If you’re following a whole food plant-based diet – and if you’re anything like me – you’re probably eating your fair share of tossed green salads. Perhaps you’ve tried different types of lettuces, such as romaine, red leaf, and butterhead, and maybe you’ve tried adding those baby salad green mixes which are now available in most groceries.
But let’s face it, no matter how many different salad dressings or toppings you try, eating the same things every day can get plain old.
Are you ready to spice up your salads – and take a walk on those wild green “sides”?
Take a Walk on the Wild Green Side
Did you know that there’s a whole world of leafy greens just waiting to be explored? Have you ever heard of beet greens, curly endive, arugula, dandelion greens, mizuna, lamb’s quarters, watercress and sorrel?
These may sound a bit exotic, like something you would order in a fancy restaurant, but there’s really no reason to be intimidated – after all, they’re just plants! If you can’t find these and others at your local conventional supermarket, try farmers’ markets, local farms, and natural food stores.
Or, alternatively, you can easily grow your own leafy greens in a pot in a sunny window at home or in your garden!
It should come as no surprise that plant-based pioneer Dr. Fuhrman’s top nine ranked nutritionally-dense superfoods are exclusively leafy greens, with four superlative greens tied for first place (stay tuned to find out the winners below!)
Rich in vitamins A, C, K, and some B vitamins as well as potassium, magnesium, and fiber, virtually fat-free and extremely low in calories, leafy greens have become widely-accepted across a wide range of dietary approaches and philosophies as cornerstones of a healthy diet.
In fact, have you ever heard any expert, of any dietary persuasion, urging people to eat fewer greens? I sure haven’t!
Despite their commonalities, different greens have different flavor and nutritional profiles. Go ahead and take advantage of the diversity of green textures and flavors to keep it interesting for your plate and your palate: peppery arugula, watercress and mustard greens, bitter dandelion and escarole, and that standby of food eras past, sweet and gentle iceberg lettuce, to just name a few flavor profiles.
Of course, you’ll likely find that you like some leafy greens more than others, but what have you got to lose in taking some tasty risks except staying out of those food ruts we all fall into?
Greens such as lettuce and watercress are typically consumed raw, others, such as kale, are most often cooked, and some, such as dandelion greens, mustard greens, and spinach can be enjoyed either cooked or raw. Cooking tends to mellow out the flavor of the more intense and peppery greens.
By the way, cruciferous greens such as kale, collard greens, mizuna and watercress, and other cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, should be consumed raw in moderation. These vegetables contain compounds that can compete with iodine for thyroid uptake and can interfere with the production of thyroid hormone.
The Importance of Micronutrients
Another reason to maximize the diversity of your leafy green varieties to optimize nutritional benefits.
“It is also important to achieve micronutrient diversity, not just a high level of a few isolated micronutrients. Eating a variety of plant foods is essential to good health. It is important to include a wide assortment of plant foods in your diet to obtain the full range of nutritional requirements,” Dr. Fuhrman states on his website.
In case you’re not familiar with the term, “micronutrients” is just a fancy word for vitamins and minerals. “Micro” refers to the fact that we need only very small amounts of these micronutrients. According to Harvard Health, however, failing to get these very small amounts “virtually guarantees disease.”
Macronutrients, on the other hand, refer to proteins, fats and carbohydrates, of which we need much larger quantities as most of us know all too well!)
In general, the darker the color, the more micronutrients a green has, for instance, the deep green color of romaine lettuce indicates that it’s nutritionally richer than whitish-green iceberg. In addition to an abundance of micronutrients, leafy greens also contain antioxidant carotenoids that safeguard cellular health and help guard against the early stages of cancer development.
Carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein are naturally-occurring vitamin A-containing plant pigments. Although often associated with orange and red vegetables such as carrots and tomatoes, carotenoids also give leafy green veggies their green color. Carotenoids fight the free radical damage associated with serious diseases such as cancer and support bone, skin and immune system health.
And the best news of all, since sugar cravings can indicate mineral deficiencies, nutrient-dense leafy greens can help curb these cravings in support of your healthy whole food plant-based diet.
To help you sort out where to start, I’m highlighting plant-based pioneer Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s personal picks for the top leafy green nutritional powerhouses so you get the most bang for your “leafy green buck.” While a couple of these are familiar staples of a plant-based diet, the rest are likely off your radar.
By now you’re probably wondering which leafy greens are the top powerhouse superfood winners, right?
Drumroll, please …
Dr. Fuhrman’s Top 9 Leafy Green Superfood Winners:
- First Place: Kale, Collard Greens, Mustard Greens and Watercress
- Second Place: Swiss Chard
- Third Place: Bok Choy
- Fourth Place: Spinach
- Fifth Place: Arugula
- Sixth Place: Romaine
In Part II of this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the nutritional and disease-fighting properties of the top leafy green superfood winners.