Eat your greens
Most of us are more than familiar with the term, “eat your greens”, as a well-used mantra for good nutrition and it seems we can’t get enough of them. Green is a colour most commonly associated with all things healthy and their position in the current wellness landscape is clear from the popularity of juices, powders and self-proclaimed ‘superfoods’ derived from this group of vegetables. The social media site, Instagram has become one of the main platforms for people to share their love of food with hashtags for kale revealing over 2 million posts and avocado exceeding 4 million.
The green revolution
Foods such as kale, avocado and courgette have become the heroes of the ‘green revolution’ as influential food bloggers showcase innovative ways to serve these vegetables such as spiralised courgette, kale chips or avocado on toast. The positive press about green vegetables has also resonated with shoppers as market research shows how they choose kale for health in 9 out of 10 occasions. Other green vegetables also carry a similar message with three quarters of consumers actively thinking about health when eating spinach and broccoli.
Popularity of green vegetables
Last year’s sales figures from Waitrose showed that courgette sales were up 13% from the previous year and that spring greens were up 23%. The popularity of kale, the ambassador for healthy greens, is also continuing to rise with Marks and Spencer reporting that they have sold twice as much as the previous year. Market research from Kantar Worldpanel echoes these figures by reporting that overall sales of kale in the UK were up by 54% on the previous year. However, despite their popularity and sales figures, the NDNS survey shows that greens are still not our preferred choice as intake of vegetables such as kale, broccoli, sprouts and cabbages are low compared with more popular choices such as tomatoes.
So are green vegetables any more nutritious? Well if you compare vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli with other coloured vegetables then they do contain a richer source of minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium but this doesn’t mean you should be skimping on reds, yellows, oranges and purples. All vegetables are highly beneficial to health and contain their own unique blend of nutrients and no single variety should be viewed as superior.
Aside from vitamins and minerals that are essential to life, vegetables also contain Phytonutrients. These compounds are pigments that give plants their vivid array of colours and originally evolved to help protect against diseases and insects. Research has shown how these plant compounds help to protect our health and reduce the risk of disease. There are many thousands of phytonutrients and research has only just started to unveil their identity and very complex action in the body.
Phytonutrients also act as antioxidants that help to prevent against the damage caused by the oxidation of molecules, which is a process that creates free radicals. Free radicals are a natural byproduct of metabolism but an excess can build up in the body when we are exposed to environmental factors such as too much sun, pollution or smoking.
Two such phytonutrients found in green vegetables are lutein and zeaxanthin that have been shown to help maintain good eye health. Both are found in high concentration in the macula, which is an area within the retina of the eye. One purpose of these phytonutrients is to help filter our harmful light that can potentially damage the eye. Large studies have shown that these nutrients help to lower the risk and slow down the development of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is a leading cause of blindness in older people. Further studies have also shown that people with the greatest intakes of foods rich in lutein, zeaxanthin and beta carotene, in particular kale, spinach and broccoli, are less likely to develop cataracts.
Still not eating enough vegetables
Although green vegetables receive a lot of attention, regardless of colour, the reality is that as a nation we still don’t eat enough of any vegetable. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) has shown that on average we are only eating four daily servings of fruits and vegetables and that only 30% of us are eating more than the recommended 5-a-day.
Research by University College London has suggested that there is a greater benefit to be had by eating more than seven servings daily and that this should include more vegetables as these hold greater health benefits. They found that those who ate at least seven serving daily were 42% less likely to die from any cause over the course of their study.
Include a rainbow of colours!
Green vegetables are undeniably very nutritious and have been widely studied for their health benefits including those related to eye health. Whilst it’s a good idea to included them in your daily diet you should avoid the hype and eat a rainbow of foods to maximise your nutrient intake. These foods in particular are often labelled with the term ‘superfood’ but this holds little nutritional significance and no single vegetable or any food for that matter can be viewed as a panacea. The focus should start with increasing overall intake of vegetables as their benefit to health is well proven.