Getting the Most Out of Your Food

by Brandie Mitchell, RN, LMT, Integrative Nurse Coach

Welcome to the first of a series of articles focused on how to select, store, and prepare vegetables and fruits to maximize their nutrient value. Based on the book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health by Jo Robinson (2013), we will explore simple, practical ways to improve your family’s nutrition. Since becoming a mom myself, I’m all about being practical when it comes to nutrition for my family.

Most Americans don’t consume nearly enough fruits and veggies daily, and even when we do eat them, they are typically the higher glycemic varieties- meaning they have a greater impact on our blood sugar levels- such as carrots, potatoes, apples, grapes and bananas. So even more important than eating your fruits and veggies, is eating the most nutrient-dense varieties, and making sure those nutrients actually make it into the cells of your body, where they do their miraculous work of protecting you from cancer, heart disease, inflammation, viruses and more.   This month, we’ll focus on a category of veggies rapidly growing in popularity- greens.

Eat Your Greens- but which ones are best? All plants produce chemicals that are protective against the damaging elements of their environment including insects, UV light, disease and predatory animals. These chemicals, known as phytonutrients, have significant antioxidant and other protective properties for us when we consume them. The “plant’s protection becomes our protection” as Robinson puts it.

Go for color! When it comes to greens, ironically, it’s the leafy varieties that are red, purple and reddish brown that are highest in antioxidants- specifically anthocyanins that help us fight cancer, lower blood pressure, slow age-related memory loss and protect against the harmful effects of sugary, fatty foods. The next most nutritious are dark green (kale, spinach, arugula, dandelion greens) and contain lutein a highly protective antioxidant for eye health and reducing inflammation.

Shape matters— Lettuce varieties with tightly wrapped leaves (cabbage, iceberg lettuce) actually contain fewer phytonutrients than loose leaf varieties, since the plants that are more exposed to the sun’s UV rays tend to produce more protective nutrients. Look for red or green loose leaf lettuce for the richest concentration of nutrients.

Go for Organic – Since spinach, kale and collard greens repeatedly make the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List, and organic varieties are widely available now, go ahead and go for organic to lessen your family’s exposure to pesticides. You can get a full version of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen List in pdf or as an app at www.ewg.org.

Storage – For a little effort, you can extend the life of your greens quite a bit. When you bring your greens home from the store, whether bagged, boxed or fresh, soak them in cold water for 10 minutes, dry in a salad spinner, and then place in a resealable bag pricked with 10 to 20 tiny holes. Squeeze out all the air, seal the bag and then store in your crisper drawer. For even added benefit, tear your lettuce into bite-sized pieces, which actually doubles its antioxidant value. It also speeds its decay time so be sure to consume within 1-2 days. If your greens are looking limp, rinse with cold water and spin again to enliven them again.

green heartPrep for the Best—Greens aren’t always the most popular foods with kids because of their bitter taste. While the bitterness often means higher nutrient content, those nutrients won’t do any good if they don’t get swallowed. Try adding avocados, fresh or dried fruit like apples or berries, and even honey or unfiltered apple juice to a homemade salad dressing made with extra virgin olive oil to lessen the bitter taste. Don’t forget to tear them up a few times before eating to increase the antioxidants.

Need more ideas?

Here are some easy ways to add in more greens everyday:

  • Get them in first thing: add spinach, kale, or other leafy greens to your morning smoothie, throw in a handful of spinach or arugula chopped finely to your eggs, or even try having a salad for breakfast- yes!
  • Add arugula, spinach or mixed greens to your sandwich, or try replacing your bread with a big leaf of lettuce for a wrap.
  • Add to soups and dips.
  • Make leafy greens the base for your meal- Build a gorgeous salad with a variety of greens as the base- and for variety, add fruit, sprouts, nuts, seeds, boiled eggs, chicken salad, salmon salad and herbs like cilantro or basil.

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