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Leafy Green Vegetables, The Fountain of Youth
By Dr. Joel Fuhrman
Green leafy vegetables are the most nutrient dense of all foods, and are extremely low in calories. Unfortunately, leafy greens are consumed only in tiny amounts in the typical American diet. To stress the importance of eating raw leafy greens daily for good health, I advise my patients and readers of my books to consider salad to be the “main dish” of their meals.
Raw green salad contains less than 100 calories per pound - people trying to lose weight can consume virtually unlimited quantities of raw leafy greens. The majority of calories in green vegetables, including leafy greens, come from protein. This may sound surprising since our culture usually associates protein with animal products. But if we look at nature, most of the biggest animals – elephants, gorillas, giraffes – eat primarily leafy green plants. Unlike animal products, the protein in leafy greens is packaged with beneficial phytochemicals rather than disease-causing substances like saturated fat and cholesterol.
Disease protection. Consuming more plant protein and less animal protein is an excellent tool both for weight loss and for overall good health. In fact, adding more leafy green vegetables to the diet was found to decrease the risk of diabetes, and raw greens provide powerful protection against cancer.1
Plant fiber, present in plentiful amounts in leafy greens, is also extremely important for good health. Although humans are not capable of digesting plant fiber, the bacteria in our intestines are. When these bacteria digest small amounts of plant fiber from our diets, they produce beneficial substances that we can then absorb, such as vitamin K and vitamin B12. Plant fiber also holds water in the digestive tract, which is beneficial for bowel health and protective against colon cancer.
Green leafy vegetables provide us with countless protective micronutrients and phytochemicals – here are few examples:
Carotenoids. Leafy greens are rich in antioxidant pigments called carotenoids, specifically lutein and zeaxanthin, which are the only carotenoids known to be involved in vision. These pigments promote visual function and protect against age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in older Americans.2
Folate. Folate, the natural form of folic acid, is abundant in green vegetables, including leafy greens. Folate is crucial for women because it prevents certain birth defects, and also may prevent cancers of the breast, prostate, and colon.3 Consuming plenty of folate-rich vegetables can also help to prevent cognitive decline with aging.4
Calcium. We are often led to believe that dairy products are the best sources of calcium, but many plant foods such as leafy greens, nuts, and seeds are calcium-rich foods. Certain leafy greens, such as kale and bok choy, have a uniquely high level of calcium availability. Over 50% of the calcium in kale and bok choy can be absorbed by the human body – compare this to only 32% in milk.5 We can much more readily absorb calcium from kale and bok choy than from dairy products.
Omega-3s. Leafy greens and green vegetables provide omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for heart and brain health, and help to maintain an anti-inflammatory environment in the body.
If you’d like to add more raw leafy greens to your diet, blended salads are a great method for enjoying these foods. A blended salad, or green smoothie, is a combination of raw leafy greens and other foods like fruits and nuts, blended together to make a smooth, creamy drink. When the leafy greens are blended, the plant cell walls break open, releasing valuable nutrients - chewing alone cannot break apart most of these cell walls. Eating raw leafy greens in salad form provides numerous nutrients, but we can absorb even more nutrients from the greens when we put them in the blender. Also there are many people who have difficulty digesting intact raw greens – blended salads are an excellent way for these people to reap the nutritional benefits of raw greens without the discomfort.
Green leafy vegetables provide us with a broad spectrum of micronutrients in a low-calorie package, and should be eaten in large quantities for excellent health. Remember – the salad is the main dish.
1. Bazzano LA et al. Diabetes Care. 2008 Jul;31(7):1311-7.
Link LB et al. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2004 Sep;13(9):1422-35.
Tang L et al. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2008 Apr;17(4):938-44.
2. Stringham JM et al. J Food Sci 2009
3. Stolzenberg-Solomon RZ et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Apr;83(4):895-904.
Figueiredo JC et al. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2009 Mar 18;101(6):432-5.
Fife J et al. Colorectal Dis. 2009 Oct 27
4. Tucker KL et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005; 82: 627.
5. Weaver CM et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70(suppl):543S–8S