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Identifying dark leafy greens

Kolasa, Kathy

Kathy Kolasa


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Q: You write about eating more dark leafy greens. I don’t know what you mean. Don’t tell me to look it up on the web. I don’t use a computer. HF, Farmville

A: I of course, like all the nutrition experts, encourage you to eat more vegetables. The MIND diet, a science-based diet to help prevent memory loss, specifically recommends eating at least one serving of green leafy vegetables each day. Hopefully this description will help you know that that means.

Let’s start with lettuces. The dark green lettuces that we easily find in Pitt County are romaine (like you find in a classic Cesar salad), green leaf, arugula, bibb and butterhead. Some people find these lettuces a bit bitter, especially if they are used to eating only iceberg lettuce. By the way, iceberg is not one of the lettuces promoted since its nutrient value is OK but not great. With time, you might discover how tasty these lettuces are and they are great sources of vitamins A, C, and K.

If you are taking a blood thinner, you may need to tell your doctor you want to eat dark greens daily. They may want to adjust your medicine so you can without a problem.

Another type of dark leafy green would be a cruciferous leafy green. Lots of people in eastern North Carolina enjoy collard greens and cabbage. When we came to North Carolina in 1983, we only were served collards cooked for a long time and seasoned heavily with fat meat. We also have been served it deep fat fried collards. The health goal is to eat dark leafy greens without a lot of added fat or sugars or sauces. I find collards quite tasty when just lightly sautéed in olive oil.

Kale, mustard greens, beet greens, watercress, bok choy and rapini are in this group too. I don’t regularly see rapini (sounds like rah-PEE-nee) — also called broccoli rabe — in our local markets. It is a member of the turnip family and looks a little like a broccoli that didn’t form a head. The stalks, leaves and flowers are all edible. Most people like these greens cooked at least a bit. If you sauté them use herbs and spices and just a few drops of healthy oils like canola or olive.

In addition to being helpful in preventing memory loss, eating cruciferous vegetables is great for reducing risks for some cancers because of the glucosinolates. These greens also are great sources of magnesium and tryptophan which are great for both heart and mind.

Another family of leafy greens is called Amaranthacea — you would recognize spinach and swiss chart. Most of us grew up with Popeye the sailor man popping his can of spinach. It’s one of the few vegetables known for the nutrient iron. If you think you don’t like spinach because it seems a bit slimy when cooked, try it raw, chopped and steamed.

Some people like wild or edible green leaves. I see them in specialty markets in Raleigh and have been served them in some restaurants. They include dandelion, red clover, plantain, watercress and chickweed. If you don’t use weed killers in your yard, you might pick some and add them to raw salads, stir-fries, soups or salads.

Many of the nutrients found in dark leafy greens are fat soluble. So, it is helpful to have a bit of healthy fat at the same time as the vegetable. I’ve already mentioned sautéing with a healthy oil. You could also toss in a few nuts or a bit of avocado with the greens. Note that a serving is 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked.

In addition to the dark leafy greens, you do want to aim for eating at least one other vegetable a day (of course more would be better). I mentioned the cruciferous greens, but you might enjoy other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts.

The brain health study included at least two servings of cruciferous vegetables a week. Some of the best “other” vegetables because of the high nutrient content recommended by Dr. Martha Morris, the creator of the MIND diet, are asparagus, beets, carrots, celery, cucumber, eggplant, green beans, leeks, mushrooms, okra, onions, peas, radishes, squash, sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, yams and zucchini. She, like me, remind you that healthy vegetables can be fresh, frozen, canned, and dried — as long as the frozen and canned don’t have lots of sauces, sugars and fats added. And generally speaking, a serving is ½ cup.

The studies on brain health don’t include white potatoes. So, we don’t know if they help, hurt or don’t make any difference. Potatoes are a major source of vitamin C in the American diet and a good source of dietary fiber. If you cut out white potatoes, make sure you have other sources of vitamin C and dietary fiber. Some scientists worry about the glycemic index (GI) of potatoes which is high in its raw state. But if you add a touch of a healthy fat to them, you lower the GI and it is less likely to be harmful. Until we know more, if you enjoy white potatoes, just be mindful of the calories you are getting and don’t count them as a serving of vegetables for the MIND diet. There’s no harm in eating more of the dark green leafy vegetables every day.


Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.


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