By Kristin Serrano
I know summer seems so very far away but do not stop reaching for those leafy greens! Your body needs them year-round. The whole “greens equals salad” thing is a myth anyway. There are a million options beyond lettuce and spinach. “Greens” are not even all green! Make this the season that you venture into the world of not just kale and chard but also mustard greens, mâche (corn salad) and radicchio – just to name a few.
The category of greens includes an amazing array of flavors, textures, colors and nutrient profiles. Greens are excellent sources of the B-A-C-K Vitamins. Vitamins B, A (pre-cursors*), C and K are commonly high amounts in leafy greens. One cup of cooked kale has over 1,000% the daily value of Vitamin K, nearly 100% the daily value of Vitamin A pre-cursors and 70% of the daily value of Vitamin C. Spinach provides a quarter to over half of your daily needs for three B Vitamins. This high-vitamin content means greens are working to protect your nervous system, build your immune system, improve skin, keep bones strong, protect your heart and so much more. Vitamins are not the end of the story. Leaves are crammed full of phytonutrients like lutein (for eye health) and quercetin (an anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer superstar). Research is currently underway studying the effects of quercetin on COVID-19.
The fiber in greens is just as important. I know, you hear about fiber all the time but the lack of it in your diet is a bigger deal than you think. On average, Americans are getting about 15 grams of fiber which is less than half of what we need. “Gut health” is all the rage in wellness circles, but not enough are getting the message that fiber is the lynchpin of a healthy, happy gut. The ripple effects of a high-fiber healthy-gut diet are seemingly endless. Researchers in 2016 showed that a diet low in fiber and higher in saturated fat led to less productive sleep. In 2020, researchers looking at an Iowa Women’s Health study saw the correlation between high-fiber diets and improved gut-mediated mental health in post-menopausal women. Getting your greens not only nourishes your body, but improves your sleep and your mood! Sign me up.
In winter, it is important to get creative with greens. You many not feel like eating a traditional salad and that is fine. In fact, if you are only getting greens as salads, it is time to shake things up. Here are a few ideas to get more greens and not get bored:
- Be Daring. Check out the cookbook “The Book of Greens” by Jenn Louis which has a lifetime of delicious ways to enjoy greens. I am serious. You will be inspired.
- Warm It Up. Greens do not have to be eaten raw! Greens like chard, kale, escarole, mustard and collards can take some heat. You can enjoy a warm salad or use greens in other cooking.
- My Secret Weapon. Keep frozen greens (kale and spinach can usually be found in the freezer case at your local grocer) in your freezer and add them to everything. I add greens to soups, casseroles, pastas, omelets, frittatas, smoothies and anything else I can think of. Honestly, any time I cook I ask myself “Could I add greens to this?” Usually, the answer is yes.
- Embrace Herbs. Herbs like cilantro, oregano, basil and sage are leafy greens and they make life taste better. So, eat that parsley on your plate! Enjoy sauces like pesto and chimichurri.
- Have an Air Fryer? If you do, you can easily make delicious (really) kale chips. Remove kale from stem and tear into pieces. Toss with olive oil and lemon juice to coat. Salt to taste. Now dry the “chips” on the lowest setting of your air fryer until they are crisp.
*Vitamin A pre-cursors: True Vitamin A (Retinol) is only found in animal foods. Vitamin A precursors, like the carotenoids in carrots, have to be converted by our bodies into true Vitamin A. We do this surprisingly inefficiently. The best sources of Vitamin A are liver, grass-fed dairy, egg and seafood. Do not despair – carotenoids are nutrition powerhouses in their own right.
Kirsten Serrano is a nutrition consultant, chef, farmer, food literacy educator, and the best-selling author of “Eat to Your Advantage.” You can find out more about her work at SmallWonderFood.com.