Picture of broccoli that can provide benefits of leafy greens

Benefits of leafy greens

Medically reviewed on April 21, 2023 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Table of contents

It seems that foods like kale, spinach, and bok choy hold dietary prowess that withstand the test of time. So, what are the benefits of leafy greens? Simply put, they’re packed with the vitamins and nutrients needed to maintain a balanced diet.

In this guide, we’re breaking down the advantages of incorporating green leafy vegetables into your diet, the nutrients you’ll find in them, and the health benefits you could gain from eating them. We’ll also offer a few tips for getting more dark leafy greens in your diet.

What are leafy greens?

First and foremost, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes five distinct categories of vegetables: [1]

  • Red and orange vegetables
  • Beans, lentils, and peas
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Leafy greens
  • Other vegetables

There are many vegetables in the dark green, or leafy green, category, but some of the most well-known are: [1]

  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Turnip greens
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Bok choy
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Swiss chard
  • Arugula
  • Escarole
  • Endive
  • Romaine lettuce

But, some green leafy vegetables are excluded from this category, including iceberg lettuce, okra, zucchini, bean sprouts, and all varieties of cabbage. While some of these are “dark green,” the USDA doesn’t recognize them in the leafy greens category. [1]

What vitamins, minerals, and nutrients can be found in leafy greens?

Leafy salad greens are jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that can help you support a balanced and healthy diet. Let’s explore some of these in more detail.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A assists with many functions in your body. Healthy vitamin A levels may help support: [1]

  • Immune function
  • Cellular growth
  • Cellular signaling and communication
  • Reproductive system development and function
  • Maintaining a healthy heart and lungs

While vitamin A concentrations are the highest in fish, liver, eggs, and dairy, dark leafy greens are a quality source of provitamin A carotenoids, one of two major types of vitamin A. Provitamin A carotenoids are found in plant pigments, as your body converts these pigments into vitamin A in the intestinal tract. [2]

The leafy greens with the highest vitamin A content include:

  • Spinach [2]
  • Collard greens [3]
  • Kale [4]
  • Broccoli [5]

Vitamin B (folate)

Folate is an important B vitamin that your body needs for: [6]

  • DNA and RNA synthesis
  • Amino acid metabolism
  • Red blood cell production

Folate (sometimes called folic acid) is also critical during rapid growth phases like during pregnancy and fetal development.7 Most people in the US consume enough folate, partially because it’s added to enriched foods like pasta, bread, and cereal. [6]

If you’re looking to source folate from leafy greens, you’ll find the highest concentrations in: [6]

  • Spinach
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Broccoli
  • Mustard greens
  • Turnip greens

Vitamin C

Since humans can’t synthesize their own vitamin C, you have to consume it in your diet.8 You need vitamin C for: [8]

  • Collagen production
  • L-carnitine synthesis (which is key for oxidizing fatty acids in the body9)
  • Neurotransmitter production
  • Protein metabolism
  • Antioxidant function
  • Immune function
  • Absorption of plant-based iron

That said, the average American adult gets plenty of vitamin C either through their diet, supplementation, or both. [8]

It might surprise you to discover that oranges actually don’t feature the highest concentration of vitamin C among fruits and vegetables. The real champion is red bell peppers, with a staggering 190 milligrams per cup (over 100% of your recommended daily value). [8]

You can also find vitamin C in leafy greens like: [8]

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Spinach
  • Bok choy [10]
  • Arugula [11]

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient absorbed primarily by the small intestine and the liver.[12] While multiple compounds fall under the umbrella of “vitamin E,” they’re all known for their antioxidant properties.

Antioxidants are critical in the human body. They protect cells from free radicals, or molecules with unpaired electrons that are highly reactive. [12] While research is still ongoing, there is early evidence to suggest that damage from free radicals could contribute to the development of cancer and heart disease. [12]

While the most recent data on Americans’ average vitamin E intake is over 20 years old, the most up-to-date survey indicates that most Americans consume less than the recommended daily value of vitamin E. [12] However, since vitamin E is most available in fats, and many people don’t account for added oils or butter while cooking, this data might be incomplete. [12]

Spinach and broccoli are perhaps the best vegetable sources of vitamin E, but escarole, endive, and kale offer some, too. [4,12,13,14]

Everlywell VCV offering

Vitamin K

Like vitamin E, vitamin K is a generic name for multiple compounds that share similar chemical structures and functions. [15] Vitamin K is critical to your blood, bones, and other body functions: [15]

  • Vitamin K is a coenzyme for the synthesis of proteins involved in hemostasis (blood clotting) and bone metabolism.
  • Prothrombin (an important compound required for blood clotting) is a vitamin K-dependent protein.
  • Another vitamin K-dependent protein, matrix Gla-protein, is currently being studied for its role in abnormal calcification—calcium deposits in abnormal areas of the body.

The main form of dietary vitamin K is found primarily in leafy greens, especially:

  • Collard greens
  • Turnip greens
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Broccoli

See related: Does Protein Give You Energy?

Other benefits of leafy greens

Other than offering a host of vitamins, there are additional benefits of leafy greens. Here are a few more reasons why you might consider adding more leafy greens to your diet.

Low glycemic index

Two of the most attractive benefits of leafy greens are their very low glycemic index (GI) and relatively low carbohydrate content. [16] These are two very important factors related to maintaining body weight:

  1. Foods that give you energy can be high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose, a crucial source of cellular energy. But, the body stores excess carbohydrates as either glycogen or body fat. [17]
  2. While a growing body of research suggests that low, average, or high glycemic index diets actually don’t promote fat storage in the body, one study revealed an exception: diets with very low GIs did result in weight loss in average adults. [18]

In addition, eating low-GI foods might help people with diabetes maintain their blood sugar and body weight. [19]

A source of dietary fiber

Leafy green vegetables are an excellent source of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber can help: [1]

  1. Reduce blood cholesterol levels and prevent heart disease__ – Numerous studies indicate that an adequate dietary fiber intake can help lower blood cholesterol and can help prevent cardiovascular disease.[20]
  2. Support healthy digestion – Fiber is a key to healthy bowel function.16 Water-insoluble fibers in particular can help decrease a meal’s intestinal transit time and can aid in producing larger stools, promoting nutrient absorption and digestive regularity. [20]

Fiber deficiency is a common problem for Americans, and some data suggest that: [21]

  1. Americans understand the benefits of fiber.
  2. Americans believe that they’re getting enough fiber in their diets or supplements.
  3. Only about 5% of the US population meets the recommended daily intake of fiber.

Skin benefits

Incorporating dark leafy green vegetables into your diet can even help improve your skin’s functions and appearance because:

  • The vitamin A found in leafy greens can help protect your skin and eyes against infections. [2]
  • Vitamin C promotes fast and effective wound healing, but it also prevents iron deficiency—a condition that can impact wound healing and general skin appearance. [22]
  • Vitamin E has been a critical nutrient in dermatology applications for more than five decades. Vitamin E is believed to prevent solar radiation damage and tumors in the skin, and it’s featured in a variety of beauty products. [23]

Brain function

Perhaps one of the most impressive benefits of leafy greens is the impact on brain function that consuming leafy greens has, particularly the potential prevention of cognitive decline.

A landmark 2018 study of nearly 1,000 participants indicated that higher intakes of the following nutrients (all of which are present in leafy green vegetables) were positively correlated with slower cognitive decline: [24]

  • Phylloquinone (vitamin K)
  • Lutein (related to vitamin A)
  • Nitrate
  • Folate (vitamin B9)
  • α-tocopherol (vitamin E)
  • Kaempferol (an antioxidant)

While studies are still ongoing, this early research suggests a connection between leafy green vegetables and slower cognitive degeneration.

Adding leafy greens to your diet

If the potential benefits of leafy greens motivate you to incorporate them into your diet, here are a few ideas for adding them to your regular meals:

  • Salads – Leafy greens like kale, endive, and romaine lettuce make excellent additions to (or bases of) salads. Top a kale salad with crunchy toppings and a vinaigrette for a tasty, nutritious bite.
  • Southern-style greens – For the ultimate leafy green side, draw some inspiration from the American South. Stew collard, turnip, or mustard greens (or a combination of all three) in a crock pot with water or broth, spices, and a soup, then boil on low heat for a few hours, softening the green leafy vegetable and bringing out the vibrant colors.
  • Roasted greens – Roasting is compatible with just about every leafy green vegetable, but especially kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Chips – For easy, delicious, and nutritious snacks, consider roasting small pieces of kale, collards, or mustard greens until they’re as crisp as potato chips.
  • Sandwich toppings – Many of the leafy green vegetables on the list at the beginning of this article would make a simple but delicious addition to a sandwich, especially spinach, kale, or romaine.

Meet your health goals with Everlywell

The benefits of leafy greens are numerous. They’re full of vitamins, help support digestion, and may even improve your skin and brain health.

In the pursuit of your health goals, learning as much as you can about your body—and the foods that can nourish it—can help you create personalized plans and goals. That’s what we’re all about at Everlywell: empowering you with the knowledge you need to make informed decisions about your health.

Make an appointment with one of our telehealth providers to chat about weight management, explore our list of at-home testing collection kits, or explore today’s health topics on our blog.

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  6. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements - Folate. Nih.gov. Published 2017. URL. Accessed April 21, 2023.
  7. Harvard School of Public Health. Folate (Folic Acid) – Vitamin B9. The Nutrition Source. Published September 18, 2012. URL. Accessed April 21, 2023.
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