Healthy Spring Greens

Starting with Mom, you’ve always heard that you need to eat your veggies. What’s the big deal about them? Vegetables are often the least favorite of the food groups. Even for people who like them, it can be challenging to get the recommended 5 servings a day. Are they really that important? Yep! Mom was right: eat your veggies! Eat your fruit too.

Up until recently a primary measure of nutrition value has been the vitamin and mineral content of a food. It turns out that vitamins and minerals are only a small part of the nutrition offered by plants. Some foods like celery, apples and mushrooms don’t have significant levels of vitamins and minerals, but they are rich in other healthy compounds called phytonutrients.

Phytonutrients is a catch-all phrase used for a wide variety of secondary nutritional components. The term “phyto’ originated from a Greek word meaning plant. These compounds include carotenoids (including lutein and lycopene), flavonoids, isoflavones, inositol, lignans, and indoles. They are part of the plants strategy to defend itself against pests, and it turns out that these compounds have multiple protective effects for us as well.

Phytonutrients are important antioxidants, have anti-inflammatory effects, enhance immune response, cell communication, repair DNA damage and detoxify carcinogens. So far there have been some 3000 of these nutrients discovered, with new ones being identified all the time. You can’t get everything you need in a pill – we still don’t know everything that’s available. And it’s hard to beat nature: there are special synergies in the way nutrients are found together in specific plants.

Plants living on organic farms aren’t sprayed with synthetic pesticides so they have to work harder to defend themselves against pests and diseases. As a result they produce between 10 and 50 percent more of these valuable compounds than conventionally grown plants. This is an added bonus for those of us who choose organics.

What is exciting about all of this is that every time you eat fruits and vegetables, you are consuming the raw ingredients that your body needs for health and vitality. Direct from the earth to you. I used to think of fruits as being the fluff of the fruit and vegetable food group, but they are also important sources of phytonutrients. Some fruits, like blueberries and pomegranates, have gotten special attention for their nutritional value. But really, they are all good. Each fruit and vegetable has its own unique blend of healthful properties.

I’ve always been impressed as I’ve visited Farmers Markets around the world, just how beautiful produce is. There is a rainbow of colors and endless variety of shapes and textures. It is often what brings the rich flavor and variety to our dinner plates. Since greens are in season now, here are some suggestions about how to enjoy them.

Greens are stars in the vegetable world. They are low in calories, rich in fiber, iron, calcium, vitamins C and A, lutein and folic acid. And of course they are loaded with phytonutrients. Deeper colors and tangy flavors are good indicators of nutrition content.

Spinach and cabbage are easy standbys that keep well. I especially like them in salads because they hold up even with dressing. You can make a big salad for dinner and enjoy the leftovers for lunch the next day. Spinach is a higher fiber substitute for lettuce in a sandwich, and good just for variety.

There are many kinds of greens. One of my favorites is dandelion greens, available in the spring. Chard comes in many colors. Kale, collards, mustard greens. Try something new. Add chopped greens to stews, soups and bean dishes.

My favorite way of cooking greens is to start by sautéing some thinly sliced onion in olive oil. Add a little balsamic vinegar and rinsed, chopped greens. Sprinkle some rice vinegar on top of the greens and put the lid on to let them steam/sauté, stirring occasionally. It is also good with chopped apple (sauté along with the onion) and with apple cider vinegar. Alternatively, you can braise greens by cooking them in a little broth or white wine.

Another way to enjoy greens is with a simple sauce. Steam the greens until just soft, then stir in a mixture of plain yogurt mixed with your favorite mustard. I like Hot & Sweet mustard for this. Whichever cooking method you choose, cook the greens lightly – they turn dark and limp with overcooking.

Enjoy your greens this spring, knowing that you are fortifying yourself with many of the nutrient components that you need for good health.

Kathy Nichols is the Healthy Habits Coach. As a registered dietitian and certified life coach, Kathy helps people who are tired of diets and feeling guilty find a way of eating that is sustainable, healthy and enjoyable. Website: blog:

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