Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Over the past few decades, an avalanche of research has called out the importance of noshing on more vegetables for glorious health. In particular, dark leafy greens (read: not iceberg lettuce) are the MVPs of the supermarket vegetable aisle. These veggies contain an alphabet of vitamins, minerals and tongue-twisting antioxidants nearly unmatched by any other food.
And the health benefits of green vegetables are clear. A study in the journal Neurology found that participants who ate the most servings of leafy greens per day (an average of 1.3 servings daily) had lower rates of cognitive decline than those who ate fewer leafy greens. What’s more, upping your daily intake of leafy green vegetables by 1.5 servings may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes by 14 percent, notes a study review in the British Medical Journal.
So, it’s important to green up your diet. But there’s only so much spinach and kale a person can stuff into every meal. Luckily, there’s a bounty of other leafy gems out there that are ready to upgrade your salads and green smoothies. Here are the health-hero greens you need more of in your life.
Also called rocket, arugula has a palate-awakening pungent, peppery flavor that many rock star chefs exploit. Packed with more nitrates than almost anything else at the grocery store, going all rabbit on the stuff can be good news for the way your muscles function.
A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition discovered that higher intakes of dietary nitrate can improve muscular strength and endurance. When you consume nitrates, your body converts them into nitric oxide. That nitric oxide dilates, or opens up, your blood vessels – and that leads to better blood flow to important areas like your muscles. This same dilation effect can help lower blood pressure numbers for better heart health. Arugula also dishes out laudable amounts of beta-carotene and bone-benefiting vitamin K.
How to sneak more in: Arugula is a game-changing addition to pesto. You can also stir it into pasta dishes, add to grilled cheese, use as an exciting base for grain bowls and toss handfuls over pizza after it’s pulled from the oven.
Here’s proof that great things come in small packages. Microgreens, which are the underdeveloped leafy greens of vegetables like kale, arugula and broccoli that are harvested a mere one to two weeks after planting, are a treasure trove of vital nutrients.
An investigation led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that several varieties of microgreens, including cabbage and cilantro, contain denser levels of nutrients such as vitamin C and vitamin E than that found in mature plants. Why? During early development, vegetables need a full arsenal of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to support their growth which makes downsized microgreens nutritional giants.
How to sneak more in: Ranging in flavor from fiery to tangy, use microgreens to punch up your salads, soups, sandwiches and burgers as a fanciful garnish.
Collard greens are a southern staple with large, leathery leaves and a fairly mild flavor that’s less bitter than kale. A one-cup serving offers more than twice the daily recommended total of vitamin K. In our bodies, there are several vitamin K dependent proteins that are involved in bone and heart health.
Other nutritional highlights of collards include plenty of folate, vitamin C and beta-carotene. We can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A in our bodies, which helps bolster our immune system. And like other greens, collards are exceptionally low in calories – they’re just 12 calories per one-cup serving. You get a huge nutritional payoff for little caloric cost.
But too often, people cook collards to within an inch of their nutritional lives. It’s best to handle them lightly, giving them only a gentle steam or sauté.
How to sneak more in: Whole raw collard leaves can be used as a fresh-tasting, and more nutritious, alternative to tortillas for sandwich wraps and burritos. Blend a leaf into green smoothies, sauté a bunch with garlic and then toss with olive oil, use sliced leaves as a base for a riff on Caesar salad, or chop and add to soups and chili.
4. Mustard Greens
Related to kale, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables, peppery mustard greens are, as their moniker implies, the leaves of the plant which produces the mustard seeds used to make our favorite condiment. They’re well-endowed with glucosinolate compounds. In our bodies, glucosinolates are converted to compounds that rev up detoxification enzymes that can offer some protection against certain diseases like cancer.
The verdant leaves also supply huge amounts of vitamin K, beta-carotene, vitamin C and folate. A report in the journal Diabetes Care determined that greater folate intakes could help adults lower their risk of developing diabetes later in life.
Is the bracing taste of raw mustard greens too much for your taste buds? Once cooked, this leafy green’s bite becomes more mellow.
How to sneak more in: Use mustard greens’ leaves in stir-frys or add them to soups, stews and frittatas. A handful of chopped raw leaves can add a “wow, what’s that?” flavor punch to salads.
Whether you forage for them on your lawn or pick up a bunch of cultivated jagged leaves from the market, dandelion greens are a nutritional home run. On top of providing the three big leafy green nutrients – vitamin K, vitamin C and beta-carotene – dandelion leaves are a source of calcium. This makes them a valuable non-dairy source of this bone-strengthening mineral.
Some evidence suggests that dandelion is also a natural diuretic that can increase urine production. This, in turn, supports the elimination of toxins from the body. And the compounds that make dandelion leaves come off as bitter to our taste buds also happen to be powerfully good-for-you antioxidants that most people don’t eat enough of because of our propensity to steer clear of bitter-tasting foods.
How to sneak more in: Toss dandelions into any salad or try blending the greens into a vinaigrette. They’re also great in pestos, almost any egg-based dish like frittatas, pasta salads and a pot of cooked beans.
Discover more ways to incorporate dark, leafy green vegetables into your diet – and learn more about their benefits – keep reading:
- 5 Delicious Way to Eat Collard Greens
- 7 Leafy Greens and How to Eat Them
- The Leafy Green Solution for Heart Health