One Simple Change: Eat More Leafy Greens

Welcome to the 9th post of One Simple Change, my year-long series of tips geared at “healthifying” your lifestyle, one week at a time.

(I’m pretty sure I made up the word “healthifying”, but I think you know what I mean ;))

Today, I want to talk about the benefits of consuming leafy greens, because if you’re interested in eating for health, these vegetables simply must be a part of your diet. Leafy greens are low in calories and carbohydrates, yet extremely high in nutrients: they contain noteworthy amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins A, C, E, and K, as well as folic acid, and fiber. They’re also full of beneficial phytochemicals and carotenoids.

Not sure what I mean by leafy greens? Here’s what I am talking about:

  • kale- all varieties (including red, curly, and black (aka Tuscan, Lacinato, or dinosaur kale)
  • chard- all varieties (including red, green, and rainbow)
  • collard greens
  • mustard greens
  • bok choy and other “Asian” greens like tatsoi and mizuna
  • arugula, frisee, endive*, chicory, radicchio, escarole, watercress
  • sorrel, lamb’s quarters, and other wild or cultivated “salad” greens (baby or mature); cilantro and parsley, while herbs, can also be considered leafy greens
  • beet greens
  • broccoli rabe
  • cabbage- all varieties (broccoli and kohlrabi are in the cabbage family, and while not technically leafy, are still green and very healthy)
  • spinach
  • wild greens like dandelion, purslane, nettles, and chickweed

Now I wish I could simply say “ok- go eat as much as you can of what’s on the above list” and be done with it. But it’s not that simple, because I want you to be informed about a couple of cautions when it comes to eating greens.

First, it’s important to know that cruciferous vegetables can suppress thyroid function when they are eaten to excess in their raw form. This means that you should not eat tons and tons of raw broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, collards, etc. To the best of my knowledge, these vegetables are best when they’re cooked or lacto-fermented. Does that mean you should not eat cabbage salads? Or kale salads? No. It just means you shouldn’t live on them, and that if you have thyroid issues, you should probably limit them further. I’ve featured raw kale salads on this site several times- I love them- but I mostly eat kale in it’s cooked form. And really, honestly, I think the healthiest way to eat cabbage is in it’s naturally cultured form: as sauerkraut, or in kimchi, etc. This is when it is most easily digested and contains the most nutrients.

Another caution I want to point out about greens is that certain ones- beet greens, chard, and spinach, and also parsley, purslane and lamb’s quarters- contain high amounts of a compound called oxalic acid. Oxalic acid inhibits mineral absorption (particularly calcium and iron): a real bummer, since the minerals in these greens is what a lot of us are after…oxalic acid also contributes to kidney stones. Cooking reduces the oxalic acid in these veggies, so the main concern is if you eat large amounts of them raw. Now I personally eat a fair amount of raw parsley (and also purslane), because honestly before researching this piece, I didn’t know these were high in oxalic acid (they have so many nutrients, I thought I was doing myself good, but maybe now I’ll back off on eating so much of them raw). For years, however, I’ve steered away from eating lots of raw spinach, etc., because of the oxalic acid issue. I do eat spinach salads on occasion, but I generally choose to eat it cooked. I think if you’re concerned about your calcium intake/absorption, this is really something to think about.

In light of these issues, I am a little concerned about the green smoothie “trend”, because if you’re throwing large amounts of raw greens into smoothies once or even twice a day, and depending on them as the sole vehicle to get greens into your diet, you might be overdoing raw kale (which can suppress the thyroid gland); you might also be overdoing raw spinach and getting too much oxalic acid.

Now I am not telling you not to have green smoothies- I drink them on occasion- but I do think it’s important to have balance with leafy greens (as with all things in the diet). This is why I think it’s good to enjoy a portion of your daily greens raw (and some of this can be in smoothies), but also have some of them in cooked form, and some in lacto-fermented form. I am a huge, HUGE, salad eater, so please don’t think I am telling you not to eat raw greens. I eat a very wide variety of the greens listed above, and I think this is really important- variety is key! The wild greens in particular (like dandelion and nettles), are some of the most nutritious foods on the planet, and definitely should not be overlooked.

All things considered, though, I am definitely a kale fanatic. We go through tons of it in this house- I put it in salads (in moderation), soups, stir-fries, eggs, and many other dishes. When I was on the way home from Colorado last week, I found this recipe for Buckwheat Soba Noodles with Kale and Walnuts in the March issue of Oprah magazine, and I was so pleased to see that the recipe is from my friends Phoebe and Cara of Big Girls, Small Kitchen! I made it the day after I returned home with just a few changes: I used hazelnuts instead of walnuts, and I added a few anchovies and quite a bit of crushed red pepper flakes. I also added a bit of lemon juice (I learned a while back that you absorb the minerals in greens best if you eat them with a little acid). It’s a quick and very nutritious meal- one I definitely recommend (make sure to use 100% buckwheat soba if you are gluten-free, and make sure not to overcook the noodles).

soba noodles with kale

For 52 other ways to eat kale, make sure to check out Hallie’s awesome post.

*I am being compensated for my efforts to promote California endive; all opinions are 100% mine.

So are you eating lots of leafy greens? Could you do better? Do the cautions above concern you? I’d love to hear about whether you’re “in” for this week’s One Small Change!