The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans make the unsurprising recommendation that Americans need to increase their fruit and vegetable intake, and dark leafy greens in particular. Far from just a cliché, dark leafy greens are true superfoods that pack a powerful nutrient punch.
Studies have shown that consuming just one additional serving of greens per day can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 11 percent. Similarly, the same incremental increase of daily greens can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 9 percent – a benefit that can be attributed to a low glycemic index and high magnesium content.
While celebrating all things green in the month of March, there’s no better time to look at the health-promoting effects of these nutrition all-stars.
Dark Greens are Nutritious & Filling
Like most vegetables, leafy greens are a fat-free, cholesterol free addition to your plate. They are very low in carbohydrates and calories, with most varieties accounting for less than 25 calories per serving. Each serving of greens is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They are excellent sources of vitamins A, C, E and K, calcium, potassium, iron, folate, and fiber.
Dark Greens are Carotenoid Powerhouses
Leaf vegetables are rich in pro-vitamin carotenoids, notably beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin. According to the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), the antioxidant activity of these particular carotenoids can protect against cancers of the mouth and throat. These same carotenoids have been shown to inhibit the growth of breast, skin, stomach, and lung cancer cells.
Aside from their anti-cancer properties, the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin are exceptionally important for eye health. The risk for developing age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and blindness can be greatly reduced by consuming a diet rich in dark, leafy greens. In fact, per a study performed by researchers at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, individuals who ate the most leaf vegetables had a 46 percent lower risk of developing macular degeneration than those who ate the least amount.
Dark Greens Support Women’s Health
Consuming adequate quantities of leafy greens is especially important for women. Most varieties are an excellent source of folate, providing at least 10% of the Daily Value (or 40 mcg). This important B-vitamin is essential for cell reproduction and protects against birth defects like spina bifida and anencephaly.
Women should also note that greens are a good source of the nutrients that provide bone support. Greens are rich in vitamin K, the building block for the protein osteocalcin and a regulator of bone demineralization. Greens provide ample amounts of calcium, magnesium and potassium. Young women can improve bone density and middle-aged women can decrease their risk of hip fracture by 45 percent just by consuming one or more servings of leaf vegetables per day.
If you’re not accustomed to eating dark green vegetables every day, you don’t have to go to extremes. The benefits of these antioxidant powerhouses can be observed even with minimal intake.
For ways to add dark greens to your diet, check out 7 Dark Greens for Extraordinary Health.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.