The Verdant Vitality

Leafy greens

Food As Medicine

The Verdant Vitality: Exploring the Health Benefits of Leafy Green Vegetables

Spring is in full swing, and May is the month when most gardeners can finally start working their home soil. One category of vegetables that’s easy to begin with and can be harvested quickly is leafy greens. Not only are they easy to grow, but these vibrant and versatile veggies are packed with essential vitamins and minerals and offer a myriad of health benefits. From supporting bone health to preventing cognitive decline, the humble leafy greens have earned their place as a staple in any healthy diet. So, get ready to discover why these verdant wonders are often referred to as the cornerstone of a healthy diet.

Antioxidant, Anti-inflammatory, and Anti-Cancer Properties

Chlorophyll is a valuable compound abundant in green fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants that plays a crucial role in the process of photosynthesis. It has many beneficial health properties, such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer effects. Chlorophyll’s unique chemical structure allows it to scavenge free radicals, fix DNA damage, and balance cellular processes involved in disease development. Green leafy vegetables that contain high amounts of chlorophyll include cabbage, kale, lettuce, parsley, and spinach. Another vegetable that contains a significant amount of chlorophyll is broccoli. Surprisingly, broccoli leaves have the highest amount of chlorophyll and are also the portion that is most often thrown away. To maintain the most chlorophyll while cooking these leafy green vegetables, boiling and steaming are the preferred cooking methods, and shorter cooking times are better1.

Brain Health

One part of our body that may benefit greatly from the consumption of green leafy vegetables is our brain. Spinach, kale, collards, and lettuce appear to have the strongest association with slowed cognitive decline. Studies show that the nutrients and bioactive compounds in green leafy vegetables that may be of utmost importance are vitamin K, lutein, beta carotene, nitrate, and folate. Higher food intakes of folate, vitamin K, and lutein are not only associated with slower cognitive decline but also appear responsible for the protective effects of green leafy vegetables on cognitive change. Surprisingly, one study of over 900 participants showed that consuming 1-2 servings per day of green leafy vegetables was the equivalent of being 11 years younger compared with individuals who rarely or never consumed them. Another important factor the authors of this study shared is that each one of the nutrients or bioactive ingredients mentioned earlier may have independent mechanisms that work together to benefit the brain2. It is impossible to separate each of these nutrients and assess their individual impact on brain health when they work synergistically and collectively with a whole host of other nutrients. However, since the study showed a significant slowing in cognitive decline with just 1-2 servings per day of these vegetables, this may be an easy way to positively contribute to the health of your brain. 

Bone Health

There is truth to the saying, “I’m strong to the finish, ’cause I eats me spinach.” We should take a leaf out of Popeye’s book and look to leafy green vegetables to get the calcium and vitamin K necessary to build strong bones. It’s normal for our bones to continuously undergo the process of remodeling. Simplistically, this is how the process works: Cells called osteoclasts are responsible for breaking down mineralized bone. Calcium is released into the bloodstream and used for various processes, including muscle contraction and blood clotting. Then, osteoblasts form new bone matrix, which requires calcium and other nutrients. Bones can also release calcium into the blood if the diet does not supply enough.

Many people consider dairy to be the best dietary source of calcium. However, plant sources contain a significant amount of calcium as well. One factor to consider is the bioavailability of calcium from food. For example, the bioavailability of calcium from dairy is approximately 30%. Plant foods, like leafy greens, contain less calcium overall but have a higher bioavailability than dairy3. Another factor to consider is that other nutrients in plant foods, such as oxalates and phytates, may bind to calcium and prevent absorption. Spinach, chard, and beet greens are a few examples of leafy greens that are high in oxalates4. In summary, calcium is a necessary mineral for proper bone health. Plant foods, including leafy green vegetables, are a significant source of calcium. Aim to consume a wide variety of calcium-containing plant foods to ensure you are consuming and absorbing the right amount of calcium.

In conclusion, the evidence is clear: leafy green vegetables are nutritional powerhouses offering many health benefits. By regularly including leafy greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard in your diet, you can boost your intake of vital nutrients such as chlorophyll, Vitamin K, and lutein, as well as folate and calcium. These nutrients are crucial in supporting overall health, from strengthening your bones to reducing the risk of chronic diseases and cognitive decline. Additionally, the versatility and delicious flavor of leafy greens make them easy to incorporate into various dishes, ensuring you can enjoy their benefits in ways that suit your taste preferences. Consider adding leafy greens to your vegetable garden this season and reap the rewards of their remarkable health-promoting properties.

1 Martins T, Barros AN, Rosa E, Antunes L. Enhancing Health Benefits through Chlorophylls and Chlorophyll-Rich Agro-Food: A Comprehensive Review. Molecules. 2023 Jul 11;28(14):5344. doi: 10.3390/molecules28145344. PMID: 37513218; PMCID: PMC10384064.

2 Morris MC, Wang Y, Barnes LL, Bennett DA, Dawson-Hughes B, Booth SL. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study. Neurology. 2018 Jan 16;90(3):e214-e222. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815. Epub 2017 Dec 20. PMID: 29263222; PMCID: PMC5772164.

3 Calcium. The Nutrition Source. (2023, March 7). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/calcium/#:~:text=For%20example%2C%20dairy%20foods%20have,a%20higher%20bioavailability%20than%20dairy.

4 Shkembi B, Huppertz T. Calcium Absorption from Food Products: Food Matrix Effects. Nutrients. 2021 Dec 30;14(1):180. doi: 10.3390/nu14010180. PMID: 35011055; PMCID: PMC8746734.

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