You’re in the majority if your definition of leafy greens is limited to salads made with iceberg lettuce. On the plus side, your salad is low in calories—about 14 calories in two cups, without dressing, because iceberg lettuce is mostly water. It also has few nutrients.
The good news is that there are many other leafy greens which are nutrition powerhouses low in sodium, high in fiber and contribute plenty of nutrients for your dollar.
• Kale is a versatile leafy green that should be used for more than a garnish on the plate. It comes in many varieties from plain to curly leaf and is tasty fresh or cooked. It is a rich source of vitamins A, C and K and is also a good source of calcium. It also contributes eye-healthy lutein and cancer-fighting antioxidants. When steamed or sautéed, it binds bile acids lowering blood cholesterol.
– The young, smaller leaves of ruffled kale add a nice bite and interesting blue-green color to an otherwise plain salad.
– To cook kale tear leaves into small pieces. You also can cook stems if you chop them into quarter inch pieces.
– Another quick way to eat kale is to add it to soup during the last few minutes of cooking.
– Baked kale chips make a delicious snack. Toss dry leaves with olive oil and spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle them lightly with salt and bake about 15 minutes at 325 degrees until crisp but not browned.
• Spinach also can be used fresh in salads or cooked. It is packed with vitamins A, C and folate as well as calcium. However unlike kale, spinach contains oxalates which bind to the calcium interfering with the body’s ability to absorb the calcium naturally present. Like kale it offers more nutrition when cooked. Even with the reduced absorption of calcium spinach is a healthy choice, raw or cooked.
• Chard is typically green with red stems, stalks and veins in the leaves or it may have rainbow colored leaves. Like spinach it contains oxalates which bind to the calcium. This may be a concern for those prone to kidney stones. It is rich in vitamins A and C and is typically sautéed or lightly steamed.
• Broccoli is considered a leafy green though it is known for its stalks and florets, sometimes referred to as “trees.” The leaves are usually not eaten, but the stalks and florets are most often eaten raw, stir fried or quickly steamed. Broccoli is rich in vitamins A, C, potassium and folate. Dark green bunches offer greater nutrition. Select florets that are closed and that have firm stems, and avoid bunches that are yellow and flowering.
• Leafy lettuce– red, green and Romaine—are commonly used in salads. To prevent their leaves from browning, be sure they are well drained and that you’ve blotted out excess water before refrigerating them. Darker colors signal better nutritional choices, and these darker green and red leafy veggies offer more than iceberg lettuce. Red leaf offers the most antioxidants to fight inflammation and chronic diseases, followed by green leaf and Romaine. If you’re used to eating only iceberg, gradually increase darker greens in your diet and you’ll benefit from their higher nutritional content.
• Cabbage, both red and green, offer nutritional benefits and have the advantage of keeping longer. Red cabbage offers greater antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits than the green cabbage. Both are good sources of vitamins C and K. To prevent red cabbage from turning blue or purple as it is cooked, add one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to the cooking water and avoid using aluminum cookware. If you object to the strong odor from cooking cabbage, try adding a whole walnut to the cooking liquid. Sauerkraut, which is salted and fermented cabbage, produces beneficial bacteria to aid digestion and may have cancer-fighting properties.
Whether you enjoy your leafy greens fresh or cooked, organic or conventional, be sure to wash them all before eating.
For more information on the health benefits and safe handling of salad greens, consult Fact Sheet 9.373 at Colorado State University Extension at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09373.pdf.