Everyone knows that they should be eating more vegetables. But do you actually know what health benefits are in dark green vegetables? These nutritious plants are some of the best sources for a variety of vitamins and minerals that are essential to a healthy body. And if you aren't consuming enough of these vegetables, you could be missing out on countless health benefits or even put yourself at risk for a vitamin deficiency.
Eating more vegetables shouldn't mean suffering through flavorless iceberg lettuce. In fact, many of the most nutritious vegetables are some of the most palatable. So what are the best dark green vegetables to include in your diet? And what health benefits do they provide besides being low in calories?
Eating the Rainbow: Why Is It Important?
If you follow a healthy diet or are looking to make the switch to one, then you might have heard advice about "eating the rainbow." But this phrase isn't just about eating a visually pleasing array of fruits and vegetables. Different colors found in edible plants can actually correlate to the nutrients found within. Therefore, "eating the rainbow" helps ensure that your diet includes a wide variety of all the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients your body needs.
Of all the colors of the rainbow, nutritionally speaking, dark green vegetables are some of the most important. These vegetables include nutrients that form the backbone of a healthy diet, like fiber, calcium, and iron. They're also considerably high in antioxidants, which some experts believe can help fight environmental factors that cause disease. Some preliminary connections have also emerged between the dietary antioxidants found in these vegetables and cancer prevention. While you should do your best to eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, dark green vegetables should not be overlooked.
What Are the Most Popular Dark Green Vegetables?
When you think of dark green vegetables, the first thing that comes to mind might be spinach or leafy lettuce. While it is true that most dark green vegetables are leafy, your options are not limited to these two plants. Other vegetables that you can find in most produce sections include:
As you can see, you have plenty of options when it comes to introducing more dark green vegetables into your diet. Plus, choosing a variety of different plant sources can help ensure you get a balanced range of vitamins and nutrients. For instance, broccoli is an excellent source of vitamins C and K. But spinach, kale, and collard greens offer loads of vitamin A.
How Many Dark Green Vegetables Should You Eat?
Whether you're overhauling your diet from scratch or already follow a healthy lifestyle, the amount of vegetables you eat is just as important as the kind. The current United States government guidelines recommend several servings per day, with an emphasis on dark green vegetables. For children and sedentary women, they suggest three servings per day. For teen girls, sedentary men, and active women they recommend four servings per day. And for teen boys and active men, they recommend five servings per day.
These serving suggestions might seem overwhelming at first, but with a little work, you can easily reach these numbers. Each serving is about one cup of raw vegetables or half a cup of cooked vegetables. A large salad filled with leafy greens at lunch and a heaping serving of cooked greens with dinner can easily get you to this goal. With a little imagination, you and your family will be able to follow a healthy diet with ease.
The Top 8 Vitamins and Minerals Found in Dark Green Vegetables
Everyone knows that dark green vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet. But what makes these plants so nutritious? Most dark green vegetables include vital nutrients and a range of vitamins that help manage digestion and keep our bodies healthy. Below, we've identified eight of the most beneficial compounds found in these vegetables and why you should include them in your diet.
If you or a loved one is struggling with vitamin or nutrient deficiencies, eating foods high in these compounds often isn't enough. Instead, you should schedule an appointment with your medical doctor and consult with them about a proper treatment regime. This regime will often include adding vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods into your diet. But your doctor might also prescribe supplements or medications to help raise your levels to a healthy range. Only your medical doctor can make this decision.
Many dark green vegetables are extremely high in fiber. While fiber is technically a carbohydrate, it is unique because the body can't break down and digest this nutrient. But fiber plays an extremely important role in a healthy diet.
There are many types of useful plant fibers, such as hemp fiber or bamboo fiber, but the type found in edible plants is known as dietary fiber. Since our bodies are incapable of digesting this fiber, we don't gain any calories or nutrition from eating it. Instead, it adds bulk to our food and helps carry nutrients and waste through our digestive tract.
Long term, the most obvious sign that you're not eating enough dark green vegetables is usually a mild to moderate nutrient deficiency. However, not eating enough vegetables can also impact your day-to-day digestion. For most people, vegetables are their primary source of fiber. And if you're not getting enough fiber in your diet, you could experience symptoms like constipation or diarrhea. If you're trying to lose or maintain your weight, fiber is also important for satiety and healthy blood sugar levels.
Dark green vegetables are one of the most accessible sources of folate. This compound is a form of the vitamin B9 but is more commonly known as folate or folic acid. Folate is the naturally occurring form of this vitamin, while folic acid is man-made.
The body uses folate for a variety of necessary functions. The body uses folate to create DNA, cell division, and other genetic processes. Insufficient folate levels can also cause something called folate-deficiency anemia. Folate is needed to create red blood cells, so if you're not consuming enough folate, your blood count will drop.
For pregnant women, folate or folic acid is essential to prevent neural tube deficiencies. Many prenatal vitamins include folic acid, but including extra dark green vegetables in your diet can also help.
When it comes to getting enough iron in your diet, most people turn to red meat. However, dark green vegetables often contain a surprising amount of this nutrient. Spinach is the most famous example of this, thanks to Popeye and some inaccurate science. But any vegetable that is dark green and leafy can help bring a little extra iron to your diet.
Iron is well-known for the role it plays in creating hemoglobin and preventing anemia. But it is also essential to the creation of myoglobin, which helps transport oxygen to your muscles. Without enough dietary iron, your body will not be able to grow and function properly.
Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme generally comes from animal sources, while non-heme is in plants. Both types help keep the body healthy, so you should choose a variety of foods to meet your iron requirements.
Calcium is one of the most prevalent minerals found in the human body. This compound is most famous for its role in bone and tooth health. But it is also essential for proper nerve function, heart health, and muscle function. While many people get plenty of calcium from dairy products, green leafy vegetables are a great alternative for vegans or those who are lactose-intolerant.
In some cases, the calcium in dark green vegetables isn't readily available to your body because of the presence of oxalic acid. Some vegetables, like spinach, are high in calcium but also contain high levels of oxalic acid. For vegetables with high calcium and little to no oxalic acid, try kale or collard greens.
5. Vitamin A
Vitamin A, also known as retinol, is important to eye health, reproductive health, and the body's immune system. Fortunately, vitamin A deficiency is extremely uncommon in the United States and other developed countries. But if you want to ensure you're getting enough vitamin A in your diet, vegetables are easily the best source of this essential nutrient.
Unless you are taking a vitamin A supplement, you probably won't consume too much vitamin A from diet alone. However, take note that excessive vitamin A consumption can be harmful. That is especially true for pregnant women. If you're unsure about the safety of your vitamin A consumption, consult with your medical doctor.
6. Vitamin C
In popular culture, vitamin C goes hand-in-hand with oranges, lemons, and other citrus fruit, but there are countless plant sources for this essential nutrient. Vitamin C can help boost the immune system by encouraging white blood cell production. It also shows promise as a powerful antioxidant for fighting off disease. Some studies even show potential for fighting high blood pressure and heart disease.
Not all dark green vegetables are a good source of vitamin C. Broccoli and kale, however, both contain over half of the suggested daily intake per serving. Keep in mind that vitamin C can break down during cooking, so consider eating these vegetables raw to take full advantage of their nutritional content.
7. Vitamin E
You'll find vitamin E in skincare products for its potent antioxidant properties. But this vitamin is also an important part of a healthy, well-rounded diet. Vitamin E plays a role in immune function and cell health. This vitamin also helps keep blood vessels clear of platelet build-up. Some studies are investigating whether or not vitamin E can protect the body from diseases caused by pollution, radiation, and other sources of free radicals. Research also indicates a potential link between vitamin E consumption and the delay of Alzheimer's disease.
Like vitamin C, vitamin E is extremely easy to come by in a variety of foods. Some dark green vegetables that are high in vitamin E include broccoli, swiss chard, kale, spinach, and collard greens.
8. Vitamin K
Compared to the vitamins listed above, vitamin K is not very well-known. Vitamin K helps support healthy blood clotting and is sometimes supplemented after a patient receives a blood thinning medication. While there are likely other important benefits of this vitamin, currently little is known about its role in the body.
If you include any amount of dark green vegetables in your diet, then your body will get more than enough vitamin K. Just one leaf of swiss chard contains over 300 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin K. And 1 serving of kale contains over 400 percent of this value. More conservatively, broccoli and spinach contain around 100 percent of your daily vitamin K intake per serving.
Transform Your Health With the Power of Vegetables
After learning about the countless health benefits of dark green vegetables, hopefully, you feel inspired to add more of these nutritious plants into your diet. The right balance of these vegetables can help you reach a wide range of dietary requirements, including fiber, calcium, and a variety of essential vitamins. Combined with natural sources of fats and proteins, these vegetables are a great building block for a healthy diet.
However, if you're kickstarting a new healthy lifestyle from scratch don't let this information overwhelm you. While it can be tempting to track every micronutrient that you consume, understand that making the effort to eat a few more dark green vegetables every day can have a significant impact on your overall health. Sometimes small steps are necessary to make a big change.