This is the third of a 12-part series titled “Baby Steps.” On the first of each month, I’ll post 1 tiny step toward better health that you can take every day for that month – practically without trying. Soon, that tiny step will be part of your daily routine, and you won’t even remember you never did it before. The next month, add the next baby step. By the end of 2016, you’ll have accumulated 12 new healthy habits, and you’ll notice a difference – not day to day, perhaps, but definitely between any before and after photos you might take and any journal entries you might make. Check in during each month with a comment below and/or on Facebook – I’d love to hear about your progress!
That’s right, I’m a kale pusher. My old minivan had one of Bo Muller-Moore’s “Eat More Kale” bumper stickers on it, and I was sad to lose the sticker when I sold it. When we later heard that it had been totaled, we mourned “the kale van.” Luckily, a friend had a spare sticker and presented me with it for my new car. After I was rear-ended and lost that bumper, my daughter decreed that they were bad luck and forbade me to replace it. I’ve actually had people tell me, “I thought I saw you, but the car didn’t have an Eat More Kale sticker, so I wasn’t sure….” I’ve satisfied my need to flaunt my kale pride by working a leaf into my logo.
My coaching clients will tell you that one of the first recommendations I make to them is to eat more kale…or any dark leafy greens for that matter. While there are reports that vegetable consumption is on the rise, dark green leafies are still the one part of the rainbow Americans don’t get enough of, and it shows! All of my clients have had wonderful things happen to their health when they follow this advice – ranging from a feeling of physical lightness that was lacking before, reduced sugar cravings, easier bowel movements, and even an improved mood/less depression. At the extreme end, some actually claim to now being addicted to greens and unable to get through a day without them. I can think of worse addictions!
What are the benefits of eating greens?
- In Chinese medicine, greens are related to the liver, emotional stability, and creativity. Bitter greens in particular (dandelion is a great example) are often used to detox the liver, purify the blood, and build up the respiratory system.
- Greens are considered to have a rising, expansive quality – they grow above the ground toward the sky, drawing nourishment up from the earth. While they are now available year-round, they are traditionally associated with spring – the time of renewal, refreshment, and vital energy.
- Energetically speaking, greens are associated with the lungs and the circulatory system – if you look closely at them, the leaves are vaguely lobe/lung-shaped and full of spidery veins, just like our bodies.
- Greens help build your “internal rainforest” – they are loaded with prebiotics that feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut, strengthening our immune system.
- Leafy green vegetables are also high-alkaline foods that neutralize acidic conditions caused by our food choices and the environment. There is mounting evidence that overly acidic bodies are more prone to inflammation and chronic disease, and recently there has been a lot of discussion about whether or not increasing the alkalinity of our bodies can prevent cancer. Whether this is possible or not, there does seem to be agreement that alkaline foods tend to restore minerals to our bodies – minerals that are often leached out of our very bones by overly acidic conditions.
- Nutritionally, greens are very high in calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. They are loaded with folic acid, chlorophyll, and many other micronutrients and phytochemicals. Greens are full of fiber – a nutrient sorely lacking in the Standard American Diet – and their bulk can crowd out the foods that are less desirable choices nutritionally speaking.
I recently read in Michael Greger’s book, How to Not Die, that the average American eats 1.5 cups of kale…over a decade! So for baby step #3, I want you to add at least 1 serving of dark leafy greens to your diet on a daily basis: let’s up kale consumption!
Basically any leafy greens that aren’t iceberg lettuce! Iceberg has plenty of water and fiber, but it really doesn’t seem to measure up in its nutritional quality to its darker cousins, which include:
- beet greens
- bok choy
- broccoli and cauliflower leaves
- broccoli rabe
- Brussels sprouts tops
- mustard greens
- napa cabbage
- radish greens
- Swiss chard
- turnip greens
- wild greens
New to greens? Start with mild ones such as Romaine lettuce and spinach and work up to the dark (kale, collards) and truly bitter (dandelion). Pick your favorites, and for best results, vary them in rotation.
How can you add more greens to your diet?
- Although choosing organic is recommended, eating non-organic greens is still preferable to not eating any greens at all.
- Eat a salad before (or as your lunch) and as a side at dinner.
- Sauté them in olive oil with some onion and eat them as a side at dinner and/or under eggs for breakfast.
- Stuff them raw into your sandwiches and wraps.
- Shred them finely and add to soups and stews and casseroles – most kids who eat these foods will tolerate tiny bits of greens in the mix.
- Made them into a morning “green smoothie” – the internet is full of recipes for them, and if you put in enough berries and/or cocoa powder, kids will also drink them.
A few words of caution
Eating leafy greens daily may sound extreme, but because they are so lacking in our diets, it really isn’t so extreme when you consider that we do eat fruit and other veggies daily (at least I hope we do)! There are a few situations in which I recommend checking with your physician before launching into a green-ful diet or at least being mindful of how your body is reacting to it.
- You take blood-thinners: increasing your green intake will usually naturally thin your blood. If you take blood thinners, be sure to keep track of your numbers with your physician on board – s/he may need to adjust your medication. If you lower your dosage, remember that your greens are now part of your regimen. If you slack off on the greens, you’ll need to readjust. I personally would much prefer to commit to eating greens – which has few if any negative side effects – than taking medication that can have many.
- You are prone to kidney stones: people who are prone to kidney stones are often urged to avoid certain greens, usually those high in oxalic acid (spinach, beet greens, chard). There is some discussion in the alternative health field, which tends to question the prohibition, but again this is an area in which you need to consult your physician and balance your conclusion with your own research.
- You have an underactive thyroid: there is some evidence that foods such as kale and its cousins are goitrogens – meaning that some of the compounds they introduce into the body affect thyroid function. Supposedly, eating them cooked as opposed to raw lessens this effect. I have been on thyroid medication for over 25 years, and I choose to not gorge on green smoothies and juices made with kale and dark greens, but I do eat about 1 c of cooked greens daily (take that, Dr. Greger!) and my thyroid levels have not changed significantly.
Again – these situations call for decisions that only you can make. If you want to experiment on your body by increasing your greens intake, do it wisely, in consultation with your physician as necessary, and most importantly, journal how your body reacts. Notice some negative effects? Reduce the amount you’re taking in or back off entirely. Notice good results? Keep it up in moderation – just because something is good for you doesn’t mean more is necessarily better.