Health Benefits of Dark Green Vegetables

Greens

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Dark leafy green vegetables are all the rage among health-conscious eaters. But the fact is that few of us meet the minimum USDA recommendations for the intake of these nutritional powerhouses.

So what makes a vegetable a "powerhouse" vegetable? According to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control, a powerhouse vegetable is one that supplies on average, 10 percent or more of the daily value of 17 qualifying nutrients per 100 calories. The top-rated green powerhouse vegetables are watercress, chard, beet greens, spinach, and chicory.

Understanding the health benefits of dark green vegetables may help inspire you to up your intake.

Recommended Intake

The amount of dark green vegetables that you should consume depends on your age, gender, and physical activity level. As a general rule, three cups of dark green vegetables per week can help to improve your diet. But you don't even need to eat that much to meet the guidelines.

Recommended Intake of Dark Green Vegetables
Children 1/2 cup to 1 1/2 cups per week
Adult Women 1 1/2 cups per week
Adult Men 1 1/2 to 2 cups per week
(Source: USDA)

Health Benefits

Dark green vegetables deliver a bonanza of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Dark green leafy vegetables are among the most popular and the most nutritious.

But almost any veggie that is dark green in color will add value to your diet. In fact, they are probably the most concentrated source of nutrition of any food group.

Calories

Unless you top your dark green vegetables with butter or cheese, they are likely to be the least caloric food on your plate. For example, a full cup of spinach provides only seven calories. A cup of kale provides about 33 calories and a cup of broccoli contains just over 30 calories.

If you are trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight, green leafy vegetables or dark green vegetables allow you to eat more and weigh less.

Macronutrients

It's not just the low-calorie count that matters when you consider the benefits of green veggies—it's where those calories come from that's significant. These vegetables provide complex carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and very little (if any) fat.

A cup of spinach provides just over one gram of carbohydrate, mostly from fiber. You'll also get a gram of protein.

A cup of broccoli provides about six grams of carb, 2.4 grams of fiber, and over 2.5 grams of protein.

This macronutrient balance, particularly the fiber and protein, provides a sense of long-term satiety—satisfaction and fullness—that starchier vegetables and other foods may not provide.

Those following a low-carb eating program will find that dark green leafy vegetables are particularly beneficial. These greens contain very little carbohydrate and the carbs are packed in layers of fiber; thus, they are very slow to digest.

Greens have a ​very little impact on blood glucose. On some low carb eating plans, greens are treated as a "freebie" meaning the carbohydrate doesn't have to be counted at all.

Micronutrients

Dark green veggies are a rich source of minerals including iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. They also provide important vitamins, including vitamins K, C, E, and many of the B vitamins.

Many dark green vegetable variety of phytonutrients including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which protect our cells from damage and our eyes from age-related problems, among many other effects.

Dark green leaves, like kale, even contain small amounts of omega-3 fats.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin, and it is a key nutrient in many dark green vegetables.

A cup of most cooked greens provides at least nine times the minimum recommended daily intake of vitamin K. Two cups of raw dark salad greens will provide the minimum recommended intake of vitamin K.

Recent research has provided evidence that this vitamin may be even more important than we once thought and many people do not get enough of it.

Vitamin K helps to:

  • Regulate blood clotting
  • Protect bones from osteoporosis
  • Possibly prevent or reduce atherosclerosis by reducing calcium in arterial plaques
  • May be a key regulator of inflammation and may help protect us from inflammatory diseases including arthritis. 
  • May help prevent diabetes

Disease Prevention

Studies have shown that increasing your intake of green leafy vegetables may help prevent certain diseases.

A study published in the journal Neurology found that a diet containing one serving of green leafy vegetables per day is associated with slower age-related cognitive decline.

A large meta-analysis showed that consumption of green leafy vegetables including cruciferous vegetables significantly reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease.

And one study even showed that increasing your intake of green leafy vegetables may improve the effectiveness of omega-3 supplements in certain populations, although researchers acknowledged that more research is needed to confirm the benefit.

Tips to Increase Your Intake

There are countless varieties of both dark green and dark green leafy vegetables to choose from. To boost variety in your diet, try to experiment and consume different types and different preparation methods.

Consider these three ways to add leafy greens to your diet:

  • Smoothies: Add frozen green leafy veggies like kale, spinach, or beet greens to your green smoothie along with fruits like banana and apple. If you don't like veggies, this is a great introduction to increasing your intake because you are not likely to taste them.
  • Sandwiches or wraps: Bulk up your sandwich by piling on leafy greens like spinach or romaine lettuce. Or try using green leafy vegetables in the place of bread in sandwiches or wraps to reduce starchy or processed carbs.
  • Egg scrambles: Add your favorite leafy green vegetables to omelets or egg scrambles.

A Word From Verywell

Consuming more dark green leafy vegetables is easy, inexpensive, and simple if you do a little bit of advance planning. Try adding them to to to three meals per week to begin, then add a few more as you find recipes and varieties that you enjoy.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • Vitamin K. Fact Sheet for Professionals. National Institutes of Health. September 26, 2018

  • Di Noia J. Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach. Prev Chronic Dis 2014;11:130390. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd11.130390

  • Morris MC, et al. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive declineNeurology. 2017 90:e214-e222. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815

  • O'Sullivan, A., Armstrong, P., Schuster, G. U., Pedersen, T. L., Allayee, H., Stephensen, C. B., & Newman, J. W. (2013). Habitual diets rich in dark-green vegetables are associated with an increased response to ω-3 fatty acid supplementation in Americans of African ancestry. The Journal of nutrition144(2), 123–131. doi:10.3945/jn.113.181875

  • Pollock R. L. (2016). The effect of green leafy and cruciferous vegetable intake on the incidence of cardiovascular disease: A meta-analysis. JRSM cardiovascular disease5, 2048004016661435. doi:10.1177/2048004016661435