace lettuce with shredded cabbage or baby spinach when making salads to get more nutrition. 

Fresh summer salad

Add and mix all the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Combine all the dressing ingredients (olive oil, vinegar, sugar, and pepper) in a jar, cover it and then shake to mix completely. Add this mixture to the salad and toss slightly to coat. You can replace lettuce with other leafy greens if you want more potassium. You can also add chicken for more protein.

Sauteed leafy greens

You can saute kale, spinach, or Swiss chard in olive oil with some garlic, grated parmesan cheese, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes.

The nutritious content of leafy greens is reduced considerably after cooking. If you want to make use of the maximum nutrients present in leafy greens, you should eat them uncooked. This includes making green smoothies, salads, and juices. However, cooking is important in the case of some leafy greens such as collard greens which can be bitter when they are raw.

If you want to benefit from the folate found in leafy green vegetables then consume them without cooking as research shows that cooking reduces the folate content by 50%.9

When to avoid or limit leafy green vegetables?

Excessive use of leafy greens in certain conditions can be harmful for your body, such as:

  • Kidney disease and leafy greens: You should watch out for leafy greens that are rich in potassium (dark leafy greens such as spinach) if you have kidney disease. This is because the kidneys are unable to remove the extra potassium out of your body resulting in increased potassium in the blood. This condition is called hyperkalemia and has several detrimental effects on your health, especially your heart10
  • Oxalate-rich leafy green vegetables: You should limit or completely avoid the intake of leafy greens rich in oxalates (kale, swiss chard, and spinach) if you have kidney stones (oxalate-containing) or you are at risk of developing kidney stones10
  • Vitamin K-rich leafy greens: You should also limit the intake of vegetables that are loaded with vitamin K if you are taking blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin).4 This is because vitamin K is required for blood clotting while warfarin works to prevent blood clotting to treat certain diseases. Thus, vitamin K in high quantities can work against warfarin. The average daily recommended amount of vitamin K for adult men is 120 micrograms and for adult women it is 90 microgram11

FAQs

What makes leafy greens so nutritious?

Leafy green vegetables are loaded with vitamins (A, C, E, K, folate), minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron), and antioxidants. These nutrients make them a superfood.

Which leafy green vegetables are considered most nutritious?

Spinach, kale, swiss chard, and collard greens are considered the most nutrient-rich leafy green vegetables.

How can I incorporate leafy green vegetables into my diet?

You can add them to your daily diet by making them into salads, sandwiches, soups, stir-fries, and smoothies. You can also add them to your regular dishes to enhance flavour.

What are the health benefits of leafy green vegetables?

Leafy greens have many health benefits such as strengthening your immune system and preventing diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer etc.

How should I store leafy greens so they stay fresh?

Leafy greens should be stored in a refrigerator and preferably in a perforated plastic bag. You should wash and dry them before refrigeration to prevent them from spoiling.

Summary

Leafy green vegetables are nutrient-rich goodness and are called superfoods due to their nutrient content and many health benefits. Leafy greens are rich in vitamins (A, C, E, K), minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium), and antioxidants (beta-carotene). Due to these nutrients, leafy greens have several health benefits such as preventing heart diseases, diabetes, and cancers, and strengthening your immune system to name a few. Incorporating these leafy green vegetables in your diet can be highly beneficial, improve your health, and combat many diseases. You can make them a part of your diet in the form of salads, smoothies, and juices, or you can add them to regular dishes for flavour as well as nutrients.

References

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Ayesha Bibi

Doctor of Pharmacy - Pharm-D, The University of Faisalabad, Pakistan

Ayesha is an undergraduate pharmacy student with strong management and leadership acumen having experience of industrial and hospital pharmacy through internship programs. She has presented at an international conference as a student speaker and also volunteered at a fundraising community.

She is a member of an online international society on telemedicine and aims to contribute to collaborative healthcare as a dedicated pharmacist after graduation.

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