Greens Guide: Types of Leafy Greens, What They Provide and How They’re Best Used

Arugula is great in a salad. Spinach is, too, but also tastes fabulous when sautéed with a bit of garlic in oil. And with the tremendous rise in popularity of all things kale, there are no end to the amount of deliciousness one can create with this one, which happens to be my own personal favorite leaf.

The leaf category hardly stops there, but many people find themselves in a veggie rut, preparing the same old thing, time and time again, perhaps because of being unfamiliar with how to prepare a certain type of veggie, or not recognizing it in the first place.

The entire veggie heading, of course, encompasses far more than the lovely leaves, but an eating plan without plenty of the latter would be an eating plan leaving a lot to be desired.

“Greens are the No. 1 food you can eat regularly to help improve your health,” says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, a culinary educator in Northern California. That’s because leafy vegetables are brimming with fiber along with vitamins, minerals, and plant-based substances that may help protect you from heart disease, diabetes, and perhaps even cancer[1].

Plus, with their high fiber content, sometimes 7 – 11 times that found in cereal grains[2], and low glycemic index, eating them each and every day is a crucial part of balancing both your macronutrient ratios as well as your blood sugar levels, not to mention your bowels!

In fact, leafy greens, such as lettuce, mesclun and arugula, contain so few carbohydrates that their GI cannot be measured. However, because their carb content is low, leafy greens do not significantly influence your blood sugar levels and their GI is estimated to be close to zero.[3]

Compare that to some other veggies, which can still be eaten as part of a healthy, real Paleo diet, when timed properly, such as root veggies.

High in starch, which eventually turns into glucose, they have a big impact on your blood sugar. For example, beetroot is moderately high on the glycemic index, raking at 60. Manioc, the source of tapioca, and rutabaga are other high-GI types of root vegetables. These starchy veggies rate at 72 to 81 on the table. Parsnips are also very high, with a score of 97![4]

Not exactly an even swap for a cup of Swiss Chard!

Bringing on the mustard greens, the collards and the bitter dandelion greens, as well as whatever else you may stumble upon that’s growing in your neck of the woods and being sold at your farmer’s market is 100% the way to go.

But if you’re used to the delicate leaves of Bibb lettuce in a salad or the tender leaves of baby spinach, going full force into chomping away at a bunch of Scotch Kale right out of the chilled area at the health food store may be a bit overwhelming.

How does one prepare these beauties?

The possibilities are endless and despite the simple fact that when we cook, we lose some nutrients, creating an equilibrium of sometimes eating raw, sometimes steamed, sometimes sautéed and sometimes roasted serves to satisfy your palate by providing more variety, which, in turn, leads to a higher chance of you consuming them more regularly.

            To begin with, learn about what your farmer’s market options are and the simplest way to so is to ask! Having a quick chat with the vendor selling the interesting purple-edged, curly leaf is a great means of an intro to purple curly kale when you’ve previously only had green curly or carolo nero (dino kale). Ask for their best recipe, too!

            Once you’ve gotten home with your goods, or have received your weekly CSA box, the fun really begins.

            If you want to keep it simple, go raw. Wash, shred, slice or chop, depending on what green it is and what your personal preference is… and don’t forget the critical step: the massage! I began writing about massaging kale years ago and have found it to be the tried and true method to creating a softer, more delicate finished product, one that many cannot believe is actually not cooked. Add some lemon or lime, some extra virgin olive oil and a dash of freshly ground pepper, and you’ve got yourself the base for an outstanding salad which needs only some protein to round it out, or can be added to and added to until it contains as many additions as you like. Think raw nuts, a handful of fresh, organic berries or chopped red onion with avocado… or all of the above!

            Equally as simple: steam. Rather than boiling something to death, a quick steam or even blanching until an al dente state is reached, which typically occurs just as the color of the raw veggie turns to an even more brilliant version of what it was, it s nice prep technique that can be done quickly, followed by a plunge in ice water, then stored in the fridge to be eaten later. Use these babies as part of a salad, or throw them in the blender along with some leftover bone broth and some chicken for a meal that you can drink on the go.

            Sautéing is another great option and you can’t go wrong when you add some garlic and mushrooms into the mix. Be mindful of cooking oils so you don’t risk oxidizing your fats by referring to any one of many helpful charts available online.

The ideal cooking oil should contain higher amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, with a minimal or no saturated fats and trans fats. Different fats and oils have different uses. Each performs best within a certain range of temperature. Some are made for high heat cooking, while others have intense flavors that are best enjoyed by drizzling directly on food.

The smoke point of an oil or fat is the temperature at which it gives off smoke; a simple rule of thumb is that the lighter the color of the oil, the higher its smoke point[5].

Finally think outside the box (or plate?) and put the leaves to work for you. I can’t think of another more natural thing to use as a wrap than a Collard Green leaf or a couple of Butter Lettuce leaves doubled up instead of a tortilla for pasture-raised pork caritas.

Just as easily, especially for the little ones or any picky eaters in the house, you can throw some leaves into a blender to sneak some greens into a blueberry avocado smoothie with a poached egg tossed in for protein.

There’s no wrong way to get more veggies into your body (I take it back; perhaps we can draw the limit at deep frying or tempura battering!).

In addition to the suggestions above, be sure to check out my recipe for one of my all time faves, Flash-Fried Chili Sprouts sure to make even the bigger sprout hater change their ways and while Brussels Sprouts don’t fall into the leafy green category, their little leaves are so decadent, I’d feel remiss skipping over them!

[1] “Top 10 Leafy Green Vegetables From WebMD.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 22 July 2015

[2] Frequently Asked Questions About The Paleo Diet | Dr. Loren Cordain.” The Paleo Diet. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2015.

[3] “Low GI Vegetables for Diabetics.” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 22 July 2015

[4] “Fruits & Veggies With a High Glycemic Index.” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 22 July 2015

[5] “Smoking Points of Fats and Oils, Cooking Oil Smoke Points, Whats Cooking America.” Smoking Points of Fats and Oils, Cooking Oil Smoke Points, Whats Cooking America. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2015