The importance of leafy greens

LeafyGreensGreen leafy vegetables: if you take your health seriously, they should be part of your diet. Look around you in nature, and you will find that perhaps most wild plants are actually ‘green and leafy’. This striking availability of greens in the wild, may tell us something. As we were once depended on the foods nature provided, wouldn’t it  make sense that leafy greens were on the menu?

Not surprisingly, most indigenous cultures, eat a wide variety of leafy greens. Because of the agricultural revolution, our western diet is now dominated by starchy crops like grains and potatoes and our good old greens are too often neglected. That being said, today’s modern varieties of leafy greens like spinach, kale, collards and chard are the result of centuries of  cultivation and are not the plants they once used to be. Still, they are generally healthy and some of their nutrients are often hard to obtain through other food sources. Most green leafy vegetables are rich in vitamins A, C, K and B6, riboflavin, potassium, manganese, calcium, magnesium and folate. Let’s take a closer look at these nutrients.

Vitamin A has multiple functions: it is important for our immune system, growth and development (including bones and teeth), good night vision and a healthy skin.

Vitamin B6, is one of 8 B vitamins. B vitamins help us to convert carbohydrates into our body’s fuel, glucose. They also help the body metabolize fats and protein. B complex vitamins are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver and promote a healthy nervous system. Like vitamin C, vitamin B is water soluble and therefore cannot be stored in the body. Vitamin B6 plays an important role in the production of several neurotransmitters and is essential for proper brain development and brain function. Vitamin B deficiency can cause symptoms like depression, concentration and memory problems, nervousness, muscle weakness and irritability.

Most people know about the importance of vitamin C, and believe it prevents us from getting colds. In reality, its relationship with common cold prevention is weak at best. Nevertheless, it plays a crucial role in many other processes. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, and is not stored in the body. This implicates that regular intake of vitamin C is important. Green leafy vegetables are a great source, as well as many other fruits and vegetables. There is no conclusive evidence that vitamin C is effective when used in the form of a supplement. Vitamin C should therefore be obtained from dietary sources. It’s needed for growth and repair of body tissue, healing wounds and maintaining healthy bones and teeth. Because it is an oxidant, it protects our cells and DNA from free radicals that can ultimately cause heart disease, cancer and arthritis. Low levels of vitamin C have been associated with a higher risk of stroke, certain cancers, atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque in the blood vessels, gallbladder disease and high blood pressure.

Riboflavin, or vitamin B2, is needed for the maintenance of good vision, energy metabolism and tissue formation.

Folate promotes proper digestion and is essential for the development of red blood cells. It may also play a role in the prevention of neural tube disorders.

Copper is needed for synthesis of hemoglobin, proper iron metabolism and maintenance of blood vessels.

Magnesium is a very important mineral. Unfortunately, magnesium deficiency is very common these days. It is a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme systems in the body, and plays a role in muscle and nerve function, bone development, the synthesis of DNA, RNA and antioxidants, protein synthesis, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation, energy production and glycolysis. It also helps transporting calcium and potassium ions across cell membranes, which is important to muscle contraction, heart rhythm and impulse conduction. Symptoms of a magnesium deficiency include depression, sleeping disorders, migraine, anxiety, high blood pressure, muscular pain and fatigue. Although most vitamin or mineral supplements do not promote health, magnesium is an exception. Make sure your magnesium supplement is easily absorbed. Chelated magnesium is a good example.

Potassium is an electrolyte, just like magnesium, and conducts electricity in the body. Potassium is crucial to bone health, heart function and muscle contraction. The best way to obtain sufficient levels of potassium is by consuming plenty of veggies and fruits, including green leafy vegetables.

Manganese helps the body form bones, sex hormones, blood clotting factors and connective tissue. It plays a role in fat and carbohydrate carbohydrate metabolism, calcium absorption, and blood sugar regulation and is important for brain and nerve function. It is also a component of the antioxidant enzyme SOD, which fights free radicals that damage our DNA. Manganese has been found to play a role in the prevention of osteoporosis, arthritis, PMS and epilepsy.

Vitamin K is required for blood coagulation and helps bones to absorb and maintain sufficient calcium. A low vitamin K level weakens bones and promotes calcification of arteries and other soft tissues. Vitamin K1 can be found in green leafy vegetables and cabbage. Vitamin K2, the main storage form in animals, seems to have superior health effects though, and is found in foods like butter, cheese, chicken and egg yolk.

Calcium helps form and maintain healthy teeth and bones. It also plays a role in blood clotting, nerve signaling, muscle contraction and the release of hormones. Several studies suggest that calcium supplementation may increase the chance of cardiovascular disease, stroke and atherosclerosis. So, like many other nutrients, it’s recommended to obtain sufficient calcium from whole food sources, such as green leafy vegetables.

We can conclude that leafy greens are usually very nutrient dense and help prevent many diseases and health problems. This is in line with a growing understanding of the fact that our bodies are generally very capable of restoring health, as long as the necessary building blocks (nutrients) are provided, and factors like drugs, antibiotics, processed foods and chemical additives are avoided as much as possible.
Just a few tips
When possible, buy organic vegetables. Evidence shows that it may reduce exposure to pesticide residues (duh!), cadmium and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Studies also show superior nutrient content and dramatically higher levels of antioxidants (up to 40%) in organic foods compared to ‘regular’ veggies. 

Another recommendation: preferably buy veggies that are locally grown. Plant food loses its nutrient density directly after it is being harvested. Therefore, transport over a long distance impacts its beneficial properties.When you buy your vegetables off-season, flash-frozen food can be a good option: the vegetables keep most of their nutrition. 

Make sure you provide your body with enough building blocks (nutrients) that allow your body to maintain healthy. Of course, these not only come from leafy greens. Make sure to vary a lot, and make sure your food is from a good source. Keep in mind that some foods are better avoided. Health doesn’t exist without an active and social lifestyle and a healthy gut.

Keep it green!

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Categories: Food, Health

1 Comment

  • Keesha Loia says:

    There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

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