When we think of health, we think green. When we think of nature, we think green. Green is a color associated with the good aspects of life, yet when it comes to dietary choices we generally have a certain reluctance towards this food group.
I’ve even heard people say, “They taste too healthy.” Of course this is the case! Our taste buds have been conditioned with the intensity of artificial flavors and sugars. We’re under the influence of carefully crafted addictive flavors from food manufacturers.
“We’re being manipulated by food engineers who have figured out how to tap into our brains. But if we can kick our addiction to junk food, we become better able to distinguish the fake stuff from the real, and that chemical aroma will lose its power to hook us (SuperLife, pg. 22).
There is a social stigma as well. I often hear people call greens “hippie food” or “rabbit food” — and I’m sure you have your own names to add to this list. It gets even more interesting because innately we know consuming greens is one of the best things we can do for our wellbeing, yet if possible we would skip the greens — and, let’s face it, most people do.
While spending time in the Mediterranean I was invited to go harvest food for lunch. I was expecting a trip to the nearby garden for local staples such as tomatoes, eggplant, or bell peppers. Little did I expect to be standing in what looked like a bare field with no visible crops. I turned around and found my host picking wild greens. “These are the real secret of our diet,” he told me. Yes, wild greens. We are lead to believe it’s the wine, the olives, the tomatoes and so on that constitutes the Mediterranean diet of longevity, but I was re-educated on the subject what the diet includes by the locals themselves — not the ones promoting the diet or writing books about it — but those who are actually living it as their forefathers have for generations.
Interestingly I can pinpoint similar situations in my travels across the globe where greens were presented as a cultural “secret” to health. In Mexico, walking down a Mayan market we found a wide variety of quelites, an umbrella term used to describe any edible green — usually wild — with “weedy” characteristics. As we interviewed the lady selling them, she somberly discussed how regardless of the tradition of eating them, the abundance, and the cheap cost, most people were avoiding them nowadays. Holding the greens, she looked at us and said, “Esta es la pura medicina” (This is the pure medicine). Her quiet words carried the full force of truth.
You don’t need to travel to a Mayan market to grasp that greens are “pure medicine” for your body. As I’ve continued to travel the world, dark leafy greens have come up again and again. I consider them a “superfood” that you should strive to frequently include in your diet! Remember, a superfood is something that is more nutrient dense calorie for calorie than another “regular” food and greens definitely fit that description!
Plus, greens supports four out of the five life forces (nutrition, oxygenation, alkalization, and detoxification). Here are some amazing reasons why eating greens absolutely rocks for your health:
1. DARK, LEAFY GREENS GIVE YOUR BODY FOLATE
The word folate describing the B vitamin originates from the Latin root word folium, which means leaf. Fact: our bodies have to get it from food. Where do you think you find it in abundance? Dark green leafy vegetables. The function associated with folate is varied and works in conjunction with other nutrients. Folate deficiency is common (no surprise, we don’t eat a lot of greens!) and leads to a host of health problems you don’t want including digestive disorders, cardiovascular disease, and most famously perhaps, birth defects. Folate is also crucial in epigenetics (external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off without changing the DNA sequence) through a process known as methylation where folate acts as a methyl donor promoting cellular differentiation. Folate is also essential for DNA and RNA synthesis, amino acid production, and cell division. In short, you really, really need it.
2. DARK, LEAFY GREENS BURN FAT
Greens are recommended as a weight-loss food. You might think this is because greens are low calorie. But there’s more to it than that! Yes, greens are low caloric while still being packed with nutrients and other active compounds, however, greens’ effect on weight loss goes beyond just calories. Greens contain nitrites, which have been associated in browning fat cells, meaning converting fat-storing white cells into fat-burning brown cells. This creates extra fat burning and ultimately, weight loss.
3. DARK, LEAFY GREENS ARE ANTI-AGING
A study carried out at Rush University medical center reported a significant decrease in the amount of cognitive decline for those participants consuming higher amounts of dark green leafy vegetables. The researchers associated the high vitamin K, folate, beta-carotene and lutein present in these greens as influencing this anti-aging effect. Green’s antioxidants, brain protection, cellular support, anti-inflammatory benefits, and essential fatty acid nutritional contribution (in particular, the much-appreciated ALA omega-3 fatty acid) all contribute to anti-aging as well.
4. DARK, LEAFY GREENS HELP YOUR HEART
Cardiovascular health is positively influenced multiple ways when making greens a continuous part of your food choices. First, greens regulate the production on a hormone known as erythropoietin, which decreases blood viscosity. This potentially reduces blood clots and heart attacks. Greens’ dietary fiber helps regulate cholesterol and trygliceride levels in a positive way making sure they don’t cause any unnecessary trouble. Nitric oxide — our internal blood pressure regulator — is positively influenced through the consumption of greens. High homocysteine has been linked with cardio vascular diseases, but greens provide substrates that convert homocysteine into harmless amino acids.
5. DARK, LEAFY GREENS FEED YOUR TELOMERES
Telomere length reflects biological aging. I write about telemeres (the little tails on our DNA chromosome) in SuperLife (page 10) and you’re going to hear A LOT more about them in the media soon (it will be a new buzzword). I’ll be writing more about them as well, because they are a big indicator of our longevity.
What’s a telomere? “Inside the nucleus of a cell, our genes are arranged along twisted, double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes. At the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres, which protect our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some secrets to how we age and get cancer,” describes The University of Utah, which has some great visuals and simple explanations of what telomeres are and how they work in your body.
Cell division is necessary for growing new skin, blood, bone, and other cells, and telomeres keep the main part of the chromosome — the part essential for life with your DNA code — from shortening each time a cell divides. The telomere shortens instead. Each time the cell divides, its telomere gets shorter and shorter until it is too short and the cell dies. One way to think of telomeres is like a bomb fuse on your cells. You want that fuse to stay as long as possible! The telomere shortening process is the fuse slowly burning away closer and closer to the bomb, the death of the cell.
To fuel telomeres, we have to eat what our cells eat so they stay healthy. Dark, leafy greens have A LOT of what our cells need! A diet rich in greens is well documented to protect telOmere length and integrity.
6. DARK, LEAFY GREENS FIGHT DIABETES
Glucose imbalances, which can lead to complications such as diabetes, can be prevented and regulated by introducing greens into your diet. Magnesium, ALA omega-3 fatty acid, and polyphenols found in greens are considered to be of crucial importance in managing glycemic load and insulin sensitivity (which both need to function properly to keep diabetes at bay). Enhancing insulin secretion and also mimicking insulin function are other integrative mechanisms that greens can contribute to keep diabetes, which is your body’s inability to make insulin (type 1 diabetes) or your body’s inability to respond to the effects of insulin (type 2 diabetes)), from developing.
7. DARK, LEAFY GREENS FEED YOUR GUT
Though it’s complicated to pinpoint exactly what the Paleo, hunter-gatherer, primal, or pre-agricultural diets of our ancestors were composed of (especially since it was highly dependent on where you lived and what you had access too), one thing that is clear — they ate a lot more plants in greater variety and volume than today. Jeff Leach at The Human Food Project considers this to be a critical aspect. Through his work with people following a modern hunter-gatherers’ type diet, he is able to deduce the effect of high-plant-based diets and the resulting effect on the human microbial community even when consuming high volumes of animal products. He believes high fiber content in plants provide substrates for gut microbes to digest and create byproduct that effect various gut metabolic activities including PH balance, gut permeability, immune balance, bowel movements and so forth. Failure to consume high amounts of plants in these diets leads to severe compromise in your gut microbial communities leading to what Dr. Leech calls“a diet that will not be into you.”
8. DARK, LEAFY GREENS PROVIDE SUN PROTECTION
For all you sun lovers, greens provide UV protection at a cellular level through the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Here are other foods you can add to your diet to “eat your sunscreen.”
9. DARK, LEAFY GREENS PROTECT AGAINST TOXINS
Aflatoxins are types of toxins produced by fungi, and they are one of the most carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances known. Chlorophyll found in plants and abundant in particular in greens has a neutralizing effect on these ubiuitous toxins; it does this through directly trapping the toxin, rendering it harmless. Find out about other natural toxins that can be in your food in this blog.
10. DARK, LEAFY GREENS BUILD ENZYMES
Enzymes are the body’s sparks. They ignite countless chemical reactions. A lack of enzymes keeps us from digesting our food and getting all the nutrients out of them. Raw foods have the most alive, active enzymes. When you are adding fresh, raw salads to your diet, you’re boosting the enzymes your body needs. Greens consumption also increases the activity in your body of a specific family of enzymes known collectively as GSTs. They promote cellular detoxification of toxins such as the already mentioned aflatoxins, but also of xenobiotics, which are foreign substances that can contribute to diseases.
Overall, the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense, and phytochemical-rich characteristic of dark, leafy greens provide our bodies with beneficial effects ranging from the microscopic, molecular level to the telescopic tissue level such as your skin. Greens provide proven health benefits! What else do you need to know to starting including a heaping serving of greens with every meal if possible?
WHAT TO EAT
I personally love wild greens – the darker and wilder the better – or greens you can grow yourself in a garden or even in containers on your porch. Heading over to your local farmers market and browsing and talking to the farmers is a great way to learn about new greens to try. You can usually try a leaf or two to get a taste of these plants! Yes, greens taste “healthy,” but you’ll find that there is incredible diversity in the actual flavor (arugula is peppery, while radicchio is bitter) and the texture (romaine is crisp, while butter green are “buttery” and smooth) of the different types of greens.
Note: Do not overconsume one particular type of green – this can actually cause unwanted side effects (for example, some greens bind calcium so your body can’t absorb it). You never will have issues if you mix it up! That is why variety is vital! Try arugula, beet leaves (yes, you can eat the tops!), collard greens, dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens (spicy!), parsley, green and red lettuce varieties, romaine lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, and more!
Eat a wide variety of dark, leafy greens and you’ll reap all the positive health benefits.
So you might not have heard this in a Mayan market – but I hope the truth is just as powerful for you! Make dark, leafy greens a regular part of your diet! Do it! They “taste healthy” because they are!
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