Turn over a new leaf—a dark green one like one of the following eight healthiest dark leafy greens: dandelion, arugula, kale, collard greens, spinach, beet greens, romaine lettuce, and red leaf lettuce.
Dark greens such as collards and spinach—not to mention mustard and dandelion greens, Swiss chard, and kale—are among the top ten healthiest vegetables you can pile on your plate, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Besides folate, potassium, calcium, iron, carotenoids, fiber, and vitamin C, greens bring to the plate ammunition to fight off anything that threatens to compromise your immunity, from your neurotransmitters to your Achilles’ heel.
Have a Salad; You’ll Be Smarter for It. According to the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP), eating just three servings of green leafy, yellow, and cruciferous vegetables daily can slow mental decline by 40 percent—a mental boost equal to five years of younger age! Conversely, researchers at UCLA studying the diets of 500 seventy- to seventy-nine-year-olds found that those whose diets were lowest in folate-source foods like leafy greens showed a 60 percent greater risk of serious cognitive decline. If they had rounded off their three square meals with a dark leafy green like spinach or collard greens, they might have been winning at Scrabble and acing those crossword puzzles.
Use some of that frisée to replace some of the fries in your diet, and you could benefit even more. According to the National Cancer Institute, reducing your fat intake by just 6 percent can equal a significant reduction in your chances of developing cancer. Two reasons? Dark, leafy vegetables like kale and arugula are a source of vitamin E and folate, both critical for the activity of neurotransmitters and for discouraging the activity of tumors, especially breast, stomach, and color cancer, according to the National Women’s Health Resource Center.
Try These Immunity Greens
Chard. Chard (or Swiss chard) with golden-orange, green, or ruby stalks provides 15 percent of your daily value for magnesium, vitamin C, bone-building vitamin K, and beta-carotene. In less time than it takes to order those bad-for-you fries, you could have this goodfor-you Chard Stir-Fry: Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil, and sauté 1/4 cup chopped onions (any kind), a dash of garlic powder, and 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice. Add 1/4 cup white wine and 4 large stalks of chopped chard (dice stalks finely). Stir until chard wilts. Sprinkle with kelp powder, crushed dulse, or salt, and top with grated dairy or nondairy cheese. (Optional: add flaxseeds or soy lecithin granules.)
Spinach. First cultivated in Persia, spinach, along with kale, ranks at the top of the list of vegetables with the highest ORAC value (antioxidant potential). Besides eating your greens for vitamin E and folate, you’re also getting vitamin C, which is more potent when combined with the vitamin E (tocopherol) in spinach. Most greens, including spinach, are a rich source of tocopherol and its subgroups (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta), which can reduce levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a risk factor for heart disease. To benefit more, toss those greens with other sources of vitamin E such as nuts and omega-3-rich oils like flax and walnut.
Baby spinach may be the best grown-up way to build bone, since it supplies almost 200 percent of your daily value for vitamin K, along with calcium and magnesium, three nutrients that interact to mineralize bone. A bargain at 7 calories per cup of raw leaves, spinach provides 20 percent of your daily requirement for beta-carotene, plus fiber, folate, and ascorbic acid. It’s tasty raw, steamed, solo, or combined with other greens.
Dandelion Greens. Or how about passing up the spinach on your next shopping outing and adding dandelion greens (when in season) to the basket? These classically bitter (think broccoli raab) spring greens provide as much calcium as cottage cheese, without the fat and for less than 40 calories a cupful. Plus, they have more vitamin A than most other greens and a third of your DV for ascorbic acid, along with iron and potassium. Try sautéing with oil and garlic or juicing with carrots. They pinch-hit for spinach or kale in almost any recipe. Also, dandelion greens have a tonic effect on the entire body, especially the liver and the gallbladder.
Lettuce. Let us eat our lettuce—and we certainly do: it’s the second most popular vegetable in the United States. But let us choose wisely. Romaine has eight times the beta-carotene of iceberg lettuce and five times the vitamin C (as well as most other nutrients). There is another reason to pass on the iceberg: it takes 36 calories of fossil fuel just to grow and ship this low-nutrient green. And that’s not all. Darker green lettuces like romaine and red leaf are superior to paler greens across the nutritional spectrum.
Cress. Take watercress (which is actually a member of the cabbage family). According to studies from the University of Ulster in Ireland, eating a large serving of watercress daily for eight weeks produced a 23 percent reduction in DNA damage to white blood cells and a 33 percent rise in beta-carotene and lutein in the body, safeguarding cells against cancer.
Chewing a few stems a day of this peppery green improves digestion and will help improve most illnesses, say naturopathic physicians, especially anemia, liver and thyroid problems, and arthritis. Chew watercress for its detoxifying properties if you are exposed to secondhand smoke. It’s also an excellent green to add to the mix when you are juicing carrots, celery, and cucumber. If you must toss up an iceberg salad, this is an excellent green for added taste and nutritional punch.
Buying, Storing, and Preparing
- Spinach is tastiest from March to May and from September to October. As one of the twelve foods flagged by the Environmental Working Group for high levels of pesticide residue, be safe and buy organic.
- Spinach is one of the three vegetables (along with Swiss chard and beet greens) that are best boiled. Boiling releases oxalic acid, the substance that makes food taste bitter and may interfere with the body’s ability to absorb some nutrients.
Store greens unwashed and wrapped in a dampened paper towel inside a plastic bag until ready to use. Wash well and dry in a salad spinner or with an absorbent towel.