Article courtesy of Donna Hargrove, D.O., Nutrition Editor
If you could get your hands on something non-pharmaceutical positively shown to lower cholesterol and prevent many cancers like colon, lung and prostate, would you take it? This “product” is available and has been for thousands of years. What is it? Leafy greens. Do something really good for yourself. Eat more greens! You can lower your cholesterol and help prevent many, now common, cancers by consuming, at a minimum, a serving (1 ½ cups) of greens 2-3 times per week, but preferably, 4-5 times a week.
Leafy greens are the love of folks who have a mainly plant- based diet. If you are not familiar with these wonderful gems of the plant world, read on to discover how they can greatly improve your life. If you avoid them because you don’t (or don’t think you will) like the taste, I offer many ways to incorporate them into other dishes so they compliment the dish while providing their excellent health benefits.
The major leafy greens include mustard, kale, collards, chard and spinach. The excellent nutritional qualities are similar for all of them. They are off the charts for supplying Vitamins K, A and C, along with good amounts of the B vitamins, and many minerals. The greens differ in taste and texture, so experiment and find the ones you like the best. Many belong to a group of plants known as Cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables are unique in that they contain high quantities of the phytonutrient glucosinolate, a sulfur compound that gives the greens a pungent aroma and a spicy/bitter taste. Others belong to different plant families that have additional health benefits that I have listed under their headings.
Chopping or chewing the greens causes a release of glucosinolate to form an active enzymatic reaction which gives the greens their excellent health benefits in terms of reduced cancer risks and cholesterol lowering capabilities. Many years of research on cruciferous vegetables has demonstrated a strong link to lower cancer risks mainly in lung and colon cancers, but also bladder, breast, prostate and ovarian cancers. The greens are able to reduce cholesterol by binding bile acids (which are made from cholesterol) in the GI tract and facilitating their elimination, thus lowering total body cholesterol levels.
Fresh greens should be washed thoroughly and drained. Do not soak them in water as some of the nutrients can leach out into the water. Prepare by cutting out the thick core stem and roughly chop. Sprinkle with lemon juice and allow them to sit 5-10 minutes prior to cooking to maximize their nutritional qualities. The best cooking methods are steaming, sautéing or braising to prevent loss of nutrients in the cooking liquid. According to several recent research articles, steaming the vegetables seems to provide the most cholesterol lowering benefits. Once steamed (or sautéed) they can be mixed into beans (especially white beans or black-eyed peas), pastas, soups and stews, enhancing the flavor of these dishes and adding a lot of nutrition without having the full taste of the greens, which keeps many people from enjoying these great plants. Most greens work very well with olive oil, onions, garlic, salt and pepper. (Great Northern Beans and Beer)(White Beans with Greens Ala Marsala)(Beans and Greens)
Mustard Greens (Brassica juncea)
Mustard greens differ from their other green siblings in that the leaves are tenderer and cook faster, while offering up the most taste. Some people may find the taste bitter or peppery, but that is what makes them the best green, in my opinion, to mix with other foods, like white beans, pasta and soups to add another dimension to the dish.
Mustard greens originated in the Himalayan region of India and have been consumed for over 5000 years. India, Nepal, China and Japan are among the world leaders for production, but a significant amount are grown in the US. Mustard greens are available year around but their peak season is December through April. The seeds of the mustard plant are used whole or ground for use in many other dishes.
Nutrition per 1 cup cooked (% of daily value): Vitamin K 525%, Vitamin A 177%, Vitamin C 59%, folate 25%.
Kale & Collards (Brassica oleracea)
Kale is a descendent of the wild cabbage and thought to originate in Asia Minor and to have been brought to Europe around 600 BC. It comes in different leaf shapes of curly, ornamental (which is edible) and dinosaur also known as Lacinato or Tuscan kale. Kale is available the year around, but its main season is the middle of winter until early spring when the leaves are sweeter. Collards differ from kale in leaf shape and flavor. Both have a good tolerance for very cold (down to 0 degrees) and very warm (85 degrees) climates, but collards do better with the heat and kale does better with the cold (harvesting after a frost makes for a sweeter taste). Collards have been shown to be the most superior of all the Cruciferous vegetables in cholesterol lowering abilities.
Nutrition per 1 cup cooked kale (% of daily value): Vitamin K 1327%, Vitamin A 354%, Vitamin C 89%, manganese 27%. Collards: Vitamin K 1045%, Vitamin A 308%, Vitamin C 58%, folate 44%, manganese 41%, calcium 27%.
Chard (Beta vulgaris)
Chard belongs to a family of plants that include beets, spinach and quinoa, and is one of the most popular vegetables along the Mediterranean, where it is thought to originate. The red and yellow betalain pigments found in this family of plants are especially healthy for the nervous system and in particular, the eye. You will notice these pigments mainly in the stems of the chard plant which comes in several different colors. Chard is available all year, but its peak season is June through August.
Chard has some unique health properties in addition to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ones of all the other greens. Chard has been shown to help stabilize blood sugars which is beneficial for people with diabetes. Preliminary research has shown promise on chard being protective of the pancreas and liver, another important element for people with diabetes.
Chard can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Do not wash before storing. Rinse under cold running water prior to cooking. Do not soak in water. Chard can be boiled, steamed or sautéed just until tender. Chard can also be blanched and frozen for longer storage.
Use raw chard in place of lettuce for sandwiches, taco toppings, salads. Cooked chard is excellent added to pasta or beans. Stir raw chard into soups at the end of cooking.
Nutrition per 1 cup cooked (% of daily value): Vitamin K 716%, Vitamin A 214%, Vitamin C 52%, magnesium 38%, manganese 29%, potassium 28%, iron 22%.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)
Related to beets, chard and amaranth, spinach is native to Iran and was cultivated by the Persians. Two seed types exist, a smooth, round shape and one with irregular, prickly leaves. Spinach is the most important leaf crop in the US, and along with the Netherlands, are now the largest producers in the world.
Spinach can be steamed, sautéed, boiled or just added raw into soups, pastas or beans toward the end of the cooking process. Spinach is the most versatile of all the greens and can be part of breakfast (sautéed with scrambled eggs, atop a muffin, etc.), lunch (in place of lettuce on a sandwich, in a salad, chopped on a taco, etc.) and dinner (cooked for a side dish, mixed into pasta, beans, soup or stews, salads, etc.).
Nutrition per 1 cup cooked (% of daily value): Vitamin K 1111%, Vitamin A 378%, manganese 84%, folate 66%, magnesium 39%, iron 36%, Vitamin C 30%, calcium 25%.