Salad greens are the exact opposite of Tinder dates: You can’t go totally wrong, no matter what you choose. As long as you’re adding greens to your diet, you’re doing your body a serious service. But some choices are better than others. Peggy Kotsopoulos, RHN, a nutritionist and author of Kitchen Cures, and nutritionist Kayleen St. John, RD, of the Natural Gourmet Institute, reveal which greens contain fewer nutrients than you’d think, and what you should grab instead.
Swap for: Kale
You might love this bitter green in those trendy arugula-and-[insert local cheese] salads, but other greens leave it in the nutritional shade. “When it comes to percentage of daily values, arugula barely makes a dent with respect to key vitamins and minerals,” says Kotsopoulos. One cup of arugula has only about 4% of your recommended daily value of Vitamin C. Substitute kale, which packs 134% of your RDV in one cup. “Kale is an excellent source of Vitamin A, Vitamin K, magnesium and absorbable calcium — all of which significantly trump arugula,” says Kotsopoulos. Looking for something closer in taste to arugula? Opt for watercress, another delicate leafy green. “Per the nutrient density scale, watercress is the most nutrient-dense food measured,” says St. John. “Compared to arugula, it boasts three times the Vitamin C and is higher in magnesium and potassium.”
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Vitamins A and K are fat soluble, so pair kale with a food rich in healthy fats, and your body will better absorb the nutrients. Mix avocado or chia seeds into an easy kale smoothie, or blend balsamic vinaigrette and olive oil into a salad dressing.
Swap for: Mustard greens
It’s no surprise that this watery leaf runs aground when it comes to nutrition. “Iceberg lettuce is void of most — if not all — key vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate, iron, calcium and magnesium,” says Kotsopoulos. “In addition, it contains one of the lowest values of Vitamin A among leafy greens.” (One cup has only about 7% of your recommended daily value.) Vitamin A is a superstar at reducing inflammation, preventing UV damage and boosting immunity, so go for mustard greens instead. “One cup contains about 118% of your DV of Vitamin A, providing a strong antioxidant punch,” says Kotsopoulos. Cook the pungent, peppery greens in vegetable stock, or sauté them with olive oil and minced garlic to mellow them out and add depth of flavor.
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“While mustard greens look like leafy greens, they actually fall under the cruciferous veggie family, making them powerful in many nutritional compounds, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals,” says Kotsopoulos. If you can’t find them or are craving a crunch, try broccoli, cabbage or Brussels sprouts.
Swap for: Beet greens
If you’re adding dandelion greens to your weekly farmer’s market bounty, you’d be better off adding beet greens to your haul instead: “Beet greens boast an impressive mineral profile, including about twice as much magnesium and potassium compared to dandelion greens,” says St. John. You probably won’t see beet-greens tea replacing dandelion tea on coffee-shop menus anytime soon, but after boiling fresh beets, you can use the tops in the “pot liquor” (the liquid left behind after boiling) and let simmer before creating a simple DIY tea.
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Even if it’s unfamiliar to you, don’t be shy about experimenting with beet greens in the kitchen. These colorful green tops also boast giving you 15% of your daily recommended value for iron intake, along with a slew of vitamins. As an accompaniment to roasted beets, sauté the beet tops and add a spritz of lemon and a crumble of feta for brightness and added tang to a flavorful and simple side dish.
Swap for: Turnip greens
This fanciful-looking salad green is sometimes called “Galactic lettuce,” but its amount of certain nutrients is anything but epic. “While red-leaf lettuce may contain a decent amount of dietary fiber, vitamin A and vitamin K, it falls significantly short when it comes to Vitamin C, iron, folate, calcium and magnesium,” says Kotsopoulos. In fact, it contains lower amounts of these nutrients than even Iceberg lettuce! Switch out red-leaf for turnip greens, which provide more nutrients, “especially folate and calcium,” says Kotsopoulos. “Folate is required for serotonin production (our “happy” neurotransmitter) which can help prevent depression and cognitive decline.” Two cups of turnip greens provide more than 50% of your DV of folate, and although kale might get all the buzz when it comes to calcium, turnip greens are one of the highest leafy green sources of the mineral, packing even more than kale.
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Add a drizzle of tamari (soy sauce’s healthier cousin) over sautéed turnip greens for a hit of rich umami flavor.
Swap for: Chinese cabbage
Although traditional green cabbage is a great low-calorie base for soups and side dishes, its sibling is the real star of the family. “Chinese cabbage contains more than two times the calcium of traditional cabbage and is also much higher in beta-carotene,” says St. John. “Since beta carotene is an antioxidant, it protects against free radicals and may reduce inflammation. Converted by your body into Vitamin A, the nutrient is also crucial for eye and skin health.
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Think of Chinese cabbage as the chicken or tofu of the leafy-greens world: A blank canvas that absorbs the flavors it’s cooked in. “Chinese cabbage also contains one-and-a-half times the potassium and magnesium of traditional green cabbage,” adds St. John. Select a head that has firm, green leaves and is free of black spotting. When sautéeing, add it during the final stages of cooking.
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