Most often thought of as a Southern dish, collard greens and their cousins -- beet greens, dandelion greens, mustard greens, and turnip greens -- are gaining new respect as nutrition powerhouses -- they're loaded with disease-fighting beta-carotene and offer respectable amounts of vitamin C, calcium, and fiber. All these attributes make cooking greens a wise choice for your diet.
As fat-fighters, collard greens play the part of most vegetables, providing few calories but filling stomachs with some fiber and furnishing nutrients galore. Just lose the traditional way of cooking them in bacon grease to keep your weight-loss routine and turn them into true fat-fighting foods.
If you're keeping calories to a minimum, you depend on certain foods to provide more than their share of certain nutrients. And cooking greens fill that role for two nutrients in particular.
First, greens contribute an important nondairy source of calcium that's absorbed almost as well as the calcium found in dairy products. That's good news for those facing the threat of osteoporosis, as calcium is one of many factors crucial to bone health.
Second, most greens are superb sources of vitamin A, mostly in the form of beta-carotene, which has been shown to help protect against cancer, heart disease, cataracts, and other diseases of aging through its antioxidant properties. Vitamin A also helps keep the immune system in tiptop shape. Other carotenoids found in greens may be just as potent cancer conquerors as well, but research is continuing. The outer leaves of greens usually contain more beta-carotene than do the inner leaves. Dandelion greens are bursting with twice the vitamin A of other greens.
Some greens -- collard, mustard, and turnip -- belong to the cruciferous family, which also includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Research has shown that people who eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables are less likely to suffer from cancer than those whose diets contain fewer servings due to a variety of organosulfur compounds.
Dark, leafy greens are also a good source of the antioxidant vitamin C. Many of the greens contain appreciable amounts of magnesium (good for bone and heart health) and the B-vitamin team of folate and B6 (also good for heart health).
Folate by itself offers a few additional health boosters. It helps in the production of red blood cells and in normal nerve function. And by helping to reduce homocysteine levels in the blood, it may help prevent dementia and bone fractures in people with osteoporosis.
These greens are also rich sources of phytonutrients, such as the carotenoid called lutein and lipoic acid. Lutein is proving itself to be a protector of vision -- helping to prevent age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Lipoic acid is an antioxidant and also helps to regenerate vitamin C and E in the body. Because of the particular role lipoic acid plays in energy production, it's being investigated as a possible regulator of blood sugar.
To reap the benefits of all the nutrients in dark, leafy greens, include them often in your 21/2 cups of daily vegetables. They will be a boon to your health while helping with weight loss, since they are so low in calories.
Some greens stand out individually. Beet greens shine in several minerals, including iron, as well as potassium, but they are also naturally high in sodium. Turnip greens provide folic acid--important for the prevention of birth defects and heart disease -- plus manganese and copper. They are much richer in fiber and calcium than other greens.
Selection and Storage
Choose greens that have smooth, green, firm leaves. Small, young leaves are likely to be the least bitter and most tender. Be sure the produce department kept the greens well-chilled or they'll be bitter. Wilting is a sign of bitter-tasting greens. Unwashed greens store well for three to five days when wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in an airtight plastic bag. The longer they are stored, however, the more bitter they will be. Be sure to wash greens well and remove the tough stems; cook only the leaves. One pound of raw leaves yields about a half cup of cooked greens.
Preparation and Serving Tips
Cook greens in a small amount of water, or steam them, to preserve their vitamin C content. Cook with the lid off to prevent the greens from turning a drab olive color. When you can, strain the nutritious cooking liquid and use it as a base for soups or stews. Greens will overpower a salad. To eat them as a side dish, simmer in seasoned water or broth until wilted (collards may need to cook longer). Or you can combine greens with other vegetables and a whole grain for a healthful stir-fry dish. Finally, add them to soups and stews, where their strong flavor is an advantage.
With a texture similar to cabbage, and a mildly bitter flavor, collard greens have become a staple vegetable of the southern United States. You can bring them to your table, no matter the location, as a highly nutritious vegetable rich in calcium and vitamins.
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