Ask the Pros Q&A

Why should I be eating leafy green veggies?

 As a lifestyle medicine clinician, patients often ask me what is the ONE change they can make to improve their diet. While I always want them to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, if there is one thing they can do, it would be to add more leafy greens into their diet. It’s no secret that greens are healthy but dark leafy greens are likely THE most nutrient dense foods on the planet. What do I mean by leafy greens? These are foods such as romaine lettuce, arugula, spinach, swiss chard, watercress, collard greens as well as, other cruciferous veggies like broccoli. Of all the food groups analyzed by a team of Harvard University researchers, greens turned out to be associated with the strongest protection against major chronic diseases, including up to about a 20 percent reduction in risk for both heart attacks and strokes for every additional daily serving and they decrease mortality. If you’re not consuming enough raw leafy greens regularly, you will eventually experience some health challenges.

Below are seven of the amazing health benefits of eating greens.

1) Green leafy vegetables are the best source of plant-based nitrates. Greens reduce risk for cardiac disease and heart attack. According to Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, when we eat vegetables “…[w]hat you are doing is you are bathing that cauldron of oxidation inflammation all day long with nature’s most powerful anti-oxidant” – nitric oxide, produced by the endothelial cells within our blood vessels. It is the green leafy vegetables that he considers to be our best source of nitric oxide-producing foods.

2) Greens are cancer fighters. Cruciferous veggies like kale, arugula, collard greens, and kale have an element of bitterness, which is the glucosinolates. Research has shown that glucosinolates can have anti-cancer effects in your body, helping reduce inflammation and protecting cell DNA from damage. Leafy greens contain antioxidants and polyphenols, the disease-fighting compounds.

3) Greens support bone health. All those “Got Milk?” ads might have you believing that drinking milk is the only way to build strong bones. However, research has shown that milk consumption has no protective effect on fracture risk and may even increase the risk of hip fractures among women.  That’s yet another great reason to ditch dairy for good! Instead, you can get plenty of calcium for supporting optimal bone health from dark, leafy greens.

4.Greens support optimal brain function. A study published in Neurology found that those who ate the largest amount of leafy greens each day had slower rates of cognitive decline compared to those who ate the least. In fact, the greens-eaters had the memory equivalent of someone 11 years younger! This was even true after adjusting for other factors including lifestyle, education, and overall health. Greens have the power to delay the shortening of telomeres, the protective caps on our DNA that shorten with age. Once its telomeres are completely gone, the cell dies. Broccoli sprouts, in particular, seem to have a superb ability to preserve telomere length.

5. Greens can make your skin glow! Beta-carotene, the plant pigment that we normally associate with carrots and other yellow-orange veggies, is also hiding in leafy greens. Think of leaves changing color in the fall. As they lose chlorophyll (the pigment that makes them green), you can see the red, orange, and yellow pigments those leaves contain underneath. It’s these vibrant colors that are also responsible for the amazing health benefits of leafy greens. Kale is one of the top sources of beta-carotene, and research shows that cooking, juicing, or dehydrating greens helps your body better absorb this carotenoid.

6. Leafy greens are an excellent source of folate and magnesium which are associated with improved mood. Although the connection isn’t fully understood, low folate levels have been consistently associated with depression in research. Leafy greens rich in folate and magnesium can help your body produce mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Greens are also rich in magnesium, which can help reduce anxiety and depression.

7. Greens support immunity. One of the most promising benefits of greens may be their ability to support your immune system. Greens can support a healthy response to oxidative damage. Studies specifically tout the benefits of cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, arugula, and kale.

References:

https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048996 
https://nutritionfacts.org/video/vegetables-rate-by-nitrate/
https://nutritionfacts.org/video/cavities-and-coronaries-our-choice/
https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/leafy-greens-linked-slower-age-related-cognitive-decline
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22364157/

Contributing Writer: Erin Sinnaeve APN, FNP-C

Erin Sinnaeve is a Family Nurse Practitioner, a member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and owns her own private health coaching business Thrive Plant Life. She also works in Allergy/Immunology at Advocate Aurora Health.

Erin received her BSN from University of Nebraska, her MS from Creighton University, and her DNP from Chamberlain University. She is an instructor at Chamberlain University, a Food Over Medicine instructor and a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.