We all know that ‘greens’ are good for us… right? But what exactly are ‘greens’ and why they are so good for us? The most obvious definition of greens is those foods that are green in colour, but there has to be more to it than simply referring to foods that fit in a colour category, after all the colour of foods doesn’t indicate everything about its nutritional value.
What exactly are “Greens”?
When people talk about greens they are often referring to two slightly different, but often overlapping, categories of greens… either cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, sprouts, kale, collard greens, cabbage and spring greens, or leafy greens, which includes lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard… with some of the cruciferous vegetables, such as kale and broccoli, often placed in the leafy greens category.
The ‘greens’ category also often includes things like Spirulina, a type of blue green algae, that has a wide variety of essential vitamins and minerals and other exotic green vegetables that we may not consider as a part of a typical western diet.
Often missing out in the ‘greens’ categories are peas, beans and shoots that are obviously green in colour, the question might be why this is the case? Well, they are not from the same family of plants as the cruciferous and leafy greens, which do to a large extent have some cross over with each other (Spirulina being an obvious exception!) and often share comparable nutritional qualities for that reason.
Peas and beans are still great foods and packed full of essential nutrients (but tend to be in smaller amounts than ‘greens’) so they shouldn’t be ignored, but they also tend to be higher in calories due to their carbohydrate content. For example, 100g of frozen peas has around 15g of carbohydrate and 80 calories, whereas broccoli has 5g of carbs and 30 calories and spinach has 4g of carbs and 25 calories.
The differences here may seem small, but can add up for those who are look lose weight then making simple changes, opting for nutrient dense but lower calorie alternatives at each meal can all add up to saving calories, whilst adding volume to meals and ensuring micronutrient and fibre requirements are met.
Vitamins and Minerals
Greens typically contain small amounts of a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals, with a few servings per day contributing significantly to our total daily nutrient requirements. Greens typically also contain exceptionally high levels of Vitamin A and K, with spinach, broccoli and kale, amongst others, easily surpassing our daily requirements.
But what is the king of the greens? Well, according to the Aggregate Nutrient Density index (ANDI)1, which compares the amounts of micronutrients relative to its calorie content, then Kale takes the victory with collard greens getting a similarly impressive score. Spinach also appears very high on the list, with the other ‘greens’ making up a good number of the top 20 nutrient dense foods. The important thing to note with this score though, is that it is focused on micronutrients, not macronutrients or highlights any vitamins and minerals that may be missing from foods.
Salmon for example, even though it is rich in essential omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 and amino acids that are not present in greens, scores low in the chart. This is amplified further using this score, because it also contains more calories, which is always going to be the case especially with fatty foods even if they contain essential fat soluble, essential vitamins that we can’t get from vegetables.
This highlights that although we want to focus on nutrient dense foods in our diet, we need to consider the food as whole, including what it might be missing to ensure our overall diet provides us with all the essential nutrients… no single food, no matter how ‘healthy’ it is will do this and most ranking systems that focus on a single component of foods often miss the bigger picture in this regard forgetting other nutritional properties that may be equally, if not more, important.
For many people eating enough greens is a challenge. They either dislike the slightly bitter taste, or are quite often focused on other things nutritionally to bother thinking about adding in greens to their meals. This can be common in those looking to build muscle, where greens often take a back seat to worrying about eating enough protein and overall calories in the diet.
How to include more Greens in your diet
There are however a few ways we can make sure we get enough greens. Firstly, buy frozen greens. This will mean no preparation time, no food wastage, and can be cooked in the microwave in seconds or simply thrown into dishes we are already cooking without any effort.
Secondly, if you dislike the taste of greens then we need to try and ‘hide’ the taste and texture by treating ourselves like we would children… chopping up the greens into small amounts and hiding them amongst other foods that also pack plenty of flavour.
Finally, there are greens powders that can simply be added to shakes and smoothies. These either have powdered forms of some of the more nutrient dense greens such as Spirulina, Broccoli and Spinach or they combine many different sources of greens to gain all their nutrient benefits. These are also often combined with other nutrient dense foods, such as powdered fruits, so that for those who are truly challenged in the micronutrient department then there really is no more excuse!