Springtime, when greens are especially fresh and nutritious, is the perfect time to reacquaint yourself with nature's astonishing variety of edible shoots, leaves, and pods. But before you groan, "Kale, again?!" we promise it didn't even make our list of must-tries. Not to discount kale's health benefits, but this season's harvest offers plenty of other good-for-you greens with a tremendous variety of critical nutrients such as cancer-preventing folate and antioxidants, bone-building vitamin K, and vitamins A and C for a strong immune system. Which is great news if you can't get past kale's bitter flavor (no matter how trendy the smoothie or soup it comes in).
Most of us eat less than half the weekly recommendation of one-and-a-half to two cups of dark-green vegetables. If that sounds familiar, experimenting with some fresh choices to make your plate more interesting and flavorful may help you hit your mark. Here are eight garden-fresh supergreens proven to help you stay strong, lean, and disease-free, plus a few delicious recipes to get you started. Enjoy them all, or choose the ones that tackle your top health concerns.
TO ROCK YOUR WORKOUT: Eat More Arugula
Ounce-for-ounce, arugula provides more nitrates than other top veggie sources, such as rhubarb, celery, and spinach. What does that mean for you? Nitrates relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure, accelerating blood flow so energizing oxygen is delivered to cells throughout your body more efficiently. As a result, your workouts might feel a little easier: Nitrates reduce your muscles' need for oxygen during exercise, so you don't tire as quickly. Cycling volunteers who ate vegetables rich in nitrates cut oxygen consumption by 5 percent, and increased muscle efficiency by 7 percent, according to a 2007 Swedish study.
COOK IT: Because it's usually sold with the roots intact, arugula can be dirty, so be sure to give it a good washing before using. For a quick meal, toss it with hot pasta, olive oil, and lemon zest, or stir leaves into your favorite marinara sauce.
TO IMPROVE DIGESTION: Eat More Asparagus
These tender thin green stalks are rich in inulin, a unique kind of fiber that doesn't break down in our digestive systems until it arrives at the large intestine. Once there, inulin feeds the beneficial bacteria that keep your intestine healthy and may help your body absorb more nutrients. Bonus: Asparagus is also rich in vitamin A, zeaxanthin, and lutein, all beneficial to eye health.
COOK IT: Asparagus can spoil quickly, so to keep it fresh, wrap the spears in a damp paper towel, keep them refrigerated, and eat them within two days of purchase. One of the easiest ways to prepare asparagus is by oven-roasting it, which will also intensify the flavor. Toss a pound of trimmed asparagus with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, season with sea salt and black pepper, and roast on a baking sheet at 400°F for 15 minutes. Serve sprinkled with shaved Parmesan, or chop and toss them into a frittata.
TO BUILD STURDY BONES: Eat More Bok Choy
This cabbage variant is packed with bone-friendly nutrients, including calcium—which is especially well-absorbed for a vegetable source of the mineral. That's because bok choy is low in oxalates, compounds present in many leafy greens that can bind to calcium and make it harder for your body to absorb. Two cups of this crunchy, low-calorie veggie deliver as much calcium as half a glass of milk. Plus, two cups of raw bok choy provide 80 percent of your daily dose of vitamin K, needed to bind calcium to bone.
COOK IT: Because vitamin K requires fat for absorption you'll actually soak up more of this nutrient by coating your bok choy with a little healthy fat. Sauté it in a teaspoon or two of peanut oil or drizzle raw leaves with a tablespoon of an olive oil-based salad dressing. You could also try it grilled in an Asian-inspired salad with edamame, orange slices, scallions, and a soy-ginger vinaigrette.
TO FEND OFF DIABETES: Eat More Chard
Delivering nearly four grams of fiber per cooked cup, chard slows the rate at which carbohydrates enter your blood stream, preventing blood-sugar dips and spikes.This plant is a top source of magnesium (one cooked cup gives more than a third of your daily needs), a mineral that helps your body use the glucose-regulating hormone insulin more effectively. Chard also contains syringic acid, a substance that blocks the breakdown of starch into sugars, helping regulate blood-sugar levels. Given that most of us get only half the fiber and less than two-thirds of the magnesium we need, chard is a good source of these blood-sugar-balancing nutrients.
COOK IT: Give your pizza or flatbread a nutrition boost. Sauté one bunch of stemmed chard leaves in olive oil with one chopped clove of garlic until chard is wilted. Scatter the greens over your pizza crust along with sautéed onions and your favorite cheese, and bake.
TO FIGHT OFF A COLD: Eat More Dandelion Greens
They're high in vitamin A, a nutrient that keeps the linings of our airways healthy, the first line of defense against bacteria and pathogens that cause the common cold and other respiratory illness. Just one cup of raw dandelions boasts 110 percent of your daily vitamin A dose of 5000 international units—that's more than twice the amount you'd get from the same serving of spinach and 10 times more than from broccoli. Plus, dandelion greens are high in vitamin C, which won't prevent you from catching a cold but can help cut the symptoms short, according to a 2013 research review.
COOK IT: Dandelion greens can be bitter so blanch them first for about five minutes in salted water to tame their bite, suggests Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet. Then sauté them in olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes, and serve topped with grated Parmesan.
TO PROTECT YOUR HEART: Eat More Leeks
This member of the onion family is loaded with flavonols, compounds that work to keep your blood vessels flexible and prevent blood clots that can lead to a heart attack. One flavonol in particular, kaempferol, may be especially heart friendly. Several studies, including one published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, report that people who consume the most kaempferol-containing foods are the least likely to die from heart disease. Leeks are also rich in the B vitamin folate, which also is important for protecting your ticker.
COOK IT: Finely chopped leeks are ideal for recipes where you want a subtle dose of onion flavor (use the white and light-green portions). Or cook whole leeks French style by braising (cooking slowly in a small amount of liquid) them in chicken stock or water for 20-25 minutes, then toss them with mustard vinaigrette and chopped hard-boiled egg.
TO STAY SLIM: Eat More Peas
High in both fiber and protein, these legumes can help you eat less yet feel nourished. One cup packs an impressive seven grams of filling fiber, plus green peas contain resistant starch, a special kind of carb that our bodies can't digest—they leave you feeling full for hours after mealtime. A cup of peas delivers eight grams of protein—more than a large egg. Protein takes longer to digest than carbs, and it requires more energy so you naturally burn more calories in the process. And like all green foods, peas contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that can help prevent chronic disease.
COOK IT: Fresh or frozen, these little legumes are a clever way to boost protein in smoothies, soups, and pasta. For your morning smoothie, blend a handful of peas with avocado, banana, and almond milk. You won't even taste the peas.
TO PROTECT AGAINST CANCER: Eat More Watercress
It may look like spinach, but watercress is actually a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli and Brussels sprouts; all are packed with cancer-fighting glucosinolates. These compounds are thought to prevent cancer by ridding our bodies of carcinogens before they can damage our cells. Since heat slowly destroys glucosinolate activity, these raw leafies may provide an additional advantage over other cruciferous veggies that we typically eat cooked. Consuming three ounces of raw watercress a day for eight weeks was shown to reduce DNA damage in white blood cells by up to 24 percent, in a 2007 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
COOK IT: Actually, don't! Raw watercress makes a flavorful stand-in for lettuce in sandwiches. Balance its peppery flavor in a salad with a creamy avocado or ranch dressing. Store it in the fridge in a glass of water covered with a plastic bag.
Try these recipes:
Peruvian Watercress Salad with Creamy Chia Goji Dressing
Evergreen Pea Guacamole
Spicy Chipotle Chickpeas with Rainbow Chard