By DIANE HENDERIKS, R.D.
I remember when I was little staring at the peas or broccoli that were sitting on my dinner plate long after everyone left the table because my mother insisted that we "eat our greens." Back then I didn't realize how important green foods were but now I certainly do and love just about all of them (peas, not so much.)
Green foods can help fight disease, provide vitamins and minerals (calcium, folate, vitamin C, and beta-carotene), are high in fiber, support a healthy digestive system and offer a boatload of health benefits. The stuff that gives plant foods their natural, vibrant colors are called phytochemicals or phytonutrients which help to protect the plant from disease and when we eat these plants they help protect us, too. What gives green food in particular its color is chlorophyll. Just saying that word brings you back to grade school science and photosynthesis right? Can't you just visualize the blackboard with a picture of the sun with an arrow to the plant, CO2 in, O2 out…oh, the memories.
Step up to your home plate and make grand slam meals with these green foods.
Avocados are a fruit, not a veggie, and provide close to 20 essential nutrients, including fiber, potassium, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, B vitamins, and folic acid. They contain a lot of fat but it's monounsaturated fat or "the good fat" that can help lower cholesterol. Avocados also boost absorption of fat-soluble nutrients in foods that are eaten with it. Try adding avocados to salads, salsa, dressings and sauces. I use avocados in place of fat in baking and as a spread for sandwiches.
Eda-huh? Edamame are soybeans and have been used for thousands of years in East Asia as a main source of protein. Because they are a complete protein, edamame is an excellent staple for vegetarian diets. They are also a good source of fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin A and iron. Try adding shelled edamame to salads, any veggie dish, soups, stews or munch on their own. Edamame in the pods (like you find at Asian restaurants) are readily available and make a great snack. I throw shelled, frozen edamame into smoothies and the kids don't even realize it.
Kale is a member of the cruciferous veggie family that includes cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and bok choy. Kale is a nutritional powerhouse and is packed with Vitamins A, K and C, as well as, calcium, fiber, B vitamins, magnesium and a hit of Omega-3 fatty acids. Kale sits on the shelves next to mustard greens, collard greens and Swiss chard at the supermarket but unfortunately many people walk right past this area. Next time you are at the market stop and grab a bunch or two of this deliciously healthy leafy green. Kale is simple to prepare and cooking it for a short period of time will preserve its nutrients, color and texture. Toss into salads and pasta, top pizza or add to stews and soups. Kale chips are all the rage now and I just love them! Simply rinse kale, dry thoroughly, tear into bite sized pieces and place on even layer in baking sheet. Drizzle a little olive oil on top, sprinkle with salt, pepper and any of your favorite dried herbs and spices. Bake 10-15 minutes at 375 degrees and voila….so good.
Kiwi is a bright source of potassium, Vitamin E, folate and fiber and just one of these furry little buggers far exceeds your daily need for vitamin C! Research has shown kiwi to protect the DNA in our cells, assist with eye health and support a healthy cardiovascular system. Enjoy them on their own peeled or not (skin is edible and packed with fiber). Kiwi gives a tropical twist to smoothies, salads, cold soups, chutneys, oatmeal, dips and desserts.
Broccoli is also a member of the cruciferous veggie family and stocked with Vitamins A, K and C, calcium, folate, iron, fiber and potassium. Toss into salads, pastas and stir-fries, blend into sauces and soups, munch on it raw with or without dip or roast in the oven. Don't throw out the stems, they are delicious. Just peel the tough skin, slice and eat.
I've got these little guys sprouting on my kitchen windowsill right now. In addition to kicking up the flavor of dishes, fresh herbs get an A+ for nutrition. Just like any leafy green, fresh herbs contain lots of vitamins and minerals including A, K & C, iron, B vitamins, calcium and a nutritional bonus of essential oils and antioxidants. The star players of this powerhouse group are oregano, sage, basil, parsley, rosemary, mint and thyme. Each type of herb offers something a little different to good health so use a variety to reap the most benefit. Add them to salads, pastas, sauces, desserts or any dish.
Spring is the season for asparagus so be sure to get it while it's hot. Go to your local farmers market and grab some because it's gone before you know it and there is nothing like it freshly picked. Asparagus is one of the top sources of the B vitamin and folate, which is essential for heart and cellular health. It's also a great source of fiber, vitamins A, C and K and is a natural diuretic. You may come across asparagus in 3 different colors; green, white and purple and they are all delicious and nutritious. Toss in to pasta, eggs, soups, stir-fries, rice, salads or simply drizzle with a little olive oil, salt and pepper then place in even layer on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.
Stick that pinkie up and sip on some green tea! These leaves are rich in polyphenols which are antioxidant compounds that help to protect your cells and have been reported to reduce the risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol and protect against cancer. Recent research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that "Green tea consumption is significantly associated with a lower risk of incident functional disability" (Functional disability refers to problems with daily chores and activities, such as bathing or dressing). It's pretty cool that a tea can be studied and have these results, makes you want to add green tea to your shopping list, right? Steep a cup in the morning to start your day off with a jolt of nutrition, use as liquid in cooking and baking and my personal favorite indulgence, green tea ice cream.
Limes contain a bountiful amount of the vitamin C which helps the immune system, builds collagen and keeps your cells healthy. Sixteenth century sailors, pirates and explorers certainly appreciated this since a lime a day kept the scurvy away! Limes also contain fiber, calcium, iron and copper. The tartness and refreshing flavor of limes can lift up any recipe and add flavor to foods in place of extra salt. Add fresh lime juice and grated zest to dressings, sauces, soups, marinades and desserts. Squeeze a wedge of lime in your water for a special treat.
Finally, in spirit of St. Patrick's Day, cabbage. Cancer prevention is the top contender in health research for this veggie with results attributing it to lowering the risk of various forms of cancer. Like broccoli and kale, cabbage is also a cruciferous vegetable and rich in vitamins A, K and C, calcium, fiber and B vitamins. There are numerous different types of cabbage grown around the world but the ones we see most are green, red, savoy, bok choy and Napa. Cabbage can be eaten raw, tossed in salads, stirred in soups and stews and I like to use it in place of bread for sandwiches.
Henderiks is a registered dietitian, founder of Dianehenderiks.com and a "Good Morning America" health contributor.