Greens Nutrition Guide: The 7 Choicest Leafy Greens

Greens Nutrition Guide: The 7 Choicest Leafy Greens


16 minute read

Rabbit food, hippie eats, for-vegans-only––whatever word on the street is about who leafy greens are for, there's no argument that they are one of the best foods we can put in our bodies. Leafy greens are for everyone, necessarily so, because they are a critical source of micronutrients––the vitamins and minerals our bodies need for immune function, healthy blood, energy production, and many more functions.

How To Use This Guide

In the following guide, we provide a leafy greens list of seven highly nutritious leafy greens. Each one has a nutritional profile measure, adapted from the Nutrient Balance Indicator (1), as a score of the completeness and balance of essential nutrients in each leafy green. The number takes into account macros (protein, carbs, and fat), dietary fiber, and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). The higher the number (with a ceiling of 100), the more nutritionally balanced it is with respect to daily values (DV). Note: the score refers to the raw, not cooked, vegetable.

This leafy greens guide also includes a protein score. There is a widespread myth that in order to get a sufficient amount of protein we need to eat meat, but plants have plenty of protein, and in many cases, we don';t need as much protein as commercial food industries (namely meat) will have us believe.

Each description also includes three main nutrients. Each score indicates the percentage of the recommended daily intake or DV. In most cases, Vitamins A, C, and K top the charts because leafy greens are great sources of those nutrients. Other nutritional information is included too where significant, such as dietary fiber, iron, and other minerals and vitamins. Most leafy greens are low in calories, fat, and carbs, so the focus is on micronutrients.

If you want to skip ahead, use the table of contents below.

A Word On Cooking, Calcium & Enzymes

How To Store Leafy Greens

The 7 Best Leafy Greens

Kale

Spinach

Beet Greens

Dandelion Greens

Swiss Chard

Mustard Greens

Watercress

A Word On Cooking, Calcium & Enzymes

Many leafy greens are high in calcium, but they also have high levels of oxalic acid, which binds to calcium and interferes with its absorption. Cooking releases some of that calcium, making it more available to the body. Whether you should eat cooked or raw leafy greens really comes down to what nutrients you're seeking to obtain from them. 

Cooking food may retain a higher concentration of certain vitamins or minerals, but others may be lost, particularly life-giving enzymes. Likewise, eating all your food raw means missing out on some important nutrients that only become available through cooked food. If you're unsure, we examine the top seven leafy greens below and recommend cooked or raw. If you want the best of both worlds, a gentle steam might do the trick.  

How To Store Leafy Greens

If you're buying leafy greens from a local organic market, they will likely hold traces of soil. Separate the leaves and give each one a gentle shake to remove any dirt. Give them a bath, gently swirling your hands in the water to loosen any remaining dirt. You might try gently massaging each leaf for a more thorough clean. To dry them, shake off any excess water and use either a salad spinner or two clean towels to absorb the remaining surface water. Properly drying them ensures their crispness and flavor. 

You can store fresh, unwashed greens in the fridge (ideally in a crisper) for up to a week before they begin to wilt. Only wash your greens if you plan on eating them within a day or two. Once they're washed, they tend to wilt more quickly. Kale and Swiss chard have thick stems, which aren't easy to chew and digest. You can remove the leaf from the stem by grasping the base of the leaf and stripping it upward toward the tip of the stem.

The 7 Best Leafy Greens

leafy greens kale

KALE

Nutritional Profile Measure: 85

Like many leafy greens, kale doesn't have a great reputation outside of vegan and vegetarian circles. It has a slightly bitter flavor and it's a bit tough to chew. But kale is one of the most nutrient-dense leafy greens available to us, which is why nutritionists often refer to it as a superfood. It contains high amounts of important minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and it's low in calories.

It comes in all colors and shapes––curly, premier, walking stick, siberian, red Russian, lacinato etc. (See our resources section for more). Botanically, kale is a cruciferous vegetable, part of the same family as cabbage and cauliflower. Steam it, fry it, saute it, throw it in a salad or power-up smoothie, kale makes a nutritious addition to any meal because it's hearty and it has a bit of everything you need, and in some cases, much more.

When it comes to kale, there are two kinds of people in the world––those who love it and those you don't. One of the primary reasons people don't love kale is because it's a bit dense. But a quick massage can make this power leafy green mere putty in your hands. Simply massage the leaves by rubbing them between your fingertips and thumb. After a few minutes, you'll notice their color begin to change from a dark green to a fresh grassy green. They'll become shiny and softer in your hands as their toughness breaks down.

Raw kale contains large amounts of Vitamins A, C & K, as well as copper, manganese, and Vitamin B6.

Top Three Nutrients:

Vitamin A: 206%

Vitamin C: 134%

Vitamin K: 684%

 

Protein Score: 2.2 gr

(Above scores are based on a 1-cup portion of raw kale)

Raw or Cooked?

Kale is more nutritious when eaten raw (unlike spinach) because it maintains a higher concentration of antioxidants and minerals, including calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and magnesium (2). But check this out––the same amount of cooked kale contains twice as much Vitamin K as raw kale (1328% of the DV!), slightly more Vitamin A, but only half as much Vitamin C. Protein remains about the same. If you don';t like it raw, steaming retains most of its nutrients.

leafy greens spinach

SPINACH

Nutritional Profile Measure: 91

Spinach is a crowd favorite. Most of us grew up being told that spinach will make us strong (remember Popeye?). Although it didn't give us superpower strength as kids, spinach is certainly packed with enough nutrients for you to want to make it a regular part of your diet.

Like kale, spinach is versatile and can be stir fried, steamed, sauteed, or eaten raw. It's the base for classic spinach salad, and it also makes a great addition to a mix of leafy greens for various types of salads. Stuff it into spanakopitas, saute it with garlic and olive oil as a side for any main dish, or top your toast with steamed spinach along with a poached egg for a nutritious breakfast. However you enjoy eating spinach, add it to any meal and bump up your daily nutrition by a long shot.

Spinach is part of the Chenopodiaceae family, whose other members include nutrient dense foods like beets and Swiss chard (see below). It's an excellent source of iron, magnesium, manganese, and Vitamin C.

Top Three Nutrients:

Vitamin A: 56%

Vitamin K: 181%

Folate: 15%

 

Protein Score: 1 gr

(Above scores are based on a 1-cup portion of raw spinach)

Raw or Cooked?

When it comes to spinach, cooked is your best bet for garnering the highest nutritional value. Three cups of raw spinach, for example, has 90 mg of calcium, whereas one cup of cooked has nearly triple the amount (259 mg). It also contains higher Vitamin A (377%), folate (65%), and is dense with other essential minerals like iron, magnesium, and manganese. Cooked spinach also contains necessary electrolytes like sodium and potassium, and it's protein score is more than five times its raw counterpart (5.4 gr).

BEET GREENS

Nutritional Profile Measure: 93

Many people lop these nutrient powerhouses off when they're preparing beets. Beets are a wonderful winter vegetable––you can tell just by their color that they're good for the heart and blood, and they're also an excellent detoxifier and anti-inflammatory. But don't disregard their tops––they're some of the healthiest foods on the planet.

Beetroot is a tuberous vegetable so it grows underground, hidden from the light. Its leafy tops must draw in all the nutrients it needs from the sun, which makes them dense with essential minerals, like iron, vitamins, and electrolytes. Beet greens also contain loads of fiber and antioxidants. They're similar to Swiss chard, but slightly sweeter.

Use beet greens just as you would with any type of leafy green, such as in a salad, or add them to a stir fry for a delightful texture.

Top Three Nutrients:

Vitamin A: 48%

Vitamin C: 19%

Vitamin K: 190%

 

Protein Score: 0.8 gr

(Above scores based on a 1-cup portion of raw beet greens)

Raw or Cooked?

You may want to trade in the enzymatic concentration for more minerals, vitamins, and electrolytes. Beetroot greens are better cooked, not just for taste and digestibility, but because they are a much richer source of the essential nutrients. Vitamins A, C & K increase significantly when cooked, and they are an excellent source of riboflavin (Vitamin B2), manganese, magnesium, potassium, and copper. They contain 17% of the recommended daily intake of fiber too.

DANDELION GREENS

Nutritional Profile Measure: 88

Did you ever make dandelion wishes as a child? All it took was one gentle blow for these delicate weeds to scatter and deliver our wishes to the breeze. While you're probably not going to eat their wispy seeds or yellow flowers (though they are edible), you can eat their hearty leaves.

One of the best greens for detoxification, dandelion greens are an excellent source of calcium, and they contain a good amount of Vitamin E too. They're low in calories and high in dietary fiber. Dandelion greens contain inulin, a type of dietary fiber that helps regulate blood sugar, which helps protect us from the risk of diabetes type 2 (3). With high concentrations of both Vitamins A and K, dandelion greens help blood clotting and contribute to the production of collagen that helps rebuild tissue. They contain special forms of Vitamin A that accumulate in the retina and help protect against macular degeneration.

Eat them raw, blanched, cooked, in a smoothie, salad, or stir fried. They have a bitter quality, so they're best as part of a vegetable ensemble.

Top Three Nutrients:

Vitamin A: 112%

Vitamin C: 32%

Vitamin K: 535%

 

Protein Score: 1.5 gr

(Above scores based on a 1-cup portion of raw dandelion greens)

Raw or Cooked?

Nutritionally, cooked dandelion greens are higher in Vitamin A and K than raw beet greens, but they retain the same amount of Vitamin C. When cooked, they become a slightly higher source of protein and fiber, and, like the other leafy greens, higher in bioavailable calcium.

SWISS CHARD

Nutritional Profile Measure: 93

Swiss chard is a wonderful, hearty green that in some cases can grow to the size of a small child! It belongs to the Chenopodioideae family, like spinach and beets, and it goes by several names: silverbeet, bright lights, seakale beet, crab beet, and probably the most curious one––perpetual spinach.

Swiss chard has large, thick, green leaves and white stalks. Chard with colored stalks is called rainbow chard. It tastes similar to spinach (in perpetuity!), though it's heartier and has a rougher texture, making it less easy to chew and break down. Because of their size and hearty structure, they make an excellent wrap as an alternative to wheat tortillas, particularly for raw food diets for people with gluten sensitivity.

Swiss chard is a great source of thiamin (B1), which is essential for glucose metabolism, zinc for the immune system and metabolism, and a very good source of dietary fiber. Swiss chard also contains folate (B9), which is essential for healthy cell function and a critical nutrient during early pregnancy for brain and spinal development.

Top Three Nutrients:

Vitamin A: 44%

Vitamin C: 18%

Vitamin K: 374%

 

Protein Score: 0.6 gr

(Above scores based on a 1-cup portion of raw Swiss chard)

Raw or Cooked?

Cooking Swiss chard gives it a major protein boost––from 0.6 grams for a cup up to 3.3 grams for the same amount! The top three nutrients increase too, as do the amount of minerals, particularly magnesium and potassium. You can eat the leaves raw, and although you may choose not to eat the fibrous stalks, they are edible and better cooked than raw. Keep in mind that the stalks take longer to cook than the leaf part so it's wise to separate the two parts.

MUSTARD GREENS

Nutritional Profile Measure: 91

If you've never had the occasion to try mustard greens, hunt them out in your local farmer's market and prepare to fall in love––if you love mustard, that is. Their taste holds the same hot zing of spreadable mustard so they are an excellent topping on sandwiches, hamburgers, and added to a salad for a bit of spicy flavor.

Mustard greens are a cruciferous vegetable like kale. It's no mystery why they taste like mustard––they are indeed the leaves of the mustard plant.  They're among the best sources of Vitamin A, E, and K, as well as calcium and iron. They also contain loads of antioxidants and glucosinolate, a chemical that gives cruciferous vegetables their bitter quality and that's also known for its cancer-fighting properties.

To prepare them, simply remove their ribs and eat the tender leafy part, either cooked or raw.

Top Three Highest Nutrients:

Vitamin A: 118%

Vitamin C: 65%

Vitamin K: 348%

Folate: 26% (we had to include this fourth nutrient because it's so high)

 

Protein Score: 1.5 gr

(Above scores based on a 1-cup portion of raw mustard greens)

Raw or Cooked?

Cooking mustard greens mellows their flavor, so if you';re not into the taste of strong peppery mustard, try steaming or sauteing them. Cooking also boosts their protein content.

WATERCRESS

Nutritional Profile Measure: 86

If you ever read the beloved childhood story Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, you might remember that the swan, Louis, orders watercress sandwiches and eats them without the bread. They started out in the lowly weed kingdom of the botanical hierarchy, but they became cultivated in the UK. Now they grow in watery beds all over the world.

While its nutrient profile isn't as impressive as the other leafy greens, watercress certainly has a lot of health benefits. Like mustard greens, watercress contains glucosinolate, which helps protect the body against cancer. It also protects against free radical damage that causes premature aging because it's high in antioxidants. Watercress contains dietary nitrates that reduce inflammation and promote healthy blood vessel structure and function (4).

Watercress has a peppery quality similar to mustard greens, so the best way to eat it is tossed into a salad without greens and vegetables. Remove the very thick stems if you're eating it raw.

Top Three Highest Nutrients:

Vitamin A: 22%

Vitamin C: 24%

Vitamin K: 106%

 

Protein Score: 0.8 gr

(Above scores based on a 1-cup portion of raw watercress)

Raw or Cooked?

To get the most from the high antioxidant content of watercress, eat it raw or gently steamed.

Leaf Nothing Behind

Leafy greens are not just a delicious and interesting part of your daily diet, they are an essential one. The darker the better for their mineral content. Bitters like dandelion and mustard greens help to stimulate digestion, which makes them perfect for a salad eaten before a main meal.

They make an incredible weight loss food because they';re low in calories yet give the body a lot to work with. They also help neutralize the body's pH due to their alkalinity. One of the most essential nutrients they contain is bacteria––the good kind. Nutrition experts claim that eating 25 different plant species each week, including our dark leafy friends, can give us all the probiotics (beneficial bacteria) we need to maintain a healthy functioning gastrointestinal tract.

For those spiritual folks, green is also the color of the heart chakra, which signals that dark leafy greens may enhance positive emotions and feelings of love. Indeed, they improve our physiological heart health by helping to reduce blood clots and heart attacks. They also contain a lot of dietary fiber, which helps regulate cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Wrap them up, throw them in a smoothie, stuff them in a sandwich, toss them in a salad, or saute with garlic, chilis, salt, and pepper. However you choose to get your greens on, you'll be improving your heart health, immune system, nerve impulses, hormones, metabolism, and more––the list is endless.

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Priority Chef: Quality You Can Trust

At Priority Chef, we think that food prep and cooking should be a fun and rewarding endeavor, but that's only possible with the right tools. That's why we're focused on creating functional, high-quality kitchenware that you and your family will rely on for years.

We design, source, craft, and rigorously test each of our products to ensure the highest quality and convenience. We guarantee (based on experience) that a Priority Chef French Butter Keeper will keep your butter fresh and ready for pastry making endeavors.

From our family to yours, happy leafing about through your local farmer's market for the freshest and most nutrient-dense leafy greens!

 

References

  1. SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator

  2. Effects of different cooking methods on the antioxidant capacity and flavonoid, organic acid and mineral contents of Galega Kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala cv. Galega)

  3. The Physiological Effects of Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) in Type 2 Diabetes

  4. Vascular effects of dietary nitrate (as found in green leafy vegetables and beetroot) via the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway

RESOURCES

10 Different Types of Kale (Powerful Way to Get Your Greens)

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