Green leafy vegetables like spinach, lettuce, Chinese vegetables, kale and many others are part of the evolutionary heritage of primates — and humans are no exception. Eating carefully selected green leafy plants for millions of years must have made human biochemistry beautifully adapted to these foods. Too bad many of us don’t eat enough.
They contain valuable vitamins and minerals and antioxidants including iron, lutein for the eyes and other carotenoids, magnesium for heart and muscle, folate for the heart and pregnancy, vitamin K for bones — and one nutrient that regularly gets overlooked: the plant form of omega 3 called alpha linolenic acid or ALA, which is not to be confused with the other polyunsaturated fat called linoleic acid. ALA is a shorter chain length omega 3 that the body can covert to the longer chain EPA and DHA or fish oil omega 3s. ALA is also found in walnuts and canola oil.
The other omega 3
ALA also seems to protect us from heart disease like it’s longer-chain relations EPA and DHA. In fact, that’s how animals get EPA and DHA — from eating green grass and leaves and converting ALA. And that’s why free-range beef or chickens feeding on natural grass and litter are healthier to eat than lot or coop feed animals.
What to eat, and how to prepare
I make a real effort to eat leafy greens regularly. I’ve settled on ones that I like and I grow them organically as well as buy from the supermarket. I eat mainly spinach, cos lettuce, Italian parsley (not the curly leaf one) and rainbow silverbeet, called chard in some regions. I live in a sub-tropical climatic zone, so the spinach tends to be seasonal, requiring colder weather. The cos and silverbeet will grow in all except the hottest times of year, with the silverbeet being pretty much perennial if you allow it to be. The parsley dies off and self-seeds brilliantly for next year.
Last seasons cos self-seeded and grew like a wheat-field. Fantastic. Pick the dark greens leaves when you need them and they just keep coming after a touch of blood and bone fertiliser. Unfortunately, the rabbits also found them. Such is life.
Spinach can be eaten in salads or cooked lightly with a little olive oil, garlic, pepper and lemon juice. Like some southern Europeans, I like a large bowl, steaming hot. The silverbeet is a little stronger and works better in omelettes and stir-fries for me. Parsley is more useful with the tough stems cut off, but then you can use in stir fries, salads, omelettes, bowl noodles and soups or just nibble.
Fresh, dark cos with lemon juice, pepper to taste and a small amount of olive or soy oil (more ALA in soy), with a little low-fat feta if you like, makes a great companion for main courses.
How greens help
Find some greens that you can eat on a regular basis and make them a regular part of your diet. If you exercise a lot you need a potent brew of natural antioxidants to ward off the oxidation products of exercise. If you’re trying to lose weight with a low-calorie diet, nutrient-rich foods are important to ensure you get your recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerasls for good health. I prefer not to juice — you’ll probably lower the GI anyway — and supplements are pretty much a waste of time. So go greens!