RachelMS, RD, LDN, CSSD, CBS
Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits ensures we are getting a full range of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, by eating the rainbow you’re also supporting your baby’s lifetime taste preferences for produce, including the super healthy but more strongly flavored dark green varieties.
Dark green is an important vegetable color that is often overlooked. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of Americans do not meet the recommended intake of dark green vegetables. Dark green vegetables include:
- Bok choy
- Collard greens
- Dandelion greens
- All lettuces (romaine, arugula, mesclun, baby spinach, etc.)
- Mustard greens
- Radish greens
- Turnip greens
- Swiss chard
- Many other vegetables
Health benefits of dark green vegetables
Like all non-starchy vegetables,dark green vegetables are low in calories and high in fiber. High-fiber foods promote the feeling of fullness and help lower cholesterol by binding it in the gastrointestinal tract and “escorting” it out with bowel movements. They also help promote bowel movement regularity and help manage constipation, a common side effect of pregnancy.
Also, high-fiber foods help control blood sugar by slowing the absorption of their naturally occurring sugars into the blood stream. Blood sugar control is especially important for women with or at risk for gestational diabetes.
Dark green vegetables are good sources of vitamins A, C, K and the B-vitamin folate, as well as the minerals iron and calcium.
- Vitamin A: Helps maintain eye and skin health and protects against infections.
- Vitamin C: Is important for skin health, especially for healing cuts and wounds, and dental health. Consuming it with iron-rich foods helps with iron absorption.
- Vitamin K: Plays a role in blood clotting.
- Folate (folic acid): Is needed to form new blood cells. Adequate folic acid is especially important for women who are of childbearing age because healthful diets with adequate folic acid may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with brain or spinal cord birth defects.
- Iron: Is needed to help red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. Iron-deficiency anemia is common in women of childbearing age, which is why a diet rich in dark green vegetables may be helpful in reducing the risk of iron-deficiency anemia.
- Calcium: Is needed to build strong teeth and bones, and is also important for normal blood clotting and muscle function. Growing a baby demands a large amount of calcium. If a pregnant woman is not getting enough from her diet, her body will take calcium from her bones, putting her at risk for osteoporosis later in life.
- Potassium: Helps maintain healthy blood pressure.
Consuming a small amount of healthy fat — such as olive oil or avocado — with dark green vegetables helps the body absorb these nutrients.
How much dark greens should you eat?
Half of what we eat should be a variety of non-starchy vegetables and fruit. Of this, it is recommended that each week we eat a minimum of 1 1/2 cups of dark green vegetables. In general, 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables or vegetable juice, or 2 cups of raw leafy greens can be considered as 1 cup.
Here are examples of what the recommended weekly minimum looks like:
- 2 cups arugula salad + ½ cup cooked broccoli
- ½ cup sautéed spinach + 2 cups kale salad
- 1/2 cup stir-fried bok choy + ½ cup steamed collards + a green smoothie made with 1 cup spinach (plus other ingredients)
If you are substituting dark green vegetables for high-calorie foods, especially processed foods, more dark greens is even better.
Make half of what you eat non-starchy vegetables and fruit
Of this, make sure a minimum of 1 1/2 cups weekly is dark green vegetables. More is better! One cup is the equivalent of 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables or vegetable juice, or 2 cups of raw leafy greens.
Consume dark green vegetables with a small amount of healthy fat to improve nutrient absorption
Examples include adding ¼ avocado in your spinach salad or sautéing your greens in 1 teaspoon of olive oil.
Purchase dark green vegetables fresh or frozen
Organic frozen spinach and broccoli are high-quality ingredients and particularly useful to keep on hand for quick additions to frittatas, stir fries and soups or as sides.
Enjoy a variety of dark green vegetables using a range of preparations, raw or cooked
Keep in mind that no one particular dark green vegetable is healthier than another.
When deciding how to prepare a dark green vegetable, try a small bite of it raw after you wash it
If the vegetable is tender and mild or just a little bit spicy (such as mesclun lettuce or arugula), add it raw to a salad.
If the vegetable is tender and extra spicy (such as mustard and dandelion greens) or tough (such as collards and kale), consider blanching, stir-frying or sautéing it. Once it’s cooked, you can use it in a multitude of ways (see below for ideas).
Don’t throw away your vegetable tops!
Did you know you can reduce your food waste and get the health benefits of dark green vegetables by using the tops of carrots, radishes, beets and other root vegetables? You can sauté them, add them to soups or chop them into salads and green juices.
Try these ideas for simple ways to add dark green vegetables into your daily diet
- Eat them raw in a salad (of course!).Romaine, arugula, mesclun, baby spinach, kale, watercress and radish greens are tasty choices.
- Sauté them with olive oil, salt and pepper.Cook some chopped garlic and red pepper flakes in the hot oil before adding the vegetables, or finish them with a squeeze of citrus juice or vinegar for extra flavor. Bok choy, collard greens, dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach, turnip greens and swiss chard are popular choices. Sautéed dark green vegetables can be added to pasta, lasagna, omelets or frittatas, grain bowls, casseroles and meatballs. Or use them to top pizza.
- Add them to soup during the last few minutes of cooking.Bok choy, kale, swiss chard and spinach are popular leafy green choices. A large handful will melt down to nearly nothing. Broccoli is also a nice addition.
- Use dark leafy greens as wraps instead of tortillas or pita bread.Collard greens, butter lettuce and romaine leaves work well as wraps. Try filling a collard green leaf with hummus, shredded carrots, cucumber, tomato, olives and feta cheese and roll it like a burrito for a filling and nutrient-packed lunch.
- Blend them into smoothies.You can add a cup or two of mild leafy greens such as spinach or kale to your smoothie. Keep in mind that ourdigestive function is adapted to foods rather than liquid calories, which is why we don’t feel as full from consuming calories in liquid form. That’s why smoothies are best as an occasionaltreat.
- Make a pesto sauce.Basil pesto is the most well-known variety, but a pesto can be made with any dark green vegetable. Using a food processor or blender, blend 4 cups of greens of your choice (or a mix of different greens) with 1 garlic clove and ½ cup nuts until finely chopped. Next, stream in olive oil while continuing to process the pesto until it is the consistency you like. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add Parmesan cheese if you’d like, or skip the cheese to make it vegan.
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