Healthy Eating

It Ain't Easy Bein' Greens

Find out what nutrients are in romaine, cabbage, collards, spinach, endive, and watercress that can help fight off disease.

It Ain't Easy Bein' Greens
Pin it David Prince

It Ain't Easy Bein' Greens.
Sure, they provide color, crunch, and nutrients in a sandwich, but it's the sliced turkey or chicken salad that gets top billing. And most green salads are mere preludes to the "real" meal. It's the fruits of the plant we're trained to appreciate most, not the leaves that help them grow. Yet these produce-section also-rans are the true stars when it comes to your health. "Apart from the traditional micronutrients--B vitamins, vitamin C, minerals such as calcium--there are wonderful phytochemicals in greens," says Dave Grotto, R.D., director of nutrition education at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Ill. These substances protect your eyes, improve your skin, lower your cholesterol, and help stave off cancer.

The growing awareness of healthful greens is paralleled by their increasing availability. "People used to think of spinach when they thought of eating greens, but now they're being a little more adventurous," says Cheryl Forberg, R.D., author of Stop the Clock! Cooking. "They're trying kale, collard, Swiss chard--greens they might not have tried before. Now it's easy to find almost any type of green in the store."

And these greens aren't just for tossing into the salad bowl. They can be steamed, sauteed, stir-fried, boiled, broiled, or baked, usually without jeopardizing their nutrient profiles. "You may lose some water-soluble vitamins in the cooking process, but that's insignificant compared to the amount of nutrients you're taking in," Forberg says. Because greens are so water-rich, cooking them concentrates the amount you end up eating. For example, most raw greens shrink by half when cooked; with those that are particularly high in water content, like baby spinach, the difference can be as much as 75 percent.

All greens--raw or cooked--are good for you, but which ones, leaf for leaf, offer the most nutritional bang? To find out, we sorted them by their most common nutrients (vitamin C, folate, and beta carotene), factored in fiber, and searched out additional "bonus" benefits. Here are our top picks, along with delectable recipes that showcase flavor, color, and texture.

Collard Greens
In the South, wilted is the polite term for how collard greens are commonly served; considering how they're tossed into simmering vats of pork fat, expired might be a more appropriate description. But like most other members of the cabbage family, these sturdy, fibrous greens stand up well to even the cruelest cooking methods, and contain significant amounts of beta carotene (9,147 micrograms per 1-cup serving).
Bonus points: Each 1-cup serving also offers 266 milligrams of calcium--about a fifth of your daily requirement. In addition to protecting your bones, consuming at least 800 mg of calcium daily can reduce your risk of colon cancer by up to 46 percent, according to a study at the University of Minnesota. While calcium from dairy is generally better absorbed than that from vegetables, the study found that risk reduction was present regardless of the calcium source. And since collard greens are low in oxalate, an organic acid that can bind with calcium molecules, the body readily absorbs the calcium they contain. (Not so for spinach; only 5 percent of that green's calcium is bioavailable.)