“Greens are the No. 1 food you can eat regularly to help improve your health,” says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, a culinary educator in Northern California and the author of The Veggie Queen. That’s because leafy vegetables are brimming with fiber along with vitamins, minerals, and plant-based substances that may help protect you from heart disease, diabetes, and perhaps even cancer. Even so, Americans are not eating as many vegetables each day as dietary experts recommend.
To encourage you to put more leafy vegetables on your plate, WebMD asked Nussinow to rank the country’s most widely-eaten greens from most nutritious to least. Here’s our top 10 list:
Kale: This nutrition powerhouse “offers everything you want in a leafy green,” says Nussinow, who gave it her first-place ranking. It’s an excellent source of vitamins A C, and K, has a good amount of calcium for a vegetable, and also supplies folate and potassium. Kale’s ruffle-edged leaves may range in color from cream to purple to black depending on the variety.
Before cooking with kale, collards, turnips, and chard, Nussinow recommends swishing the greens in a water-filled sink, draining the sink, then repeating this rinse until the leaves are dirt-free. Her favorite cooking method for these four greens is to rub the leaves in olive oil or tahini (sesame paste) and cook them for five minutes with garlic, olive oil, and broth.
Collards: Used in Southern-style cooking, collard greens are similar in nutrition to kale. But they have a heartier and chewier texture and a stronger cabbage-like taste. “Collards are an under-appreciated vegetable and most people don’t know about them,” suggests Nussinow. She says they’re also popular with the raw food movement because the wide leaves are used as a wrapper instead of tortillas or bread. Down South, collards are typically slow cooked with either a ham hock or smoked turkey leg. A half cup has 25 calories.
Turnip greens: “If you buy turnips with the tops on, you get two vegetables in one,” Nussinow tells WebMD. Turnip leaves are another Southern favorite traditionally made with pork. More tender than other greens and needing less cooking, this sharp-flavored leaf is low in calories yet loaded with vitamins A,C, and K as well as calcium.
Swiss chard: With red stems, stalks, and veins on its leaves, Swiss chard has a beet-like taste and soft texture that’s perfect for sauteeing. Both Swiss chard and spinach contain oxalates, which are slightly reduced by cooking and can bind to calcium, a concern for people prone to kidney stones. Chard contains 15 calories in one-half cup and is a good source of vitamins A and C. Nussinow likes to make a sweet-and-sour chard by adding raisins and vinegar to the cooked greens.
Spinach: Popeye’s favorite vegetable has 20 calories per serving, plus it’s packed with vitamins A and C, as well as folate. And because heat reduces the green’s oxalate content, freeing up its dietary calcium, “cooked spinach gives you more nutrition than raw,” says Nussinow. Spinach leaves can be cooked quickly in the water that remains on them after rinsing, or they can be eaten raw in salads. Bags of frozen chopped spinach are more convenient to use than block kinds, and this mild-flavored vegetable can be added to soups, pasta dishes, and casseroles.
Mustard greens: Another Southern green with a similar nutrition profile to turnip leaves and collards, mustard greens have scalloped edges and come in red and green varieties. They have a peppery taste and give off a mustardy smell during cooking. Their spiciness can be toned down by adding an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, toward the end of cooking, suggests Nussinow. Cooked mustard greens have 10 calories in one-half cup.
Broccoli: With 25 calories a serving, broccoli is rich in vitamin C and is also a good source of vitamin A, potassium, and folate. Americans eat about 6 pounds of it a year. Its stalks and florets add both crunch and color to stir-fries. While some kids may call this veggie “trees,” they often like it best raw or steamed with a yogurt-based dip. Nussinow mixes fresh broccoli into her pasta during the last three minutes of cooking so both are ready at the same time.
Red and Green Leaf and Romaine Lettuce: A familiar sight in salad bowls, these lettuces are high in vitamin A and offer some folate. Leaf lettuces have a softer texture than romaine, a crunchy variety used in Caesar salads. Fans of Iceberg lettuce may go for romaine, a crispy green that’s better for you. Nussinow points out “the darker the lettuce leaf, the more nutrition it has,” making red leaf slightly healthier than green. If you don’t drown lettuce in a creamy dressing, one cup contains 10 calories.
Cabbage: Although paler in color than other leafy greens, this cruciferous vegetable is a great source of cancer-fighting compounds and vitamin C. Nussinow considers this versatile green “the workhorse of the kitchen.” Available in red and green varieties, cabbage can be cooked, added raw to salads or stir fries, shredded into a slaw, or made into sauerkraut. It’s also a staple of St. Patrick’s Day boiled suppers and can give off a strong smell when cooking. One-half cup cooked has 15 calories.
Iceberg Lettuce: This bland-tasting head lettuce is mostly water. But it’s the country’s most popular leafy green and each of us eats about 17 pounds of iceberg a year. While tops in consumption, it’s last on our list for its health benefits. “It’s not devoid of all nutrition, but it’s pretty close,” Nussinow tells WebMD. Although we’re eating less iceberg than we did two decades ago, it’s still a common ingredient on hamburgers and in taco salads. “It can be a starter green,” says Nussinow, to draw people into a broader array of salad greens.
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