For kids in Haiti, leafy green veggies help provide the nutrients necessary for a growing body. Not only do some of these greens provide calcium and other beneficial nutrients for bone health, but they are also a good source of iron and Vitamin C. Globally, iron deficiencies are one of the most prevalent nutrition deficiencies— impacting the lives of nearly 2 billion people. Combating iron deficiencies early in life is key for preventing life long consequences since iron is critical for brain development and helps build a healthy immune system. Pairing iron rich foods from plants (e.g. beans, nuts/ seeds, potato, quinoa) with vitamin C sources of food, onion, and/or garlic can help enhance the body’s ability to absorb the non-heme iron in plant-based foods. Rather than just serving a dish of beans and rice, add in green leafy vegetables, carrots, tomatoes, onions, and garlic to enhance not only the nutritional value of the meal, but also the taste and color!  For more on enhancing iron intake in plant-foods and the benefits of plant-based iron sources see: Nutritionfacts.org and the Dietitian’s Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Group. 

Many of the recipes today call for kale— or suggest adding a few handfuls of kale to the recipe. I often recommend adding green leafy vegetables to dishes to pack in a number of beneficial components found in these foods. When cooking or sautéing veggies, greens will cook down and blend with the other vegetables and flavors in the dish. You may not even notice they are there!

Dark green leafy veggies [e.g. kale, mustard greens, collards, and swiss chad], in general, are cancer fighting foods that help prevent a number of cancers, including: some breast cancer, colon cancer, skin cancer, stomach cancer, and lung cancer. Research shows that the high fiber, folate, carotenoids, and flavonoids found in dark leafy vegetables are key players in cancer prevention.

Kale and other cruciferous veggies ( e.g. broccoli, cabbage, collards, cauliflower, watercress, boo chou, arugula) also contain glucosinolates, which helps to slow the growth of cancer cells and initiate a programed death of cancer cells (called apoptosis) in the body. Research shows that cruciferous vegetables are beneficial for preventing lung and colon cancer and there is limited research that also suggests they may play a role in lowering risk for some breast cancers and prostate cancer. Cruciferous veggies also contain carotenoids, vitamin C, folate, and other antioxidants that play a role in cancer prevention.

Not only is kale a cancer-fighting food, it also contains key nutrients for a healthy body, such as calcium, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, fiber, protein, and potassium. 1 cup of cooked kale has ~ 179 mg of calcium (18% of the RDA for adults) that is highly absorbable in the body compared to other plant-based foods that contain calcium (i.e. spinach is not a good sources of calcium since only a small amount of the calcium is actually absorbed into the body). In fact, the calcium found in kale, collards, broccoli, bok choy, mustard greens is more absorbable in the body than the calcium found in cows milk and other dairy products. It should be noted, however, that  they still contain smaller amounts of calcium than cows milks so you would need to eat more than a cup of these veggies throughout the day to meet calcium needs (e.g.  ~1.6 cups of cooked kale and ~3/4 cup cooked collards have equivalent amounts of calcium as 1 cup of milk). However, it’s really not too difficult to meet calcium needs on a plant-based diet when adequate amount of calcium-rich plant foods are eaten throughout the day. Adding a cup or two of cooked greens and/or broccoli with meals can defiantly help— and this is why I often recommend adding a couple handfuls of kale, collards, or broccoli to soups, sautéed veggies, or other dishes.

Some people that fall short on these plant foods (see link for additional sources) and do not consume any dairy, should consider using calcium-set tofu or fortified plant-based milks to help meet daily calcium needs. In addition to calcium, the vitamin K, potassium, and vitamin C found in kale are also beneficial for bone health (Note: milk does not contain Vitamin C and is very low in vitamin K). For more on bone health, check out this post by Registered Dietitian Andy Bellatti and this post by Harvard School of Public Health. (Note for men: consuming too much dairy can actually increase prostate cancer).

Quick tips for making green leafy veggies a daily habit: add them to dishes and meals you already love! Toss them in soups or stews, add them to rice and bean dishes, prepare them as salad, or put them on a sandwich/ burrito. Some people even like adding them to their fruit smoothies!

Aim to have 2 servings of green leafy veggies everyday! Serving= 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked

Image from Joseph Gonzales, RD and Blue Cure, a non-profit organization that is educating men, young and old, about prostate cancer prevention through lifestyle and diet.