As a general group, leafy greens are low-calorie sources of nutrition. They’re rich in vitamins and minerals to help meet your nutritional needs, along with unique plant-based substances that can help protect you against a variety of conditions. Some are great for salads, while others better lend themselves to steaming or sauteing. So, why all the squabbling among blogs, health resources and dietitians over which are the healthiest greens?
No matter which green you choose, you’re doing your health a favor. Sure, there are subtle differences in the nutritional profile and taste of each, but when it comes down to it, most any green is a good green. So, instead of arguing over which is “the best,” let’s take a brief look at the merits of some of the most popular so you can feel good about what you’re eating no matter your taste preference.
Let’s start with the green that everyone seems to be talking about. From salad bar garnish to superfood all-star, kale is now the green to beat. It’s become a symbol – a rockstar icon for healthy living. My vegetarian boyfriend recently got a college-styled tee that replaces “Yale” with “Kale.” And my sister got me a pair of socks with a cute kale print. And you bet it’s flooding restaurants and grocery stores in all kinds of forms.
So, what’s at the root of all the hubbub? Sure, you could chop it up to a grand marketing ploy like an episode of Portlandia does, but kale really does have a lot of good stuff going for it in the nutrition department. For starters, it’s a great source of antioxidant vitamins A and C, with one cup raw giving you over 100% of each. It’s also jam-packed with vitamin K, an often forgotten nutrient that’s essential for healthy blood. What do I mean by jam-packed? One cup contains nearly 700% of your daily value.
Kale is also a natural source of lutein, an antioxidant that may support eye health, as well as potentially cancer-fighting sulforaphane, a phytonutrient found in members of the broccoli and Brussels sprouts family. As for minerals, kale scores fairly well there, too. For a vegetable, it’s got a pretty good amount of calcium (about 9% DV per cup), and also supplies potassium, copper, iron and magnesium, as well as a pretty significant amount of manganese. And here’s a bonus: It also contains omega-3 and 6 fatty acids.
So, what’s not to love? Well, for some, actually eating it. It has a slightly bitter taste and is tougher than spinach or lettuce. Steaming or sauteing it helps turn down a bit of the bitterness and toughness, but when I present my cooking to my not-so-green-loving siblings, they seem to revert to their childhood selves and warily ask, “Is there kale in this?” If you’re skeptical yourself, give tender baby kale a try. Or, you can always turn to supplements and try this kale powder.
Time to turn back to the old familiar stomping grounds. Versatile and popular even before Popeye, spinach will always be the golden standard in healthy greens (at least in my eyes). Although it’s been rather upstaged by kale’s recent superstar status, spinach hasn’t gone anywhere – and there’s no reason it should. Nutritionally, its no slouch next to kale.
Okay, so spinach won’t give you the magic ability to punch a raging bull into sundry choice cuts and edibles, but that doesn’t mean you should ax it from your diet. After all, not even kale can give you super powers.
There are plenty of good reasons to make spinach one of your top greens. First of all, when it comes to folate, other greens can’t compare. One cup will provide you with about 15% of your daily value of this important B vitamin. And it’s got respectable amounts of vitamins A, C and K (56%, 14% and 181%, respectively).
Minerally speaking, spinach compares fairly well to kale, providing you with potassium, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium and manganese. For the most calcium, eat spinach cooked; heat reduces its oxalate content, freeing up more calcium.
In general, spinach is more palatable than kale. More mild and tender, it works equally well in salads and cooked dishes, making it a versatile staple.
At once traditional and an upstart, Swiss chard has always kind of been there. It’s been piggy-backing off the success of kale a bit lately, but it’s definitely not as trendy. At the same time, it hasn’t managed to cement itself as a mainstay like spinach. Just going about its quiet life like the stereotypical bookworm beauty, Swiss chard is often overlooked on the crowded produce shelf, but a few believers see its potential.
The most recognized chard variety is certainly rainbow chard. With bright red (or sometimes yellow) stems and veins, it makes an impression. And its impression on your health is pretty good, too. While not quite the superfood that kale or spinach is, it’s still a good source of nutrition. It falls between the two for vitamin K content, just below spinach for vitamin A, and just above it for vitamin C. Like spinach, it also contains oxalates, so you get the most calcium if it’s cooked.
As for preparing and eating, it has a beet-like flavor and is relatively soft, making it ideal for sauteing. You may find it in some salad greens mixes, but it’s generally best-suited to cooked dishes. It’s a go-to when I’m making a more rustic-flavored dish and don’t want the toughness of kale.
For an easy comparison of these three contestant in the healthiest greens competition, check out this chart.
No matter your preference, I give each of these a green rating. You have my official go-ahead to eat them all and feel good about it! Case closed. Or, if you just can’t get yourself to eat any of them, try one of our greens powders.
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