From avocado and kale to green tea and basil, learn why foods and drinks that are green are some of the healthiest for you — then stock up!
Everyone knows green veggies are a must in any healthy diet — the phrase “eat your greens” has been drilled into many people since childhood. But according to a November 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruit or vegetables. And that’s a problem, because as the researchers note, that means many people are missing out on the essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber that produce provides, including those ever-important green foods.
“The color green is associated with vitamins and a host of health-promoting phytochemicals,” says Christine M. Palumbo, RDN, a nutrition consultant from Naperville, Illinois. Phytochemicals are substances found in plants that are essential for health (and give plants their color, taste, and smell), and research is ongoing to discover all their myriad benefits, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
“Green vegetables, particularly leafy greens, supply vitamin C, folate, calcium, iron, and other nutrients, although the amounts vary by the type of green,” adds Palumbo.
Even if you’re not a fan of dark-green produce (though it’s worth giving it another try!) you can still reap tons of health benefits from a variety of green veggies, fruits, and other foods you should be eating — but probably aren’t. Read on and learn why going green is a good call.1
1. Avocados May Improve Your Vision, Thanks to Their Vitamin E
Avocado toast anyone? Feel free to serve yourself up a piece, and reap avocado’s major health benefits.
Sure, you do score fat — about 20 grams (g) in a medium-size fruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But it’s the cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated kind that nutrition experts love. According to MedlinePlus, the monounsaturated fats in avocado are one of the healthy fats that can help lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and help develop and maintain your cells.
One whole avocado also contains 2.8 milligrams (mg) of vitamin E, which is about 19 percent of your daily value (DV), making it a good source of the vitamin. Vitamin E works like an antioxidant, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH), which protects your body from harmful substances called free radicals. Also, a review of animal studies published in November 2017 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences shows that vitamin E may help improve cognitive and memory issues.
Avocados also contain lutein, an antioxidant that protects eye health — clocking in at 369 micrograms (mcg) per medium-size fruit, notes the USDA. According to a review published in September 2018 in the journal Nutrients, lutein may improve or prevent age-related macular degeneration, which is the No. 1 cause of blindness and vision impairment.
The perks of avocado don’t stop there. A whole avocado provides 9 g of dietary fiber, according to the USDA, which is 32 percent of your DV, making it an excellent source. Fiber not only helps relieve constipation but also helps you keep a healthy weight and lowers your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Avocados are a wonderfully versatile addition to salads, tacos, soups, and sandwiches. Add some slices to your next meal, and reap the rewards.
2. Kale Contains Potential Cancer-Fighting Compounds
Kale belongs to the powerhouse family of produce known as cruciferous veggies (a fancy word for the cabbage family).
While kale often gets a lot of hype in the nutrition world, there’s a good reason why. “Kale has an impressive nutrient profile,” says Natalie Rizzo, RD, the New York City–based founder of Nutrition à la Natalie.
One cup of loosely packed raw kale has 1 g of fiber, according to the USDA, which is almost 4 percent of your DV.
Kale also comes through with 176 mcg of vitamin K, bringing it over the DV (which is 120 mcg). And that’s important, because vitamin K helps with blood clotting and keeping your bones healthy, along with many other health benefits, according to the NIH.
You’ll also score 30 mg of vitamin C, according to the USDA, which is about 33 percent of your DV, making it an excellent source. Plus, the NIH notes that vitamin C helps protect cells that would otherwise be damaged from free radicals. Vitamin C can also help make a protein necessary for wounds to heal and helps the immune system work properly, so it can help fight diseases.
Plus, a study published in September 2016 in Biomedical Reports found that eating kale can suppress rises in blood glucose after a meal, meaning that kale may help regulate blood sugar and help keep you feeling full, says Rizzo.
On top of all this, compounds in kale called glucosinolates get broken down in digestion and form compounds called “indoles” and “isothiocyanates,” which are known for stopping the growth of certain cancers in animal and laboratory studies, according to the National Cancer Institute. Human studies looking at cruciferous veggies and the ability to reduce cancer risk are mixed, and the National Cancer Institute does note that more research needs to be done (but there is some potential for prevention of certain cancers like prostate, colorectal, lung, and breast, it says).
Looking for ways to enjoy kale? “I personally prefer cooked kale, and I add it to pasta dishes for some extra nutrients,” says Rizzo. (Try her pasta with ricotta and kale dish tonight!)
3. Brussels Sprouts Provide Potassium, Which Can Support Healthy Blood Pressure
Another potent cruciferous veggie, Brussels sprouts are loaded with immune-supporting vitamin C. A single cup of raw Brussel sprouts has about 75 mg of vitamin C, according to the USDA, which is 83 percent of your DV, making them an excellent source. Be mindful, however, that because vitamin C is heat sensitive, as an April 2018 study published in Food Science and Biotechnology notes, cooking Brussels sprouts will reduce this amount slightly.
Plus, you also score over 3.3 g of fiber, or 12 percent of your DV. A cup provides potassium, too (342 mg, for 7 percent of your DV).
And potassium is important for everything, from keeping your heart and kidneys functioning to your muscles contracting, according to the NIH. Meanwhile, too little intake of the mineral is associated with an increase in blood pressure, especially for people who eat a diet high in sodium, the NIH notes. The agency recommends increasing the amount of potassium in your diet by eating foods like Brussels sprouts, and limiting your sodium intake to help lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke.
To make Brussels sprouts more tempting, consider roasting them. “Brussels sprouts have a naturally bitter taste, so I like to pair them with something mild, like bread and cheese,” says Rizzo. “Whether you add them as a topping to a traditional pizza or make an untraditional recipe, you’re going to love this new way to eat Brussels,” Rizzo adds.
4. Kiwi Contains Serotonin, a Hormone That Aids Healthy Sleep
Calling all kiwifruit lovers! According to the USDA, two kiwis (yes, you can eat the peel!) have 84 calories combined, about 4 g fiber (15 percent of the DV), 128 mg of vitamin C (142 percent of the DV), and 34.4 mcg of folate (9 percent of the DV).
Folate does everything from helping to make DNA and other genetic material to helping cells to divide, according to the NIH.
Kiwi may also help you have a better night’s slumber. “Interestingly, research suggests that kiwi contains serotonin, which may be beneficial to those with sleep disturbances, says Rizzo. According to a small, previous study eating kiwifruit regularly could help people fall asleep, as well as have longer and better-quality sleep.
Slice some kiwi into your cereal, yogurt, or salad for a refreshing health boost. “I like to put kiwi in a smoothie or use them to make chia seed pudding or overnight oats,” suggests Rizzo.
5. Edamame Could Help Lower Unhealthy Cholesterol With Its Plant Protein
These soybeans are worth ordering as a side dish or sprinkling on top of your next salad. Edamame is a good source of plant-based protein, and it is also considered a complete protein. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that the body does not produce on its own, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One cup of cooked, shelled edamame contains a whopping 18.5 g of protein, according to the USDA.
Getting enough protein is key because it’s found in virtually every body part and is responsible for crucial processes in your body, like making the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Yet replacing animal sources of protein with ones from plants can be a boon to your heart because the latter tend to contain less saturated fat, according to Harvard. A review published in June 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that the positive impacts of soy protein, in particular, on heart health — including lowering LDL cholesterol — have been proven consistent over the past two decades.
6. Green Tea Supports Metabolism and Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
Reams of studies have deemed antioxidant-packed green tea a health wonder drink. That may be because it contains catechins, which, Palumbo explains, are a type of polyphenol, along with caffeine, which may contribute to boosting your metabolic rate and fat oxidation.
Indeed, a May 2020 meta-analysis of 26 randomized controlled trials published in Phytotheraphy Research suggests green tea may play a role in weight loss. Researchers concluded there was significant reduction in waist circumference after consuming 800 mg or more of green tea supplements each day for less than 12 weeks. Not to mention, body weight went down when less than 500 mg were consumed per day for 12 weeks. More studies with tea bags, however, are needed, as those present a more realistic amount that people consume.
Drinking green tea regularly for about a month may also have a positive impact on insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes, thereby helping stabilize their blood sugar, a study published in September 2014 in the Iranian Journal of Medical Sciences found.
Unsweetened green tea is almost calorie-free. According to the USDA, 1 cup has just 2.4 calories. Steep a cup in the morning to start your day on a super healthy note.
7. Basil Has Eugenol, an Oil That May Help Fight Inflammation
It’s time to flavor up your meal with basil and bank some serious health perks in the process. “Basil leaves are rich in rosmarinic and caffeic acid, which are phenolic compounds with strong antioxidant properties,” says Palumbo. These acids may even have neuroprotective properties, according to Developing Therapeutics for Alzheimer’s Disease, an academic book containing a review of research for Alzheimer’s treatments.
“Basil also contains eugenol, an essential oil, which has anti-inflammatory properties,” says Palumbo. A review published in October 2018 in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity found that eugenol’s anti-inflammatory properties could even make it a potential complementary treatment for inflammatory diseases.
You also score very few calories for all that flavor. A ¼-cup portion of fresh basil contains just over one calorie, according to the USDA. Not to mention, a small study of men who were overweight or had obesity, which was published in The Journal of Nutrition in March 2020, found that adding a blend of spices, including basil, to a meal that’s high in fat and carbohydrates could potentially lower your inflammation levels post-meal.
Palumbo suggests flavoring pasta sauce with basil (if using fresh, triple the amount compared with the dry version), she says. “You can use it in the classic and delicious Caprese salad, place fresh basil leaves on top of cooked pizza, and put it into soup, such as pasta fagioli or minestrone or other bean soups,” she says. And don’t forget pesto, she says, which is a mix of ground basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and garlic, which can dress up a sandwich, pasta, seafood, or eggs. “Finally, when in season, I coarsely tear it and throw it in a tossed green salad where it adds a flavor boost,” says Palumbo.
8. Seaweed Offers Zinc to Help Keep Your Immune System Strong
For those unfamiliar with the ingredient, seaweed is a mineral-packed green worth adding to your grocery list. According to the USDA, 1 cup of dried seaweed has 3.7 mg of iron, which is 21 percent of your DV. Iron aids growth, development, and hormone production, according to the NIH.
The same amount of seaweed offers 0.6 mg of zinc, which is more than 5 percent of your DV. This mineral is important for helping your immune system fight off viruses and bacteria, along with making DNA, proteins, and genetic materials in cells, according to the NIH.
Plus, in 2016, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Germany stated that seaweed could be used as a sodium-free replacement for salt in some dishes, because of its naturally salty taste.
Last, seaweed is an excellent source of iodine, a trace element important for musculoskeletal, nervous system, and metabolic health, among other functions, notes the National Institutes of Health.
Select a seaweed salad appetizer or sushi rolls made with nori next time you order Japanese food, or add a few pieces to your next homemade soup.R
9. Green Beans Have a Low Glycemic Load, Making Them Diabetes-Friendly
Get ready to make green beans your new favorite side dish. Also called string beans, green beans are loaded with fiber, which can help lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar, making them a smart choice for people with diabetes.
According to the USDA, 1 cup of green beans contains almost 3 g of dietary fiber, covering 11 percent of the DV, for only 31 calories. Not too shabby!
The Defeat Diabetes Foundation suggests green beans are a great food for helping to prevent and manage diabetes, because they are also considered low on the glycemic index and have a low glycemic load. As the Mayo Clinic notes, this means they are more slowly digested and thus cause a lower and slower rise in blood sugar.
Ready to get cooking? For a Greek twist, cook green beans in olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, and onions, suggests Palumbo. “Green beans take well to sliced almonds or feta cheese. An easy way to prepare them is, after washing and trimming the ends, mix them with olive oil and herbs of your choice, and roast on a sheet pan in the oven until they’re softened to your liking and slightly browned,” says Palumbo.
Another option: Make a classic salad niçoise. “Combine chunks of new potatoes with chunks of tuna and steamed green beans, and dress lightly with olive oil and vinegar,” says Palumbo.
10. Green Bell Pepper Is Packed With Immune-Supportive Vitamin C
Red, yellow, and orange peppers may get more health accolades for their cancer-fighting lycopene (the component that gives them their bright pigments, per Harvard), but green peppers can certainly hold their own. After all, they provide nutrients. According to the USDA, one medium-size green bell pepper contains just 24 calories and a whopping 96 mg of vitamin C, which is more that 100 percent of your DV. As mentioned, vitamin C helps support immunity. One pepper also contains 248 mcg of beta carotene, 12 mcg of folate (3 percent of your DV), and 8.8 mcg of vitamin K (7 percent of your DV).
Dip strips of green bell pepper in hummus for a healthy snack, add them diced to salads for extra crunch, or toss pieces into stir-fries or Mexican dishes.
11. Asparagus Is a Good Source of B Vitamins, Which Help Prevent Anemia
“Asparagus is a good source of several B vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and B6,” says Palumbo. One cup of asparagus contains 0.2 mg of thiamin (B1), 0.2 mg of riboflavin (B2), 1.3 mg of niacin (B3), 0.12 mg of pyridoxine (B6), and 70 mcg of folate (B9) for 18 percent of the DV, according to the USDA. “It’s an excellent source of folate, also a B vitamin. In fact, it’s one of the top five vegetable sources of folate,” Palumbo says.
B vitamins help in the process of making energy from the food you eat and also help form red blood cells, according to MedlinePlus. Not getting enough of certain B vitamins like B12 or B6 can lead to a deficiency called anemia, which means you lack enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body’s tissues, the Mayo Clinic notes.
“It’s also a good source of dietary fiber, including inulin, a type of soluble fiber that acts as a prebiotic, stimulating the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut,” says Palumbo. One cup, notes the USDA, has 2.8 g, which is 10 percent of your DV. An article published in the journal Current Development in Nutrition in January 2018 notes that inulin supports digestive health due to the fermentation process in the colon.
If you’ve always feared the potent taste of asparagus, you’re not alone. “When I was growing up, my mother used to boil it and I would literally gag when eating it,” says Palumbo. “This was before the art of roasting vegetables was common in American homes.” Today, Palumbo tosses it with a little olive oil and either roasts it in the oven or puts it outside on the grill. “You can squeeze a little fresh lemon juice or sprinkle some sesame seeds on it. Roasting brings out the natural sweetness of the vegetable — no gagging anymore,” says Palumbo.
12. Nopals, or Cactus Pear, May Lower Blood Sugar in People With Diabetes
Nopals, or prickly pear, also known as cactus pear, is the fruit of the cactus plant, and it leans more toward a yellow green in color than a true green, says Palumbo.
A review published in Medicina in May 2019 notes that the plant, which is popular in Mexican cooking, may provide a complementary treatment for people managing diabetes. Researchers outline findings that suggest nopals may increase insulin sensitivity, improve glucose metabolism, and potentially regenerate pancreatic cells — all effects that would lead to more stable blood sugar. Yet more studies are needed to know the true mechanism behind the plant’s perks for people with diabetes, they write.
Until more studies are done, know that nopals provide plenty of nutrition. A single prickly pear contains only about 42 calories and almost 4 g of dietary fiber, according to the USDA, making it a good source at 13 percent your DV.
“It’s rather versatile — in addition to eating it whole, you can broil it, toss it in salads, and turn it into a sauce,” says Palumbo.