Our bodies are our gardens - our wills are our gardeners.
The author of this statement - none other than William Shakespeare - was one of the world's greatest stewards of language and western culture. While certainly not known as a nutritionist, he has nonetheless created two powerful metaphors in a single sentence, linking us decisively to the Nature from which we were created at the same time as admonishing us that our health is determined by how well we honor that relationship.
When we think of 'greens', most of us think of listless leaves of a vague sickly hue that taste like cardboard and are as exciting as the slow-moving herbivores who eat them, like rabbits, cows, goats and manatees. By contrast, it is the carnivores that we find most potent: lions, crocodiles, wolves and sharks, to name a few. After all, these are the flesh-devouring animals who hunt, kill and dominate the animal kingdom - and to whose 'winningness' we aspire, whether tackling a spreadsheet, kicking a ball through posts or watching an actor avenge someone's honor, guns blazing.
In short, few of us aspire to the role of the quiet gardener, preferring instead the (d)elusive dream of the triumphant gladiator. Except that in the world of nutrition, this basic misconception about fortitude can be quite literally deadly. We have posted here week after week about ever-increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, all of which are caused, improved or exacerbated - in large part - by our modern, industrial, western diet. In Week 2 we dipped our toe into the murky waters of the food industry, using the heavily misleading, industry-friendly food pyramid to help you separate business enterprise from truth. Week 3 provided an overview of our modern diet and its relationship to disease; Week 4 parsed food words, focusing on those which are actually healthy from those which are designed to sound healthy but in truth are not. In Week 5 we explained the dangers of dieting. In Week 7 we 'saw the enemy', and it was us, due to our ever-decreasing expenditure on food. In Week 8, we addressed diet's relationship to cancer directly. And we will continue to explore the relationship of diet to health until we have exhausted every angle of this extremely complex - and incredibly contentious - subject.
This week, we aim to get back to foundations. In the case of human diet, from our earliest days as foragers, that foundation was - and should ever be - that which blankets the Earth's surface more than any other substance: plants; and in particular, green, leafy plants.
Part of the problem is our narrow definition of the word. 'Greens' - which are not a food group, or even a color, so much as a visual categorization of leafy vegetables - are more varied than any other food group, in terms of composition, flavor and nutritional value. In fact, 'greens' - or leaf vegetables - are the single most varied and plentiful food source on Earth. This Wikipedia listing alone tabulates over 400 edible leaf vegetables, many of which are neither leafy nor green, like Brussels Sprouts (spheroid), Cauliflower (white) and Radicchio (red-purple), to name just three. And while you cannot find all 400 of them easily in the US, dozens of the healthiest among them are available at every supermarket, every farmer's market and every specialty store. You simply need to understand what to buy, and why. And once you've mastered the basics, you can branch out to more exotic flora, where things get really interesting, as we will discuss below.
The ABCs of Greens
- Let's start with the (near) obvious. Green leafy vegetables are full of vitamins, which maintain healthy cell tissue and organs, and minerals, which fuel the bio-chemical processes of metabolism. Spinach, kale, Swiss chard and collard greens alone each provide the body with over 20 of these key nutrients, with spinach topping the list. Ounce for ounce, no foods are denser or broader than greens in terms of what the body needs to function properly. But you knew this already, which is why your wise parents always nagged you to eat them.
- Less obvious, and worth an in-depth explanation, green leafy vegetables are full of antioxidants that - as put beautifully by Sophia Breene in this article - are not so much a substance as a behavior. Perhaps unbeknownst to you, our bodies' cells need an even numbers of electrons in order to be considered stable (inert). When they don't, they behave erratically and steal electrons from adjacent cells, which in turn become unstable and rob yet others, causing a chain reaction of 'free radicals' (cells with unpaired electrons) that quickly cause cellular damage called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress degrades and 'ages' your body's proteins, DNA and lipids, which have been shown in studies to catalyze or exacerbate most modern diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's, fibromyalgia, diabetes, aging, cognitive decline, and macular degeneration. Vitamins C and E are the body's chief source of water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants, respectively. Antioxidants are self-stable molecules that roam the body, donating electrons to unstable molecules without impact to themselves, thereby ending the free radical chain reaction. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, bok choy, parsley and turnip greens - in descending order - all provide between 135% and 50% of your DRI (daily recommended intake) of vitamin C, while beet- mustard- and collard greens follow close behind. Only bell peppers, papayas and guavas rank higher. In terms of vitamin E, spinach, Swiss chard, turnip- beet- and mustard greens all provide, in descending order, between 25% and 17% of your DRI - second only to almonds and sunflower seeds. In short, greens are important, commonly available antioxidants that are easy to incorporate into your daily intake.
- Green leafy vegetables are anti-inflammatory. If antioxidants roam the body preventing cellular damage, then anti-inflammatories keep your body's own immune system from overtaxing itself, due to chronic inflammation. 'Regular' inflammation is the cornerstone of the body's own defense system, which targets infected sites and sends additional nourishment and immune activity to its rescue. Think of inflammation as a SWAT team. But chronic inflammation is different. All soldiers need rest. If you keep pushing them without down time, eventually they collapse, and things break down. In the case of your body, chronic inflammation is not a localized immune response: it is instead an environment of ill-health in which the body is denied its 'pause', and is therefore in a constant state of aroused defense. Stress and lack of exercise are part of the cause; but diet is a major contributor, as well. Chronic inflammation has been directly linked to many cancers, Alzheimer's and heart disease. As we reported in the second part of Week 3's post, our ancestral, pre-modern diet comprised a balance of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and pro-inflammatory omega-6's - a 1:1 ratio. Today, the typical western diet is tremendously pro-inflammatory, skewing the ratio to a staggering 25:1 in favor of omega-6's. This difference is the primary cause of the spike in chronic inflammation over the past half-century and the ensuing raft of modern diseases. The food culprits that cause unchecked inflammation? In descending order, they are: sugars, common cooking oils (in commercially prepared foods), trans fats (same), dairy, red meat, feedlot-raised meat (red or otherwise), refined grains (anything flour-based) and artificial food additives (in nearly every processed food). You can read more detail about each one here. And green leafy vegetables? They are the base of the anti-inflammatory food pyramid, as beautifully illustrated by wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil, here. While nuts (esp. walnuts) and cold water fish are omega-3 royalty, green leafy vegetables are no slouches, with Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, collard greens, spinach and kale offering healthy omega-3's in addition to everything else they do.
What is in a name?
Unfortunately, our problems extend beyond the simple choice of plant foods over industrial products. Even those among us who want to eat healthy food, and who do their best to reach for a salad over a burger, have large knowledge gaps when it comes to the plant world, and so parsing what sounds good (like 'salad') vs. what is good (the actual ingredients behind the name 'salad') is a challenge.
Which brings us to the inexplicable, and unfortunate, story of Iceberg lettuce. Iceberg is the most common leafy green (white, really) consumed in the United States, with each of us eating on average 17 lbs. of it every year, according to Jill Nussinow, a California-based culinary educator and author. It's likely the root cause of many people's perception of salad as being as exhilarating as a manatee. The problem with Iceberg lettuce, which is the foundation of the nutritional disaster called a Caesar's salad, is that it is mostly water, and almost devoid of nutrition. (We'll leave aside the dressing, which is an effective delivery method for adding empty calories, fat, sodium and cholesterol to your diet; not to mention those croutons...) In fact, the difference in nutritional value is so varied among 'greens', that it's worth taking three commonly eaten leaves and comparing them here for you, in detail. The chart below shows the DRI (daily recommended intake) of each vitamin, mineral and other key nutrients present in all three. Percentages show the amount of the average person's DRI that a single 100g serving of leaves provides. The last column shows the number of times higher in each nutrient the spinach is over the iceberg (with common romaine consistently in between the two). The discrepancy between leaves is staggering:
At the root of it (no pun intended), and in every single measurable nutrient, spinach contains roughly 2-45 times the concentration of 21 different essential nutrients as iceberg lettuce. You can find a fully detailed comparison here - one you can also customize to compare foods against one another, beyond the greens we have contrasted.
It gets better. The nutrient profile of the plant world's 'it' girl - kale - reaches close (but not quite) to that of spinach; as does nearly unknown but omnipresent Swiss chard; ditto mustard greens, collard greens, bok choy and broccoli - all leafy greens and all among the healthiest foods on the planet. Individually, they deliver significant amounts of roughly 40 essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids. The best part? There's so much choice when it comes to vegetables in general, and leafy greens in particular (think thyme, sage, rosemary, mint, parsley, cilantro, basil and oregano, which are common flavor bombs in tiny doses; or perilla, sorrel, mustard greens, mizuna, radicchio and arugula, which are far less common, but widely available and pack strong and highly distinctive flavors as additions to - or substitutions for - other everyday salad leaves), that there's really no excuse to think of greens as rabbit food.
Salads - the way we should think of them
Leaves are simply a base for other ingredients - and should be thought of as such, much the way that the Italians consider pasta to be a vehicle for delivering what's on it. As I remember fondly from my year-plus spent living there, they eat pasta every day, and often in multiple meals each day, without getting sick of it. Why? It's what's on it that counts, and provides the flavor. Unlike pasta, the flavor variation in greens is infinitely broader, and so the richness of variety allows for less repetition, if you pay attention and vary your greens.
In the world of food, salad as a category has morphed as much as the the martini has in the drinking world - where the term now applies to a broad set of vaguely related concoctions as unlimited as the minds that think them up. Salads these days - to the benefit of your well-being - can include aspects from every food group, from vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy, grains and nuts. Thus you can dress the 'plate' (i.e.: greens) however you want, and feel extremely good about feeding your body well. Beyond the near-infinite choice of vegetables that can and should make up a large proportion of your meal - not to mention some fruits that pair well (think spinach and dried cranberries or arugula and pear) - there are rich, flavorful and healthy unsaturated fats like those in avocados, olives, and heart-healthy oils like olive, coconut and walnut; proteins like nuts, seeds, beans and eggs (all of which also deliver excellent doses of heart-healthy fats and minerals); and animal products such as cheese (though this should be used sparingly and in its raw state, if possible, as we detail in the second half of Week 4's post), cold water fish (like wild Alaskan salmon), and the occasional piece of lean, pasture-raised beef or chicken (Week 4 covers this at length). In the case of salad, leaves should always comprise the lion's share of the bulk, followed in descending order by other vegetables; fruits; plant proteins; plant fats; and finally animal products - as represented in illustrations like Dr. Weil's pyramid. If your 'salad' looks like a grass-fed steak with a few leaves underneath it, it's not a salad.
If you lack the creative impulse to figure out what works, just look to indigenous cultures who have been combining ingredients for health and for taste since before agri-businesses existed, like these examples, to name just a few: French salade niçoise (greens; tuna; olives; haricots; potato; egg; anchovy); classic Greek salad (greens; cucumber; tomato; feta); Lebanese tabouleh (tomato; parsley; mint; bulgur; onion); Italian caprese (tomato; basil; mozzarella); Vietnamese 'Thanksgiving' salad (fennel; cabbage; cashew); and Mexican black bean salad (beans; peppers; tomatoes; corn; cilantro; onion; lime). Just make sure greens are the literal base of everything you do - even if the traditional salads listed above don't call for them. They'll combine well with any classic recipe, and will add tons of heart-healthy nutrition to your diet.
To paraphrase the duc d'Uzès during the 14th C accession of Charles VII, 'Salad is dead! Long live salad!
Spices and herbs
It's not just fresh leafy greens that provide your antioxidant needs. Sometimes, it's as simple as sprinkling some dried oregano or marjoram on your pasta. One pinch of oregano doubles the antioxidant value of a bowl of whole wheat pasta with a marinara sauce, according to Dr. Michael Greger, physician, author and Stephen Colbert / Dr. Oz guest. In his eccentric video, he walks you through visual aids that show how you can add nutrition value with dried spices and herbs. Basil, parsley, oregano, thyme and rosemary are all 'leafy greens' that one can easily store dry, for months on end, and which you can simply sprinkle onto the foods you already eat to up their antioxidant value dramatically, which - as we've seen - has a material effect on modern diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Let's review what we've learned so far:
- All leafy greens are not created equal. Some of the healthiest foods on Earth include spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, tatsoi (chinese spinach), mustard greens, collard greens, arugula, cabbage, watercress and turnip greens. Iceberg and other red-or-green lettuces, while not devoid of nutrition, should be substituted where possible with those listed above, since the difference is substantial.
- Some leafy greens are neither green nor leafy. They are, however, as (or nearly as) nutritious as their forebears, especially the cruciferous vegetable family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco (a delightfully tasty 'fractal' vegetable), Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, radish and turnips. Bonus: crucifers, which also includes kale and bok choy, are the food world's champion cancer-fighters. See the second half of Week 8's post for more detail on glucosinates and indoles).
- Leafy greens should be thought of as a base for your culinary creativity. Vary the ingredients. Add vegetables; fats; proteins; dairy; grains... these things are limited only by your imagination - or your ability to conduct Google searches on sites like Epicurious, Gourmet, Bon Appétit and AllRecipes.
- Leafy greens are incredibly flavorful, and varied. Venture beyond the lettuce aisle and pick up one of the leaves listed above; or go to a specialty market in Chinatown, or where the ethnic minorities in your area shop: the Indians, Vietnamese or Japanese, to name three cuisines that heavily feature leafy greens that are as flavorful as they are exotic and unexpected.
- Spice it up. Spices are dried leaves. They're used to make tea; add flavor to foods; and are nutritious ways of including nutrients in your diet. The Indians - who use spices of greater depth and breadth than any other culture - are not just predominantly vegetarian, but understand spices' healing properties, like turmeric, which is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatories in Nature. It has been used for centuries by the Chinese and Indians - and increasingly modern medicine - to treat everything from IBS, rheumatoid arthritis, alzheimer's and cystic fibrosis, and has been shown in numerous studies to inhibit the growth of cancer cells significantly - to name just one of countless spices with real, measurable medicinal value.
Now that we've mastered the basics, let's move on to some lesser-known fare.
Sprouts - a Master's degree in 'greens'
The young of every living creature carries within its tiny package the genetic material for it to grow into maturity, whether in animal or plant form. The sheer density of healing, growth-promoting elements they contain makes them dwarf their adult counterparts' healthfulness because they represent a life form in its most vital state. In humans, children heal more quickly than adults; their skin is more supple; their systems are more robust; and the number of synaptic connections in their brains - and the speed at which they learn - run circles around those of grown-ups. The same is true in the plant world. According to nutrition expert Dr. Mercola, young plant foods - called sprouts or shoots, and commonly referred to as 'raw' or 'living foods' - contain up to 100 times as many enzymes as adult plants, and up to 30 times the density of vitamins and essential fatty acids. Let's repeat that: up to 100 times the enzymes and 30 times the vitamins and fatty acids as the world's otherwise healthiest foods. This is why they are often referred to as miracle foods. In addition, according to Dr. Mercola, the nutrients in sprouts are often more bioavailable than those in adult plants, which means the body can more readily absorb them, instead of simply passing them through your system, unused.
Better still? A wide variety of them are easy to find in both farmer's markets and specialty markets, including sprouts from broccoli, sunflower, pea shoots, alfalfa, clover, radish, lentils, wheatgrass and mung beans. On a walk through New York's Union Square last Saturday, I counted over a dozen purveyors of sprouts, alongside their usual greenmarket fare.
Best of all? Though this requires a commitment, and/or if you have trouble finding them where you live, it's extremely easy to grow them yourself, and to therefore not just save tons of money (they're pennies on the dollar) but to eat them within minutes of harvesting, regularly, when nutrient levels are highest. Here are links to growing many of the sprouts listed above, complete with videos: sunflower; broccoli; wheatgrass; mung beans and lentils; radish; pea shoots.
Matcha - Doctorate-level 'greens'
We will leave the subject of green, leafy nutrition with the story of matcha - my own newest discovery. While I'm decidedly late to the party, Japanese Zen buddhist monks and Shogun warriors have been sipping this beverage since the 12th Century - when they perfected a process invented by the Chinese some 300 years earlier. The monk Eisai - the man responsible for bringing it to Japan - referred to matcha as 'The Elixir of the Immortals', and its drinkers swore by its sustained energy and mental clarity.
Under the lens of modern science, the traditional endorsement not only holds up but becomes even more interesting. As measured on the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale - which was developed the the National Institute of Aging (NIA) and venerable National Institutes of Health (NIH) - on a per-gram basis, matcha is one of the greatest antioxidants on the planet, matched or exceeded only by turmeric, dried oregano, sorghum, cinnamon, sumac and cloves - the last being the world's reigning champion. Moreover, the form of matcha's antioxidants - EGCGs, a form of the phenol catechin - have been shown to aid in the management or risk and severity reduction of both HIV-1 and cancer - the latter because EGCGs are chemopreventive. None other than the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), one of the nation's decisive authorities on molecular biology, lists EGCGs present in green tea as playing a potent role in cancer cell death. You can read their study here. And keep in mind that matcha has 30% more catechins (EGCGs) than regular green tea, making them even more effective in managing cancer cells.
In addition to its antioxidant and anti-cancer properties - and the fact that it is a good source of vitamins A, B-complex, C, E and K - matcha's particular caffeine, called theophylline, has been shown to release more slowly into the body than that of coffee, thereby sustaining energy levels longer without the spikes. Better still, L-theanine, an amino acid unique to matcha, is known to boost alpha waves in the brain, creating a paradoxically calm alertness. It is this alertness that attracted the monks to it all those centuries ago. I can attest to a (very uncharacteristic) calm that follows my own morning cupful, while those who know me well understand just how remarkable an outcome that is. Let's just say I've been encouraged to keep it up...
So to revisit what we've discussed just one more time:
- Greens are the most varied food source in the world, with over 400 types, many widely available
- Greens are calorie for calorie the most nutritious foods, with a number of standouts, listed above
- The flavor of greens is far more complex than most people realize; the key is to experiment
- We must select our greens carefully, since nutritional profiles vary widely, and avoid 'empty' ones
- We should think of greens as a 'base' for other foods, the way Italians use pasta
- To wit: greens don't replace other foods; they complement them and are essential to optimal health
- Dried greens - aka spices and herbs - are nutritional powerhouses that are easy to incorporate
- Sprouts are the plant world's champions, delivering unmatched nutrition
- Matcha is a great substitute for coffee, and offers many of the benefits of 'other greens'
I'll leave you with some of my own favorite greens, in no particular order, with hyperlinks given for informational purposes only (FFFL does not endorse or have any commercial relationships with anyone):
- Breakaway matcha: the quality of matcha is key to its efficacy
- Red-veined sorrel: a lemon-flavored herb-leaf that makes a fantastic addition to any salad
- Shiso (aka perilla): a minty, pungent, grassy herb as an accent to fish (used in Korea, Japan, Vietnam)
- Sunflower sprouts: one of the tastiest sprouts, with a decidedly nutty flavor; add it to salads
- Radish (aka Daikon) sprouts: for a wonderful little 'tang' in your salad
- Romanesco: the most beautiful - and tastiest - among its siblings broccoli and cauliflower (I simply steam it for 4-5 minutes and drizzle with a high-quality olive oil and sea salt (fleur de sel)
- Mustard Greens: want proof that greens can knock you off your feet? Try these amazing decongestants in your salad. Just don't say I didn't warn you. Or try this recipe.
- Spinach: okay, so it's obvious, but it's the #1 world's healthiest food, surprisingly tasty and neutral, and as such able to be blended, eaten raw or cooked and combined with nearly anything. But skip the supermarket greens and get them from the farmer's market. They will not only be far tastier and stiffer (meaning less decomposed), but as such will last twice as long before beginning to wilt
- Pea shoots: Peas are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. And the sprouts? 7x the vitamin C content of blueberries; 8x the folic acid of bean sprouts; and 4x the vitamin A of tomatoes
- Brussels sprouts: when I make them, they always disappear like popcorn. Half-fill a gallon-sized Ziploc with halved sprouts; add 3 tbsp. olive oil and 1 pinch sea salt; inflate/close the bag and shake vigorously until mixed. Place in a single layer in a 425F oven on a baking sheet, and flip each one every ten minutes; repeat the flipping until they're charred - usually 3-4 total times. Your friends and body will thank you.