You know that leafy greens are an incredibly important part of a well-rounded, nutrient-rich diet, so you probably do your best to incorporate them at most meals. These edible plant leaves come in all sorts of shades of dark green and pack a ton of health benefits.
For starters, leafy greens are jam-packed with vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, E, and K, fiber, magnesium, iron, potassium and calcium—and the darker the green, the more of these nutrients they often contain. These micronutrients allow us to convert food into energy more efficiently, explains functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T. “Based on the general nutritional profile of leafy greens, eating them on a regular basis can help support stronger immunity, bone health, blood pressure, and even more energy.,” says functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T. “When we’re not getting enough micronutrients from food, we’re more likely to feel tired more often!”
Unfortunately, too few Americans are getting their share of leafy greens—an estimated 1 in 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The recommended serving of leafy greens is one cup per day, per the American Heart Association, which is a far cry from what most of us consume. “The ‘Standard American Diet’ is pretty low in vegetables and high in processed convenience food, so trying to get more veggies can feel a bit like swimming upstream against a current pulling you in the opposite direction,” says Volpe.
Most of us think of leafy greens as the basic ones that are popular at restaurants and grocery stores—kale, spinach, romaine, etc.—however, there are some 80 different types out there. If you’re looking to expand on leafy greens in your diet, there are plenty of great varieties to try. Here, nutrition pros share the unconventional leafy greens that are both nutritious and easy to cook.
Don’t worry—these are edible—and not the yellow flower you’re probably imagining. They’re the green parts and they’re jam-packed with antioxidants including beta carotene and polyphenols which protect against chronic diseases related to cell damage and inflammation, explains Andrea Kirkland, M.S., R.D., owner and founder of Culinary Med Ed from Birmingham, Alabama. In fact, she recommends them as a substitute for other bitter and tough-textured greens, like kale. “If you prefer a less bitter green, cook them in dishes like soups and stews which will neutralize their bitterness, or to try them raw in a salad, opt for younger greens which will have a much milder flavor,” she says. “You can also combine the raw greens with a citrus vinaigrette, cucumbers, or apples to balance any bitterness.”
Microgreens are becoming more popular and often spotted as a garnish on certain dishes at restaurants. “These greens are the baby form of herbs and vegetables that have higher nutrient quantity than their mature form,” explains Emily Tills, R.D.N, virtual nutrition coach in New York. They can be excellent sources of Vitamin K, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E. There are microgreen farmers that you can buy these from directly at a farmers market and some grocery stores may offer them as well.
Here’s a leafy green you probably know well, but often only use as a spice or garnish. “From a nutrition standpoint, 1 cup of fresh parsley provides an entire day’s worth of vitamin C (79 milligrams), as well as over 100 percent daily value of vitamins A and K, and almost 4 milligrams of iron (almost 50 percent daily value for men, and about 20 percent daily value for menstruating women) as well as almost 1/4 daily value of folate which also helps with blood-building,” says Volpe.
Beets are quite popular, but few people realize that their greens, too, carry a delicious taste and a rich nutrient profile. “They are rich in fiber, potassium, calcium, riboflavin, vitamins A, C, and K, and the antioxidants beta carotene and lutein, which have been linked to improved eye health, gut health, and immune function,” explains Emma Laing, Ph.D., R.D.N. is the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “With their mild, earthy, and slightly sweet taste, they make great additions to salads, soups, jams, and smoothies to enhance the nutrient profile, but not necessarily change the taste.” She recommends steaming, sautéeing them or serving them as a solo side dish with proteins and other veggies.
Not only is rainbow chard a beautiful vegetable, with its colorful blend of leaves, but it’s also a nutrient powerhouse. “One serving contains 3 times the daily recommended amount of Vitamin K, which is needed for proper wound healing, bone health, and may even protect against heart disease,” shares Kirkland. She recommends tearing the leaves and chopping the stems to add to a garden or grain salad—or sautéing them in a skillet with olive oil and simply seasoning with garlic, lemon juice, and crushed red pepper for a 5-ingredient side dish.
These greens are loaded with nutrients, especially calcium, providing around 281 milligrams in a single cup, which is more than 10 percent of our daily value. “Getting calcium from food sources like leafy greens is better than taking calcium supplements, because food sources of calcium are considered more ‘bioavailable’ (easily absorbed and utilized by the body) compared to calcium supplements,” says Volpe. She recommends adding mustard greens to soups, pasta dishes, stir fries, or serving as a side dish by sautéing them with garlic and onions in some olive oil and an unrefined salt.
A relative of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, radish, mustard and kale, watercress provides a good source of vitamins A, C, E, and K, minerals like iron and copper, and small amounts of protein and fiber, explains Laing. “The sulfur-containing compounds (glucosinolates) that give watercress its aroma and spicy/peppery/mustardy and bitter flavor are actually associated with a reduced risk of some cancers and helping to diminish oxidative stress,” she says. “If the taste of watercress on its own is not appealing to you, you can add it to milder-tasting foods like eggs, cheese, rice, pasta, or stir-fry, puree it in a soup, or blend it into a pesto or a smoothie to improve its palatability.”