Saturated in an alphabet of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, leafy greens are the MVPs of the supermarket produce section. And if you need more incentive to toss bunches of kale into your grocery cart, a daily serving of leafy green vegetables may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes by 14 percent, according to a recent study in the British Medical Journal.
In general, the deeper the green the more nutritional firepower the leaves contain. To help you zone in on the heavyweights, we’ve ranked ten greens from healthiest to least healthy based on their nutrient density and suggested ways to eat your fill without resorting to humdrum salads.
Here’s proof that great things come in small packages. Microgreens—which are the underdeveloped greens of vegetables such as kale, arugula, and broccoli that are harvested just one to two weeks after planting—are a treasure trove of vital nutrients. A 2012 study lead by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that several varieties of microgreens including cabbage and cilantro contain nutrient levels such as vitamins C and E up to six times greater than those found in the mature plants. During early development, vegetables need a full arsenal of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to support their growth, so they’re packed with more of the good stuff. Ranging in flavor from peppery to tangy, use microgreens to punch up salads, soups, and sandwiches.
Eat outside the bowl: Place 1 packed cup microgreens, 1 chopped shallot, 1 minced garlic clove, zest and juice of 1/2 lemon, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a food processor and pulse until combined. With the machine running, pour in 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil through the feed tube and blend until just slightly chunky. Serve this vibrant sauce over fish or chicken.
When it comes to grown-up greens, kale is deserving of its superfood epithet. It absolutely smashes its competitors in terms of lutein, a potent antioxidant shown to protect eyesight, and leads the way with respect to beta-carotene and vitamin C. As a member of the Brassica family along with broccoli and Brussels sprouts, kale also brings sulforaphane to the table, a phytonutrient shown to have cancer-fighting properties. Steaming or sautéing kale will mellow this all-star’s bitter flavor.
Perhaps Popeye should have been a nutritionist instead of a sailor. Among the greens, spinach harbors the most folate, and according to a recent American Journal of Epidemiology study, consuming more of this B vitamin helps protect against breast cancer development, likely because folate is needed for proper cell division. Spinach is also tops when it comes to potassium, which is necessary for muscle functioning and to keep blood pressure numbers in a healthy range.
As the name implies, these are the lacy-edged leaves of the same plant that produces mustard seeds. Mustard greens tend to be a little less bitter and more peppery tasting than kale or Swiss chard and come second to only kale in beta-carotene. In our bodies, beta-carotene can be converted to vitamin A to bolster eye and bone health. The greens also contain an arsenal of phytonutrients called glucosinolates that can rev up detoxification enzymes to help protect the cells of our liver and other organs from all the nasties of free-radical damage.
This Southern favorite has large, leathery leaves and a somewhat mild flavor, but its tough texture calls for longer cooking times than other greens. On top of providing a payload of vitamin K, vitamin C, and beta-carotene, collards contain higher amounts of dietary fiber than other leafy greens. A 2012 Swedish study found that women who ate the most fiber had almost a 25 percent lower risk of suffering heart disease than those who consumed the least.
There are two primary varieties of Swiss chard in markets: one with multi-colored stems and veins, called rainbow chard, and another with white stems and veins. Both types have a slightly bitter taste that wanes once cooked. Among chard’s many nutritional highlights is more vitamin K than any other green—three times the daily quota in a mere cup serving. On top of its role in proper blood clotting, vitamin K helps fortify bone strength and Dutch researchers recently determined that high intakes can slash the risk for type 2 diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity.
Arugula has a pungent, peppery flavor that has worked its way into the recipes of many rock star chefs. You’ll most often find it at the grocery store in plastic containers alongside baby spinach. Vegans, those lactose-intolerant, and anyone who doesn’t like milk should note that arugula is a surprisingly good source of calcium—it has more of this bone-builder than the other greens on this list. Loading up on arugula may also help you breeze through your workouts since it has high levels of natural nitrates—what your body uses to nitric oxide, which increases muscle blood flow—that Swedish scientists found can help your muscles work more efficiently during exercise.
If darker greens are too bitter to swallow, try this crispy lettuce. The medley of nutrients romaine provides includes beta-carotene, folate, potassium, and vitamin C. Science shows that women who consume higher amounts of vitamin C have healthier blood pressure numbers. Heads of romaine tend to be more perishable than heartier greens, though, so store them in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp paper towel for up to three days.
Resembling a blooming rose with deliciously tender light green leaves, many people find eating raw Boston lettuce more appetizing than the robust darker greens. Swap out your carby tortillas or flatbreads for the large, pliable leaves when making wraps for a good dose of vitamin K and manganese, a mineral necessary for proper carbohydrate and protein metabolism. And like other greens, this leafy green is exceptionally low-cal—a cup will set you back a mere seven calories.
Eat outside the bowl: In a bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup plain low-fat yogurt, juice of 1/2 lemon, 1 teaspoon curry powder, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne. In another bowl, stir together 2 cans drained and flaked salmon, 1 can rinsed and drained navy beans, and 1 cup grated carrot. Place some salmon mixture on a Boston lettuce leaf and top with a few dollops of curry yogurt. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
One of American’s favorite vegetables is far from nutritional nirvana. Made up mostly of water, iceberg lettuce pales, so to speak, in comparison to darker greens in terms of vitamins, minerals, and disease-busting antioxidants. Still, with just 10 calories in a shredded cup, it won’t do any harm to your beach body and its toothsome crunch can enliven sandwiches, tacos, and mixed green salads.