Leafy green vegetables are one of the most nutritious food groups. They’re packed with health benefits and nutrients, but many people struggle to include leafy greens in their diet.
This article reviews the nutrition and health benefits of leafy greens and how to maximize nutrient absorption. It also discusses why leafy green vegetables may be particularly important for vegans to include in their diet.
Jump to Sections
- What are Leafy Greens?
- List of Leafy Green Vegetables
- Nutrition Content of Leafy Greens
- Health Benefits of Leafy Greens
- Why Should Vegans Eat Leafy Greens?
- How to Cook with Leafy Greens
- Tips for Eating More Leafy Greens
- Best Leafy Green Recipes from Lettuce Veg Out
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What are Leafy Greens?
Leafy green vegetables are plant leaves that humans eat as a vegetable. There are many edible plant leaf varieties.
The term dark leafy green is also commonly used. To my knowledge, there’s no rule about the distinction between a dark leafy green and one that isn’t. Just look at the produce you buy to see if your greens are dark or not.
For the most nutrient content possible, darker, more pigmented leaves are typically better.
Another consideration when discussing leafy greens is how to classify red- or purple-pigmented leaves. I include them as a leafy “green” because I use them in the same way.
However, red- or purple-colored leaves have unique antioxidant profiles. Selecting and eating a variety of produce colors can maximize the variety of nutrients and antioxidants you consume.
List of Leafy Green Vegetables
Here’s a list of leafy green vegetables you can add to your meals:
- Arugula (aka rocket)
- Beet greens
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- Collard greens
- Dandelion greens
- Gai choy (Chinese mustard greens)
- Gai lan (Chinese broccoli)
- Herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil, mint, etc.)
- Leaf lettuce
- Mustard greens
- Pea shoots
- Swiss chard
- Turnip greens
- Yau choy/ yu choy
There are countless varieties for most of the greens listed above. For example, red cabbage, napa cabbage, savoy cabbage and green cabbage (not to mention the many types of leaf lettuce).
There’s an endless variety of greens from countries around the world too. I’ve tried to include some in this list, but it’s mostly based on what is more commonly available in North American grocery stores.
Nutrition Content of Leafy Green Vegetables
Leafy green vegetables are nutrient powerhouses. They are typically good sources of: 1
Leafy greens are low in calories and don’t provide many carbohydrates, proteins or fats.
Each leafy green provides a unique combination of nutrients. Eating a variety of greens is important!
Anti-Nutrient Content of Leafy Greens: Oxalates
Oxalates are a naturally occurring compound in some foods. Human bodies also make it as an end-product of some metabolic pathways.
They’re often touted as an “anti-nutrient” because they can limit the absorption of certain essential nutrients, like calcium.
Oxalates are found in many plant-based foods; certain leafy greens are very high in oxalates. The human body cannot break down oxalate, therefore it must be excreted (through urine or feces).
When oxalates are present in the digestive tract they bind to calcium. This binding prevents absorption of both the oxalate and calcium.
However, when calcium binds to oxalate, the calcium is also not absorbed. This is of particular concern if a person’s diet is lower in calcium to begin with (vegan diets may be lower depending on foods and beverages consumed).
Leafy greens are an important source of calcium for vegans. However, due to the high oxalate content in some leafy greens, calcium absorption can decrease to as low as 5% 4.
Getting adequate calcium on a vegan diet can be challenging. Luckily, there are lower-oxalate leafy greens and ways to lower the oxalate content in greens.
Low-Oxalate Leafy Greens
There’s debate over how accurately oxalate content is measured. Also, there are no specific cut-off for what makes a food high or low in oxalate.
Results for oxalate content of foods can also differ greatly, depending on the source or method used to determine oxalate content.
Leafy greens that are generally considered lower in oxalate include: 5
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Romaine lettuce (and many other lettuce varieties)
- Turnip greens
High-Oxalate Leafy Greens
It’s also helpful to know what leafy greens are high in oxalates. It doesn’t mean these foods are unhealthy, just that they aren’t a good source of calcium.
If you want to limit the oxalate content in these leafy greens, boil them and discard the water 6.
Even with cooking, some of these greens, like spinach, remain very high in oxalate. Leafy greens high in oxalates include: 5
- Beet greens
- Chard (ex. Swiss chard)
There are other foods either high or low in oxalate content, but this article only focuses on leafy green vegetables.
Maximize Nutrient Absorption from Leafy Greens
You can lower the oxalate content of many plant-based foods by boiling them, then discarding the water. Steaming can also lower oxalate content, but not as much as boiling 6.
Beyond oxalate content, there are other factors to consider for maximum nutrient absorption.
Many beneficial compounds in leafy greens are fat-soluble.
You can add fat to a meal with nuts and seeds (or nut and seed butters), avocado, soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame) or olive and other vegetable oils.
Health Benefits of Leafy Greens
There are many research studies linking vegetables, green vegetables, leafy vegetables and the nutrients found in green leafy vegetables with positive health outcomes.
The two main benefits of increased vegetable intake are a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and lower risk of certain types of cancer.
Antioxidants in leafy greens include carotenoids and polyphenols. Leafy greens and/or antioxidants present in greens, have been associated with a lower risk of:
- Some types of cancer 9, 10, 11
- Cardiovascular disease 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
- Depression 16, 17, 18
- Macular degeneration 11, 19
- Asthma 20, 21
- Possibly type 2 diabetes 22
Why Should Vegans Eat Leafy Greens?
As you can see, there are many benefits associated with adding leafy greens into your diet. Leafy greens are a great source of nutrition for omnivores and vegans alike, but they might be especially important for vegans.
One reason for this is due to the calcium content of greens. Vegan diets can provide adequate calcium, but it can be tricky to get enough.
Plant-based milks or other dairy alternatives are often fortified with calcium, but not all vegans consume these products. Without fortified foods, meeting vegan calcium requirements becomes very challenging.
Enter leafy greens (low oxalate greens in particular). These can provide a great calcium boost for vegan diets along with offering many other nutrients and health benefits.
Even if you consume calcium-fortified products, you’ll need multiple vegan sources of calcium in a to meet intake recommendations. Low-oxalate greens are a great choice to help get enough calcium.
Since veganism is about reducing harm to animals, for some, personal health may take a back seat. While everyone is free to eat how they like, if you want to do one thing that can help improve your nutrition and health, eating leafy greens is a great place to start (in my opinion).
How to Cook with Leafy Greens
Leafy greens are super versatile and you can add them to many recipes. Of course, you can eat lettuce and other salad greens raw, but many leafy greens are great to cook with.
Some ways to use leafy greens include:
- Sauté greens
- Add greens to a stir fry
- Braise greens
- Stick with basic boiling
- Mix into soups or stews
- Blend into a sauce or dressing
- Make pesto
- Add to dips or hummus
- Add to a pasta dish
- Toss into a vegan frittata or quiche
- Eat pickled or fermented greens (ex. kimchi)
- Toss into a smoothie
- Bake into “chips” (ex. kale chips)
- Use as a wrap (ex. collard green wraps or lettuce cups)
- Add to a sandwich, wrap, tacos or burger
Leafy greens can also make a great garnish. For example, top your pizza with arugula or add microgreens to your plate before serving.
Whichever cooking method you choose, or if you’re eating greens raw, I highly recommend seasoning your greens.
You can stick with basic salt and pepper, but there are endless spices and herbs that pair well with greens. Other flavoring options like vinegar, soy sauce, flavored oils, aromatic vegetables (onion, garlic, ginger, etc.) can elevate cooked greens into a delicious side dish.
There are so many delicious recipes from all over the world to try out. Leafy greens don’t need to be boring or bland!
Tips for Eating More Leafy Greens
It’s sometimes hard to eat enough leafy greens. If you often think of green vegetables in terms of making salad, you might miss other ways to incorporate greens into your meals.
Many people also struggle with greens going bad, buying with the intention to eat them, but then forgetting about them in the fridge.
Here are my best tips for getting more leafy greens into your diet:
- Use frozen greens: Greens keep a lot of nutritional value even when frozen. Buying bags of frozen kale or other greens is a great way to make sure you always have some on hand. Frozen greens are great for tossing into cooked meals like soup, stew, stir fry, pasta dishes or blended in sauces.
- Buy pre-cut or pre-washed greens: Spring mixes or salad kits can be a convenient way to get in more leafy greens as there’s no prep involved. These greens are great to toss into salads, wraps, sandwiches, or onto cooked pizza. Depending on the green, they may also be great for smoothies, soups, stir fry, or other cooked meals.
- Find recipes you love: Eating greens shouldn’t be a chore and I believe it’s important to truly enjoy the foods you eat. Finding ways to use leafy greens that you love is key for keeping this nutritious food group in your diet. There’s a huge variety of greens and endless ways to prepare them, so try out different types of greens and cooking methods until you find something you love!
- Make it a habit: Try to find one thing you eat regularly and could add greens to. Maybe you make a smoothie everyday and can toss in a handful of kale, or you love soup and can add greens to that.
Making greens an enjoyable part of your diet is key to getting more of these nutritious foods into your meals!
Best Leafy Green Recipes from Lettuce Veg Out
Here are some of my favorite vegan recipes that feature plenty of leafy greens!
- Kale salad with orange-miso-tahini dressing
- Tabbouleh salad
- Kale slaw with sesame-soy dressing
- Spinach salad with maple balsamic dressing
- Rice paper rolls (fresh spring rolls)
- Vegan red curry (with Bok choy)
- Pesto (with spinach and basil)
- Sweet potato refried bean burritos (with kale)
Side Dish or Appetizer
- Roasted maple balsamic Brussels sprouts
- Spinach artichoke dip
- Spanakopita triangles (spinach)
- Broccoli soup
Summary: Leafy Greens for Vegans
Leafy greens are a diverse and versatile group of vegetables that are packed with nutrients. Eating leafy greens (and other high-antioxidant foods) is associated with many health benefits.
They are a great addition to any diet but may be particularly helpful for vegans. There are many ways to prepare leafy greens along with endless varieties of greens to try.
Finding a way to eat leafy greens that works for your lifestyle and that you truly enjoy is a great way to make eating these nutrient-dense foods a habit!
- Carotenoids in green vegetables and health aspects
- Dietary oxalate and kidney stone formation
- Dietary oxalate intake and kidney outcomes
- Calcium absorption from food products: Food matrix effects
- Oxalate content of foods (downloadable from Harvard University)
- Effect of different cooking methods on vegetable oxalate content
- Avocado consumption enhances human postprandial provitamin A absorption and conversion from a novel high-beta-carotene tomato sauce and from carrots
- Carotenoid absorption from salad and salsa by humans in enhanced by the addition of avocado or avocado oil
- Phytochemicals and cancer risk: A review of the epidemiological evidence
- Dietary phytochemicals and cancer chemoprevention: A review of the clinical evidence
- Green leafy vegetable and lutein intake and multiple health outcomes
- Quantity and variety in fruit and vegetable intake and risk of coronary heart disease
- Dietary intake of green leafy vegetables and incidence of cardiovascular diseases
- Food selection based on high total antioxidant capacity improves endothelial function in a low cardiovascular risk population
- Dietary total antioxidant capacity and mortality outcomes: The Singapore Chinese health study
- Antioxidant status and its association with elevated depressive symptoms among US adults: National health and nutrition examination surveys 2005-6
- Associations of dietary vitamin A and beta-carotene intake with depression. A meta-analysis of observational studies
- Associations of dietary vitamin C and E intake with depression. A meta-analysis of observational studies
- Lutein and zeaxanthin – food sources, bioavailability and dietary variety in age-related macular degeneration protection
- Manipulating antioxidant intake in asthma: A randomized controlled trial
- Association between dietary carotenoid intakes and the risk of asthma in adults: A cross-sectional study of NHANES, 2007-2012
- Higher intake of fruits, vegetables or their fiber reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes: A meta-analysis
- Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study
- Cognitive function and consumption of fruit and vegetable polyphenols in a young population: Is there a relationship?
- A nitrate-rich vegetable intervention elevates plasma nitrate and nitrite concentrations and reduces blood pressure in healthy young adults
- Key elements of plant-based diets associated with reduced risk of metabolic syndrome
This reference list is not intended to be comprehensive.
About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.