Leafy green vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. They’re packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber but low in calories, but which ones are the most healthy?
Eating a diet rich in leafy greens can offer numerous health benefits including reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and mental decline (1).
Kale is considered one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables on the planet due to its many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
For example, one cup (67 grams) of raw kale packs 684 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin K, 206 percent of the DV for vitamin A and 134 percent of the DV for vitamin C (2).
It also contains antioxidants such as lutein, carotenoids and beta-carotene, which prevent diseases caused by oxidative stress (3).
To benefit most from all that kale has to offer, it’s best consumed raw since cooking can reduce its nutrient profile (4).
Microgreens are immature greens produced from the seeds of vegetables and herbs. They typically measure 1–3 inches (2.5–7.5 cm).
Since the 1980s, they have often been used as a garnish or decoration, but they have many more uses.
Despite their small size, they’re full of color, flavor and nutrients. In fact, one study found that microgreens contain up to 40 times more nutrients compared to their mature counterparts. Some of these nutrients include vitamins C, E and K (5).
Microgreens can be grown in the comfort of your own home all year round, making them easily available.
Broccoli is part of the cabbage family.
It has a large flower head as well as a stem, making it similar in structure to cauliflower.
This vegetable is rich in nutrients, with a single cup (91 grams) of raw broccoli packing 135 percent and 116 percent of the DVs for vitamins C and K respectively. It’s also a great source of fiber, calcium, folate and phosphorus (6).
Of all vegetables in the cabbage family, broccoli is richest in the plant compound sulforaphane, which may improve your bacterial gut flora and decrease your risk of cancer and heart disease (7).
What’s more, sulforaphane may even reduce symptoms of autism.
One randomized double-blind study in 26 young people with autism observed a positive effect on behavioral symptoms after consuming sulforaphane supplements from broccoli sprouts (8).
4. COLLARD GREENS
Collard greens are loose leaf greens, related to kale and spring greens. They have thick leaves that taste slightly bitter.
They’re similar in texture to kale and cabbage. In fact, their name comes from the word “colewort,” meaning “the wild cabbage plant.”
Collard greens are a good source of calcium and the vitamins A, B9 (folate) and C. They’re also one of the best sources of vitamin K when it comes to leafy greens. In fact, one cup (190 grams) of cooked collard greens packs 1,045 percent of the DV for vitamin K (9).
Vitamin K is known for its role in blood clotting. In addition, more research is being done regarding its ability to improve bone health (10).
One study in 72,327 women aged 38–63 found that those with vitamin K intakes below 109 mcg per day had a significantly increased risk of hip fractures, suggesting a link between this vitamin and bone health (11).
Spinach is a popular leafy green vegetable and is easily incorporated into a variety of dishes, including soups, sauces, smoothies and salads.
Its nutrient profile is impressive with one cup (30 grams) of raw spinach providing 181 percent of the DV for vitamin K, 56 percent of the DV for vitamin A and 13 percent of the DV for manganese (12).
It’s also packed with folate, which plays a key role in red blood cell production and the prevention of neural tube defects in pregnancy (13).
One study on the neural tube defect spina bifida found that one of the most preventable risk factors for this condition was a low intake of folate during the first trimester of pregnancy (14).
Along with taking a prenatal vitamin, eating spinach is a great way to increase your folate intake during pregnancy.
Cabbage is formed of clusters of thick leaves that come in green, white and purple colors.
It belongs to the Brassica family, along with Brussels sprouts, kale and broccoli (15).
Vegetables in this plant family contain glucosinolate, which gives them a bitter flavor.
Animal studies have found that foods that contain this substance may have cancer-protective properties, especially against lung and esophageal cancer (16, 17).
Another benefit of cabbage is that it can be fermented and turned into sauerkraut, which provides numerous health benefits, such as improving your digestion and supporting your immune system. It may even aid weight loss (18, 19, 20, 21).
7. BEET GREENS
Since the Middle Ages, beets have been claimed to be beneficial for health.
Indeed, they have an impressive nutrient profile, but while beets are commonly used in dishes, the leaves are often ignored.
This is unfortunate, considering that they’re edible and rich in potassium, calcium, riboflavin, fiber and vitamins A and K. Just one cup (144 grams) of cooked beet greens contains 220 percent of the DV for vitamin A, 37 percent of the DV for potassium and 17 percent of the DV for fiber (22).
They also contain the antioxidants beta-carotene and lutein, which have shown to prevent eye disorders such as muscular degeneration and cataracts (23, 24).
Beet greens can be added to salads, soups or sauteed and eaten as a side dish.
Watercress is an aquatic plant from the Brassicaceae family and thus similar to arugula and other mustard greens.
It’s known for its healing properties and has been used in medicine for centuries.
Studies have found watercress extract to be beneficial in targeting cancer stem cells and impairing cancer cell reproduction and invasion (25, 26).
Due to its bitter and slightly spicy flavor, watercress makes a great addition to neutrally flavored foods.
9. ROMAINE LETTUCE
Romaine lettuce is a common leafy vegetable with sturdy, dark leaves with a firm center rib.
It has a crunchy texture and is a popular lettuce, particularly in Caesar salads.
It’s a good source of vitamins A and K, with one cup (47 grams) providing 82 percent and 60 percent of the DVs for these vitamins respectively (27).
What’s more, research has found that water intake from fluids, vegetables and fruits plays an important role in weight loss (28).
Therefore, with only 8 calories and 45 grams of water in a single cup, romaine lettuce may be a great addition to a healthy diet if you’re trying to lose weight (27).
10. SWISS CHARD
Swiss chard has dark-green leaves with a thick stalk that is red, white, yellow or green. It’s often used in Mediterranean cooking and belongs to the same family as beets and spinach.
It has an earthy taste and is rich in minerals and vitamins, such as potassium, manganese and the vitamins A, C and K (29).
Swiss chard also contains a unique flavonoid called syringic acid — a compound that may be beneficial for lowering blood sugar levels (30).
In two small studies in rats with diabetes, oral administration of syringic acid for 30 days improved blood sugar levels (31, 32).
However, it’s important to note that these were minor animal studies and that human research supporting the claim that syringic acid may aid blood sugar control is lacking.
While many people typically throw away the stems of the Swiss chard plant, they’re crunchy and highly nutritious.
Next time, try adding all parts of the Swiss chard plant to dishes such as soups, tacos or casseroles.
Arugula is a leafy green from the Brassicaceae family that goes by many different names, such as rocket, colewort, roquette, rucola and rucoli.
It has a slightly peppery taste and small leaves that can easily be incorporated into salads or used as a garnish. It can also be used cosmetically and medicinally (33).
Like other leafy greens, it’s packed with nutrients such as vitamins A, B9 and K (34).
It’s also one of the best sources of dietary nitrates, a compound that turns into <nitric oxide in your body.
Though the benefits of nitrates are debated, some studies have found that they may help increase blood flow and reduce blood pressure by widening your blood vessels (35).
Endive (pronounced “N-dive”) belongs to the Cichorium family. It’s less well known than other leafy greens, possibly because it’s difficult to grow.
It’s curly, crisp in texture and has a nutty and mildly bitter flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked.
Just one-half cup (25 grams) of raw endive leaves packs 72 percent of the DV for vitamin K, 11 percent of the DV for vitamin A and 9 percent of the DV for folate (36).
It’s also a source of kaempferol, an antioxidant that has been shown to reduce inflammation and inhibit the growth of cancer cells in test-tube studies (37, 38).
13. BOK CHOY
Bok choy is a type of Chinese cabbage.
It has thick, dark-green leaves that make a great addition to soups and stir-fries.
Bok choy is one of the few leafy green vegetables that contain the mineral selenium, which plays an important role in cognitive function, immunity and cancer prevention (39).
In addition, selenium is important for proper thyroid gland function. This gland is located in your neck and releases hormones that play a key role in metabolism (40).
An observational study associated low levels of selenium with thyroid conditions such as hypothyroidism, autoimmune thyroiditis and enlarged thyroid (41).
14. TURNIP GREENS
Turnip greens are the greens of the turnip plant, which is a root vegetable similar to potatoes.
These greens pack more nutrients than the turnip itself, including <calcium, manganese, folate and the vitamins A, C and K (42).
They have a strong and spicy flavor and are often enjoyed cooked rather than raw.
Turnip greens are considered a cruciferous vegetable, which have been shown to decrease your risk of health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, inflammation and atherosclerosis (43, 44, 45).
Turnip greens also contain several antioxidants including gluconasturtiin, glucotropaeolin, quercetin, myricetin and beta-carotene — which all play a role in reducing stress in your body (46).
Turnip greens can be used as a replacement for kale or spinach in most recipes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Leafy green vegetables are packed with important and powerful nutrients that are critical for good health.
Fortunately, many leafy greens can be found year round, and they can easily be incorporated into your meals — in surprising and diverse ways.
To reap the many impressive health benefits of leafy greens, make sure to include a variety of these vegetables in your diet.